Special Coverage by Colombo Telegraph Editorial Team –
Saakya Rajawasan, the student at Colombo International School who was subjected to blatantly homophobic bullying. “Saakya has issued a highly informative, diplomatic, dignified and in all senses of the term, an absolutely first-class public statement, said Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana.
Speaking to Colombo Telegraph Dr Weerawardhana said: “This statement, I believe, is a historic statement, made by a young Sri Lankan in public, for the very first time. This letter is an absolute eye-opener to many Sri Lankans stuck in Victorian conservatisms and colonial hangovers of ‘sticking to’ almighty rules. Future generations of non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative Sri Lankans and allies, and every Sri Lankan who stands for the fundamental rights and equality of all Sri Lankans will look up to the name Saakya Rajawasan, and take pride of this groundbreaking young pioneer who stood up, boldly, unbowed and unafraid, for the rights of all Sri Lankans in the SOGIESC spectrum”.
“I believe that the liberal LGBT+ rights organisations and individuals who initially sought to downgrade the entire issue, and ignored Saakya’s plight, will now desperately seek to capitalise upon Saakya, and ‘use’ her story for their advantage. We as intersectional gender justice activists will categorically condemn any such advances from LGBT+ NGOs and liberal LGBT+ leadership aspirants, and will call them out, vehemently”, Dr. Weerawardhana further added.
We publish below the statement issued by Saakya Rajawasan, with her permission, and with the consent of her father:
At the beginning of her statement, Rajawasan notes:
My name is Saakya Rajawasan and I am a final year student at CIS. This is my statement about recent events which lead me to be given demerits, detention and be banned from all extracurricular school activities. I am also being threatened with suspension despite my excellent academic record. Three years ago I left a local school to join CIS. I was very happy because I thought CIS would be a far more progressive environment. [emboldened emphasis ours].
This statement points at a harsh reality in the schooling system of Sri Lanka, where strict conformity to an outdated, colonially-imposed cis-hetero-normativity is expected from ALL pupils. There is a long way to go in changing such dogmatic structures and creating a modern schooling system that is welcoming and inclusive.
Rajawasan then narrates the exact incidents of intolerance, and visibly, homophobia and violent disposition of teachers towards herself, which we quote below in full: At that time I asked for permission to wear trousers instead of the girls’ uniform. I identify as bi-sexual and gender-fluid so wearing trousers is a way of expressing myself. Additionally, wearing trousers instead of a skirt gives me more freedom of movement, and protection from dengue. The school administration told me that changes in the uniform system were unlikely.
It goes without saying that the Colombo International School’s uniform policy is extremely archaic for a cosmopolitan and internationally-oriented school. The school’s attitude negates the reason why Rajawasan wanted to join CIS in the first place – assuming that “CIS would be a far more progressive environment.” This series of incidents has clearly demonstrated that CIS is just as socially conservative and repressive as the rest of the schools in Sri Lanka when it comes to non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative Students.
The section below is extremely heart-rending. It shows us the story from the perspective of Ms Rajawasan’s young classmates – a side of the story that is often ignored. The fact that many female students did not want to try wearing trousers to school “in fear of parental anger or school punishment” shows how pathetically schools [including CIS] police children’s and young people’s attire unnecessarily: A year later I started wearing trousers as I feel most comfortable and myself in them. When I wore the trousers, I always wore it respectfully, as I considered it a privilege to do so. My classmates were very supportive. In fact, several female students voiced envy at my increased mobility, but none followed my example, fearing parental anger or school punishment.
It is also worth asking how many pupils assigned male at birth were uneasy with the uniform assigned to them, but kept quiet for “fear of parental anger and school punishment”. The uniform rules in schools, we believe should be and should only be pupil-friendly. Forcibly imposing a uniform on a child based solely on their gender assigned at birth is an outdated and violent practice that needs to change.
Rajawasan then adds that: At end of this July the school administration informed me that I was qualified to become a prefect. However they said they couldn’t give me the position because I wear the boys’ uniform even though I’m a girl. They said that if I wore the skirt, I could become a prefect. I replied, “I’m honored to be considered for the position, but I won’t give up my trousers or my identity.” Conservative voices may define LGBTQ+ only as a sexual choice, but at my age, it’s much more about identity and I believe wearing trousers asserts my identity.
When we said at the beginning of this Special Coverage that future generations will fondly look up to the name ‘Saakya Rajawasan’, this is why.
We have nothing but respect, admiration and appreciation for Rajawasan’s response to this Victorian brand of uniform violence. If we read the logic behind Colombo International School’s policy on appointing prefects and training students for leadership, it is not a young person’s merits, achievements, leadership acumen, personality, multi-tasking skills and all-rounder potential that are important when being elevated as a school prefect, but whether they wear the uniform in a strictly cis-hetero-normative way, based on what – according to birth registration documentation – is supposed to be between their legs.
Right on, Colombo International School!
If Colombo International School has no intention of being reduced to the laughing stock of international higher education bodies and world class universities that often head-hunt for the best talent from elite schools, then its management and teachers have a great deal of homework to do, urgently, in order to get up-to-date with policies of best practice when dealing with non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative young people.
Rajawasan then moves on to explain how a fashion show did not have a place for one of the most highly respected flags in the world, the rainbow flag that symbolises, life, equality, justice and peace: This September CIS had its fashion show, a very important event, especially for graduating seniors. I wanted to wear a rainbow cape as a symbol of pride and solidarity. The school told me that I couldn’t since people might get offended and the school couldn’t endorse a political statement. The next day I gave them new designs for the cape, including a multi colored tie-dye pattern which is obviously not a political symbol and would have offended no one. I was willing to compromise with the school and would have been ok wearing any of my other designs. The school rejected all of my compromises. A few days later l was banned from getting on stage at the fashion show.
Having no purpose for my rainbow cape I draped it on my bag. The head of sixth form came up to me and said, “Please remove the flag,” several times. I politely smiled and said, “Sorry sir, I can’t,” each time. Then he asked me to tuck it in so that it looked like a bag cover, which I did. He returned with the acting principal, who again asked me to remove the flag. I replied, “Sorry, I can’t.”
This again is yet another reason why future generations of Sri Lankans will look up to Saakya Rajawasan, and why Saakya has already marked an historic precedent.
Readers ought to ask themselves this question: “How many young people Saakya’s age would have the world view, cosmopolitan outlook, understanding of fundamental rights issues, and simply, the courage to stand up to injustice imposed in a context of high power imbalance [teacher/school authority vs. pupil]?”
This ought to be followed by yet another important question: “In order to develop as a modern nation with sound, accountable and transparent institutions, with critically-thinking citizens who stand boldly for equality and justice, or simply, for Sri Lankans to move beyond the servile and ‘yes wo/men’ syndrome that is all too rampant at all levels, what’s the kind younger generation we need to raise?
The answer to the first question is very likely to be “not many”.
The answer to the second question, one can proudly affirm, is “a younger generation that draws inspiration from Saakya Rajawasan”.
Speaking to the Colombo Telegraph, Thiagaraja Warathas, a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Colombo, former Rotary Scholar at Uppsala University and currently Commonwealth PhD Fellow at the University of Bath, noted: “Conservative gender norms that uphold male superiority and demonise anything that does not conform with this patriarchal view of the world, is the basis upon which majority of the students in schools who do not confirm with cis-hetero-normative gender and sexual behaviour are being bullied, harassed, tortured and punished. In fact this is a major reason behind the high school-drop-out rates of trans and gender-non-conforming people in the country. It is precisely because of this kind of discrimination, imposed by teachers like Sara Philipps and Vinod Senadheera that many people from the LGBTIQI+ community lack a proper education. This is a case of using non-cis-hetero-normativity as a tool in preventing a student from benefitting from education and other school activities enjoyed by students who conform. It is inhumane to discriminate against a young person in an educational institution based on their looks and how they diverge from stereotypical conservative gender roles and expressions”.
Warathas further added: “CIS should come out and explain what is their official policy towards students who do not conform to cis-hetero-normative gender norms and expressions. Clearly the actions of CIS so far and the school’s deliberate silence indicate that CIS is yet another ‘cis’ and hetero-patriarchal school where teachers discriminate against students because they are different. For as long as this is the case, CIS will never be able to live up to the standards expected from a cosmopolitan international school”.
Rajawasan then explains the bullying imposed by school teachers upon her. We understand that Sarah Phlipps and Vinod Senadheera are the teachers responsible for this daylight homophobic bullying. Some may describe this as ‘disciplinary action’, but we resolutely refuse to use that description, simply because a disciplinary violation has NOT taken place here. If CIS wants to present itself as an urban, cosmopolitan, internationally-oriented, modern school which caters to the best higher educational institutions in the world and is intent upon producing global citizens, its attitude towards Saakya Rajawasan can only be described as counter-productive, and even worse, blatantly homophobic, amounting to a shameless brand of cis-hetero-normative bullying: They [school management] gave me the option of either removing the flag or them taking my whole bag. I handed them the bag with the flag still on it. They considered this to be rude. Later I heard rumors that I threw the bag, which I did not do. I was brought up to yield when necessary but never to bow my head. The next day my father, Dinesh Rajawasan, a 1983-90 initial adopter of CIS, was hand-delivered the infamous letter, which claimed I was guilty of “unacceptable and irresponsible behavior.” He promptly framed and hung in our house titled, “Patriarchy’s Willing Executioners.” ( referencing Daniel Goldhagen)
The decision of Rajawasan’s father, who saw right through the problem, and defended his daughter’s rights, is highly commendable. Mr Rajawasan sets a tremendously valuable precedent to all parents, especially to Sri Lankan parents, who, more often than not, are inclined to penalise their children and avoid looking at the systemic issues involved.
The Colombo International School then descends to a record low: The school had further banned me from all extra-curricular activities. On the day of the school anniversary (September 29th) I had to deliver food to the environmental stall, as I had agreed to do so previously. I knew that I couldn’t attend the anniversary but I still needed to honor my responsibility. When I tried to make the delivery, security stopped me at the gate. The security guard took me to the principal who showed me the letter again.
What follows is the most pathetic part, and it is due to this that some gender justice activists believe that the Colombo International School must take firm disciplinary action against the teachers who took the decision to bully an innocent pupil. This would have been the case had this occurred in the UK or in any other country with strict codes of conduct and best practice in education.
In speaking about the urgent action that the Colombo International School must take, Thiagaraja Warathas noted: “Not only the teachers, but the administrative hierarchy that condoned this terrible treatment of Saakya must be held accountable. The least they could do is to admit the trauma and harm they caused to an innocent student, and also admit that their actions infringed the student’s dignity. These are major failures from a school, which must definitely and promptly be redressed. The school must lift all the punishments and sanctions against Saakya, and grant her the prefectship. The school must then make a full and public apology to Saakya and to her family. It is also very important to issue a further public guarantee that no such discrimination against non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative pupils will ever occur again. The school should also publicise its policy towards inclusive learning with regard to gender non-conforming students. And of course, Saakya must be allowed wear trousers to school”. [Emphasis added].
The worst effect of centuries of colonisation and dominance by vicious forces such as Victorian [non]value systems are that of making people feel helpless, and ‘flattened’, if they do not conform to the colonially imposed rules. Here, a young Sri Lankan is being subjected to bullying, for having done absolutely nothing wrong. She is then left with no option but to ‘apologize’ for no reason. This is the most shameless part of this entire episode – the school making an otherwise excellent, forward-thinking and critically-minded pupil to ‘apologise’ for no reason. This is a gaslighting technique, practised in all forms of colonisation and domination for centuries – making those victimised by repression apologise. To quote Rajawasan: I didn’t say much; I just apologized. I don’t want them to think I was being rude or trying to break the rules. The security then escorted me to the gate and made sure I left the school. Being escorted off school premises like a criminal felt very dehumanizing.
Rajawasan then adds: Personally, teachers and the acting principal were supportive but they still have their “job to do.” This feels like cognitive dissonance to me because teachers and the acting principal have always told us that they will support us in our choices, but when I most needed their support, they were unable to give it to me.
The “job to do” excuse is a non-excuse, and is another example of the clear lack of any social and gender justice-related knowledge among the school management. Open-minded parents who pay high amounts of money to educate their children in schools of this nature ought to check how well-versed school managements are, when it comes to their understanding of the concepts of equality, justice, systemic discrimination, safeguarding and inclusion.
In reality, it is very clear that the Chairperson of CIS, Armyne Wirasinha, Acting Principal Sarah Philipps and the Sixth Form teacher Vinod Senadheera were NOT in any way supportive of Saakya Rajawasan. They bullied her and ostracised her from the school for one reason – for being a non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative young person who defied the school’s outdated Victorian conservatisms which have no place whatsoever in present-day Sri Lanka or for that matter, in any modern society.
The latter part of the letter is compulsory reading to anyone and everyone in the field of education. We reproduce the latter section of her statement in full: Additionally, I believe that my stand is important not just for me but for coming generations of CIS students. This Huffington Post article states that there is an increase in productivity of around 25% when closeted people are able to come out. Being supported in my choices by my father and my friends was a strong factor in my near perfect examination results. Closeted people spend so much of their time and energy building a lie that they often cannot achieve their full potential. Being allowed to be myself has given me the strength to be an exceptional student. I can only hope for the same kind of support for future LGBTQ+ students that CIS will undoubtedly either consciously or unconsciously be admitting
The above is a universal truth. Non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative people thrive in their lives when they are given the opportunity to be themselves and when they are treated with basic human dignity. That is the least that an educational institution can and should do. Every single education professional in Sri Lanka, in the United Kingdom [because Acting Principal Sarah Philipps who signed off the letter of shame sent to Saakya’s parents threatening suspension, is a British citizen, and a graduate of the University of Bath], and for that matter, everywhere else, ought to take this reality strongly into account.
Rajawasan then rightly affirms: In fact, if CIS aims to assist students in prospering in international universities where issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are treated with great liberality, it is essential that the school prepare students for those conversations and climates. Pretending that various sexual identities and orientations do not exist does not serve students who will invariably be forced to confront these realities in foreign contexts.
One can only hope that the Colombo International School will take Ms Rajawasan’s wise words seriously, and, in line with guidelines already developed by organisations such as Stonewall UK, develop a strong SOGIESC Student Safeguarding Policy. This, and this alone, is the advisable action that CIS can and must definitely pursue. The fault in this story is with the Colombo International School and its management, and NOT with Saakya Rajawasan.
Rajawasan then notes: I want to deeply thank everyone who has supported me. The outpouring of support has been so heart-warming and heartening. I believe it will mean a great deal to closeted young people who might be watching. I believe that we, together, are on the right side of history.
I have always been proud to represent CIS and know that together we can create positive change. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history bends towards justice.” India has already overturned its colonial era law against homosexuality. It is only a matter of time before LGBTQ+ rights are taken seriously in Sri Lanka. I hope CIS joins us in this important matter.
I firmly believe that if outdated rules are not challenged, society does not advance. People always need to break from the status quo before society evolves. Until Kathrine Switzer broke the rules and ran the Boston marathon in 1967 it was illegal for women to run marathons. Until American women protested in mass and were incarcerated for it, it was illegal for women to vote. My own stand is obviously a tiny step compared to those of these heroic women, however, I stand by my dedication to my own identity and choices.
The final paragraph is highly inspiring and important. Future generations of Sri Lankans will look up to the name Saakya Rajawasan, for her pioneering resistance to social conservatisms, for her courageous stance to be herself in a school where the management happened to be stuck somewhere in Victorian times. Colonial hangovers are such that many Sri Lankans still view childcare, primary, secondary and tertiary education, gender justice, SOGIESC rights in a socially conservative lens.
The tide, however, is turning in favour of inclusive social and gender justice. The Indian Supreme Court’s recent decisions to repeal Sections 377 and 497 of the Indian Penal Code have created a highly favourable climate in the South Asian region for an enhanced discourse on fundamental rights for all. In Sri Lanka’s efforts to repeal Section 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code and include constitutional protections to all Sri Lankans irrespective of SOGIESC-related matter, the name ‘Saakya Rajawasan’ will be a name to remember, and an inspiration to many, especially to the younger generation.
Colombo International School Violates Fundamental Rights of a Pupil, published on 3rd October 2018.