On Monday March 3rd, 2014, two students in Grade 7 of Janadipathi Balika Vidyalaya, School Lane 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 Punjabi attire – traditional attire worn by Muslim girls in Sri Lanka, informed sources told Colombo Telegraph.
As long ago as 1980 the Ministry of Education by a circular issued to all Zonal Directors instructed that Muslim girls must be permitted to attend school attired in their traditional Punjabi attire which comprises a white frock, a trouser and a shawl. However in recent years school authorities in several schools in Sri Lanka have objected to Muslim girls wearing the traditional dress on claims that the school is a ‘Buddhist school’. In fact the Principal of Janadipathy Balika Vidyalaya Nayana Taxila Perera is reported to have taken the same stance, that Janadipathy Balika Vidyalaya is a Buddhist school.
In 2013 a Muslim student went to the Supreme Court against the prohibition of the Punjabi dress by the School Principal and the matter was settled in the Supreme Court with the Principal being severely reprimanded for his conduct. However these interventions have had little effect in stemming the growing anti-minority and anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka.
The two students who went to school on March 3, 2014 were first asked to remove their attire by the relevant class teachers. The second student had immediately acceded to the instructions in fear of reprisal. The two girls were thereafter summoned before the Principal as one of the girls refused to remove her dress. However she too was forced to remove her trouser and shawl in the presence of staff members, parents and the Vice Principal.
This incident takes place in the context of a wider anti-Muslim attitude adopted by the School Principal Ms Perera where she had banned Muslim parents from entering the school premises attired in the abaya or the hijab. The School Principal has no such power in law to regulate the attire of parents. Thus Muslim mothers who wear the hijab are prevented from fully engaging in their children’s education as they cannot attend any school event or meeting including parents – teachers meetings.
Whilst the ban had been put in place from July 2013 on September 10, 2013 a Muslim mother went to collect her daughter from school as she was ill. However the security officers at the gate had stopped her from going further as she wore the hijab. The mother was asked to wait outside the gate and the child was handed over to her outside the school gate.
Another mother who went to school to pay the admission fee for her third child, adorned in a Hijab, was not allowed to enter the school and was instructed to make the payment either through her daughter or husband. In another incident the teachers of the school had insisted that a parent wearing a Hijab, removes it during the national anthem and the school song during the sport meet.
Due to the discrimination a group of 11 parents had lodged a complaint at the Western Province Governor Alawi Mawlana’s office as this was a Provincial school. The parents had requested the Governor to intervene and inform the Director of the Provincial Education Department to permit them to visit the school adorned in hijab, and to permit their children to pursue their education adorned in the traditional Muslim attire in accordance with the circulars and orders of the Supreme Court.
It was only after the Governor’s office had informed the parents that the relevant instructions would be given out to the school that the children went to the school on March 3rd, 2014 and had to face the above incident.
Soon after the parents were informed of the incident that took place, the parents of two girls visited the Governor’s office and were informed that an inquiry will be held on March 6th, 2014 regarding the issue. However, when the parents went to the Governor’s office on March 6th, as instructed, they were informed by the officials that the issue has been ‘sorted’ and the Mayor of Sri Jayawardena Pura Kotte – Janaka Ranawaka had intervened and therefore no meeting or inquiry would be held.
On the following day, March 7th, 2014, a special meeting was reportedly held in the presence of the Mayor. During the meeting attended by parents, the Mayor and the Principal have instructed the parents present to sign a document urging parents to desist from wearing the hijab when entering the school with the students who would not be permitted to wear the shawl and trousers.
Certain parents of Muslim students who were present at the meeting have also reportedly agreed to send their children to attend school in a frock devoid of the shawl and trousers.