By Ameer Ali –
To a country known for government backed communal riots what happened in Trincomalee last week should not come as a surprise. This time though a piece of Muslim female attire is at the centre of this commotion. Abaya has once again become a contentious issue and causing tension between Tamils and Muslims. Communalism and religious hatred are raising ugly heads and the Department of Education seems to have poured fuel into the fire. To the Rajapaksa regime, which came to power by championing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism abaya issue appears to have come as a gift from heaven to divide and rule at a time when the regime is losing its popularity among its own supporters.
Abaya is pre-Islamic in origin and was worn by women in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years before the birth of Islam. With Islam in the 7th century, it became a distinct dress of modesty for women in the Bedouin Arab environment where they were treated like chattels and sex slaves. Modesty in everything and avoiding extremes in human conduct is the hall mark of Islamic belief. This is why the Quran describes Muslims as ummatan wasatan or middle community. More than its religious symbolism abaya remained part of female cultural fashion right across Muslim Middle East and North Africa (MENA). But with the human horror unleashed by war and terror in the Middle East since the last quarter of the 20th century there was an exodus of Muslim men and women to Europe and other parts of the developed world. With that exodus hijab, abaya, burqa, niqab and other Muslim female items of dress found their way into non-Islamic climes where they became markers of Muslim religious identity.
Abaya entered Sri Lanka not as part of that human exodus but as a result of J. R. Jeyewardene’s Dharmista Rajya and open economy. It was the Sri Lankan Muslim women returning home after working in the Middle East who introduced this novelty as proper Islamic dress. For centuries, cotton saris in different colours and designs wrapped in different styles, had been the national dress for women of most communities in the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, and that dress suited the climatic conditions exquisitely. Muslim women too wore the sari with one end of it thrown over their head to abide by religious stipulations. With the intrusion of the black abaya in the name of religious purity and cultural identity, the alienness of that dress became immediately apparent to the public eye, and more disturbingly, it contributed to the self-alienation of the Muslim community itself, a phenomenon originated with Tablighi Jamaat, encouraged by radical Islamists and ignored by Muslim leadership. However, that piece of dress has become popular today specially among young Muslim women partly because of the convenience of wearing it and partly because it is cheaper to buy than a sari. Yet, to majority non-Muslims it is a problematic piece of attire causing social distancing between Muslims and others.
Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College (SHLC)
SHLC is one of the pioneering educational institutions in Trincomalee established in 1923 by Mrs. Thangamma Shanmugampillai. As its name suggests it is an institution operates in Hindu environment. In common with similar institutions in other religious communities, SHLC also has built certain unwritten conventions and traditions, which its administration expects the students and staff to respect. One such unwritten traditions is that female teachers who work there should come dressed in saris. Accordingly, even the Muslim lady teachers went dressed in sari until one day in 2017. On that day, without informing the college administration, those teachers (heaven only knows what induced them) appeared that morning in abaya and apparently claimed that it was the true Islamic attire and not the sari. It naturally created consternation within college administration and after deliberation SHLC advised the rebels either to change the attire and conform to college tradition or find another school to teach. Those teachers did neither, but protested and claimed that they were being discriminated and denied of their fundamental right to wear what they wanted. A simple ethical issue, because of ignorance and intransigence, was turned into a communal and religious issue leading almost to a riot.
The rebellious teachers, either on their own initiative or induced by others, took their grievance to courts and argued that their fundamental human right had been infringed by SHLC administration. True, what one wears is one’s own business and it is one’s fundamental right. However, the fact that institutions also have a fundamental right to preserve their historic traditions, failed to dawn in the minds of the rebels. The court of course did its duty, interpreted the law of the land and decided in favour of the appellants, and the rebels became abaya heroines overnight.
However, the judgement had opened a Pandora’s Box. For example, it is now permissible for a teacher employed in a Muslim College to enter his or her classroom wearing a pair of shorts and T-shirt with tattooed hands and legs, and causing outrage within college administration that would expect its employees and students to respect the Islamic environment and college traditions. It would be illegal for college management to take action against that teacher on grounds of breaking the norms and values of that college, because he/she has the fundamental right to wear whatever he/she wanted.
Divide and Rule
Even after winning the case the rebels must have had the good sense to think that if they went back to that institution the social atmosphere there would not be conducive for them to work in peace. Having proved their point and turned heroines they should have taken the alternative path of working in another school that accommodated abaya. The court, in terms of the law rightly decided that those teachers should be taken back by SHLC. However, when nothing seemed to have happened for some time, the teachers went to the court of appeal where the Department of Education (DoE) entered the fray and agreed to order them back to the same college. Knowing the explosive situation that the rebels had created was it wise for DoE to make that order? True, SHLC is a government school and government had the right to send any teacher it wanted to teach there. But communal peace and religious harmony were at stake were those teachers to go back. Why did DoE ignore that consideration and stuck to its order? That there were political motives behind DoE’s action become clear when one looks at the broader picture.
The ruling Rajapaksa regime is caught in a quagmire of multiple crises and losing its popularity by the day. Yet, it is determined to survive and looking at ways of extending its rule even beyond the current term. One strategy to achieve that is to keep the opposition divided and weak. A few weeks back, there were talks of Muslim and Tamil leaders signing a joint memorandum to take the issue of 13thAmendment and Provincial Councils to the attention of the Indian government. Although it did not eventuate the tyranny of majoritarianism is continuing and creating more opportunities demanding united action from the minorities. Therefore, to keep them divided is politically beneficial to Rajapaksas.
Thus, DoE’s decision was a deliberate mischief to widen the rift between the two minorities. That decision has created almost a riot with placards and rowdy behaviour from Muslim crowds condemning SHLC on grounds of religious bigotry and communal hatred. There are accusations and counter accusations of physical harm. Needless to argue that full force of the law should be brought upon those found guilty of causing physical injuries. Having said that a far more important issue than freedom to wear abaya is at stake here.
Ethics of Islam
In the SHLC drama, the ethical precepts of Islam to settle disputes had been ignored. If one’s own personal or sectional interest is at risk of being damaged by agreeing to a certain decision while at the same time that decision would benefit a larger cause in the long run then it is Islamically virtuous to agree to that decision. There were a number of incidents in the life of Prophet Muhammad where this was demonstrated and the best was the Hudaybiyyah Pact, which he signed with the enemies. There was stiff opposition and criticisms against him from within his own ranks and particularly from his ever trustworthy and confidant Abu Bakr, but the Prophet signed the agreement, because he knew that the long-term success of Islam was worth suffering short-term inconvenience, and he was proved right. A second example comes from the conduct of the second caliph of Islam Omar when he visited the Church in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was under Muslim rule and no one could have prevented the Caliph from entering that Church. When he was invited by the Head of that Church to come inside and pray, the Caliph politely refused the offer and performed his prayer outside that Church to avoid Muslims claiming ownership of that Holy Place by virtue of the fact that the Caliph prayed inside it.
The abaya rebels who are fought for the freedom to wear the so-called Islamic dress had demonstrated their total ignorance of golden lessons from the history of Islam.
The Larger Interest
The larger interest however, is the need for Tamil-Muslim unity especially at a time when both minorities are facing existential crisis in the face of majoritarian tyranny. The issues faced by the Muslim community are too many to list, which include economic, educational, religious and cultural. The community cannot find solutions to these by fighting the regime in isolation. It needs the understanding and cooperation of Tamils as well as Sinhalese. It is therefore suicidal for the two minorities to fight between them over frivolous issues. Having won the case and proved their point had those teachers respected the traditions of SHLC, and voluntarily got transferred to another school, the dispute would have been solved amicably without and without acrimony. Our heroines would have saved not only their personal honour but also that of their community. Finally, the whole episode demonstrates a total failure of leadership on both sides.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia