By N.M. Rishard –
The demonstration that was staged by Hindu teachers of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College in Trincomalee recently against Muslim teachers who work in the same school, urged me to write these paragraphs. First of all I emphasis that the violators of educational rules and regulations should be punished whoever it is without any discrimination and partiality. The law is for all and every citizens of this nation is equal in front of the court.
According to the sources, the principle of the college constantly requested Muslim teachers to remove their attire (Hijab and Habaya) and wear Saree which is the formal dress code of Hindu teachers. Some argue that the husbands of Muslim teachers came to the school and threatened the principal even though the Muslims refused this accusation. Their argument is that they came to the school in order to discuss on the instructions given already to Muslim teachers by the principal. This issue was erupted with a demonstration carried out by the Hindu teachers, in which they demanded to protect their Hindu culture. Finally, the temporary decision was achieved announcing that the Muslim teachers are transferred to some other schools.
The instruction as well as compulsion of Hindu teachers and the head of the school contradict with Sri Lanka’s constitution and the reality at the same time. Chapter three of the constitution provides enough guarantee to each and every citizens as follow:
10. Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
11. No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
(1) All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
(2) No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds:
Looking at the schools and its teacher panel all over the island provides us that the instruction given to the Muslim teachers in Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College is unethical and unlawful. On the one hand, we have number of schools that possess common names where students from different ethnicities pursue their study. Not only students, but also teachers, administrators and workers either minor or major with owning different religions and backgrounds contribute to the enhancement of the school. On the other hand, some schools are named as “Sinhalese college”, “Hindu College” and “Muslim college”, in which students and teachers from other ethnic groups are allowed to study or work without imposing any particular rules. All of them are given freedom in attire to follow their respective religious and cultural traditions. For instance, Hindu teachers are not compelled or even requested to wear the way Muslim teachers do in Muslim schools. In Sinhala schools, Muslim and Hindu teachers are allowed to follow what they wish. This is what we have been following for decades.
There were some exceptional cases that occurred in the history. For instance, in 2014 two students from grade 7 of Janadipathi Balika Vidyalaya, Nawala, were ordered to kneel down and worship the principal of the school after they on the advice of their parents attended school in the Panjabi attire. This order contradicts with the circular issued by the Ministry of Education in 1980 instructing all zonal directors that the Muslim girls should be permitted to enter the school with their traditional Punjabi attire which comprises a white frock, a shawl and a trouser.
Another transparent example was that, a group of 11 Muslim parents lodged a complaint at the former Western Province Governor Alawi Mawlana’s office claiming that their children were discriminated and harassed in their schools. They requested the Governor to intervene and inform the principals to allow the Muslim girls to go to their schools with their traditional attire in accordance with the circular of the Supreme Court.
What is dress code in Islam all about? Is it a religious practice or cultural? Providing a clear and adequate answer for these questions from the Islamic references is the only way to eliminate the prevailing misunderstandings. By reading all the Quranic verses and prophetic traditions that related to the dress code of Muslim women, we are able to come to a conclusion that there are few immutable and unchangeable laws in Islam while a greater space is given to the human being to make changes according to the prevailing context and culture. One of the main immutable laws that is imposed on every Muslim women where ever she lives, is she should conceal the entire body except the face and the hands. This instruction is not cultural, rather it is a religious order. The Arabic word “Hijab” means covering. Hijab not a particular design as understood by many. But, Muslim women have the total freedom to choose the colour, design and pattern of their dress according to the changing context. I don’t want to explain the whole discussions related to this topic here.
Objective of the dress code is also quite essential. The ultimate purpose is to protect the society as a whole and promote modest dressing and behavior. It creates a barrier between the sexes and allows us to conduct our lives with modesty, dignity and respect.
It is worth note that there is a deep and lengthy discussion on dress code of Muslim women within the Muslim society is being hold by its intellectuals. In particular, traditionalists and reformists have their own arguments. I’m quite sure that these discussions will furnish the topic and it will have a positive impact on the collective phycology of the society. Additionally, it should be highlighted that imposing or compelling from outside the community is very much different than having critical discussions within the society and evolving itself for a bright future.
*N.M. Rishard – MPhil Student – Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, Malaysia