The electronic, print and online media in Sri Lanka, except the Colombo Telegraph, have been silent about the blatantly homophobic bullying at Colombo International School, by Sarah Philipps, the Vice Principal, a British woman, on a 17-yeard-old Grade 13 pupil, for wearing trousers to school, wanting to include a rainbow flag in a fashion show outfit, and for coming to school with their schoolbag covered in a rainbow flag [complicity to this shameless act also came from the Sixth Form teacher Vinod Senadheera who put Saakya Rajawasan on detention for no reason, and the management hierarchy, which condoned the homophobic bullying of Saakya].
As two proudly queer and proudly Sri Lankan women, we wish to thank the Editor of the Colombo Telegraph and his staff for providing a platform for this story, in a context in which many in the so-called ‘LGBT activist’ lobbies and well-funded NGOs in Colombo, existing LGBT+ politicos, and individuals aspiring to emerge as LGBT+ MPs and leaders, have resolutely avoided any significant public action on this act of bullying. We can also notice a tendency among some supposedly ‘woke’ liberals to brush the entire episode under the carpet.
Above: Rainbow flag designed by Daniel Quasar, with the addition of a five-coloured chevron on the left, with the objective of laying greater emphasis on “inclusion and progression”. Just as the LGBT+ abbreviation, the rainbow flag is also an evolving symbol of equality and justice. On the Quasar flag and related rainbow flag innovations, click here.
To us, this case of homophobic abuse carries tremendous importance. We have both suffered quasi-identical challenges in our own schooling years, and we have many friends and chosen family in the global SOGIESC communities who have faced and continue to face similar violence, ostracism and marginalisation. Protecting non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative children and young people in schools, and also in institutions of higher education, is an absolute priority. In some countries – such as the United Kingdom, the home country of the homophobic Vice Principal of Colombo International School – organisations such as Stonewall carry out considerable work on the rights of non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative children in schools.
The obliteration of queer kids?
In Sri Lanka, the rights of children and young people in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum is an issue that is seldom discussed. Even the most vocal LGBT+ NGOs keep away from the subject, most likely due to the ‘controversy’ this risks triggering in a socially conservative country, where Victorian [non]values and dogmas are alive and well in many people’s minds. The inclination to ‘avoid a controversy’ or ‘avoid openly speaking about a topic judged too controversial’ appears to be a major reason why many LGBT+ activists are silent about the Colombo International School issue.
We maintain that there is absolutely nothing controversial or polemical about a dialogue and concrete steps to protect the rights of non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative children because at the end of the day, children under 18 should not be harassed in any way in their educational institutions. Such harassment disrupts their studies and carries long-lasting implications. The absence of dignified and humane treatment of LGBT+ children and young people causes a great deal of harm. Many non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative children and young people in Sri Lanka have suffered for far too long, due to the unwillingness [and sheer unpreparedness] of cis-hetero-normative society, systems and institutions to “see” them.
A word is warranted about the absolute myth that LGBT+ children and youth are a “western” phenomenon that has been forcibly imposed upon countries like ours. This assumption is totally erroneous, meaningless, hollow and deeply problematic.
Non-cis and non-het children and youth have always existed everywhere [we mean it – absolutely everywhere across the world] and will continue to exist. In countries such as ours where a considerable majority of people and institutions see nothing else beyond the cisnormative gender binary, LGBT+ children and youth are left in an extremely vulnerable and dangerous position.
A cycle of violence?
To many of us, the nightmare starts at school. From verbal abuse to mistreatment, routine ostracism and physical attacks to sexual abuse, and even worse, rape, many LGBT+ children and youth face high levels of violence in schools. They are forced to suffer in silence at one of the most vulnerable junctures of their lives, which should ideally be filled with understanding, protection, affirmation, affection, love and caring.
Based on our own lived experiences, we can vouch for how dangerous life can get when two women are open about their non-cis-hetero-normativity and their affections towards each other. Multiple forms of harassment quickly become your daily lived reality. On social media and online platforms [on occasion, even on those that are supposed to be safe spaces], one is forced to spend almost all of one’s precious time blocking keyboard perverts whose patriarchal bubble is irreparably shaken upon noticing the existence of a woman who loves another woman. The level of abuse targeted at younger women is even worse. In the absence of support networks at school that focus on understanding and empowerment, many young queer women are forced to bear the brunt of lesbophobia in silence.
Many people who look at the world through a highly cis-hetero-patriarchal lens refuse to recognise, respect and understand the reality that ‘Monogamous Lesbian Relationships’ do exist, and that being lesbian does not, in any way, reduce a woman to some random person’s kink. Women’s sexuality is almost always conceptualised as being there for the pleasure of men – an attitude that needs to be categorically challenged and dismantled, starting from the schooling system onwards.
Challenging discrimination: Need for an inclusive discourse?
Similarly, positioning oneself at any point of the LGBT+ spectrum does not in any way devalue a person. It does not make it ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ for cis-het people to bully them. Discrimination against someone due to private matters [sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and sex characteristics] is extremely inhuman. If empty words such as ‘protect our culture’, ‘our manners’, ‘our traditions’ are deployed to justify such inhuman treatment of fellow citizens, such a ‘culture’ can only be distinguished by its lack of a culture, lack of sophistication, and simply, barbarism.
Nowhere in the world is 100% safe for LGBT+ peoples. Even in countries of the global North where protective laws and support structures are in place, people in vulnerable positions, such as LGBT+ migrants and asylum seekers of colour from the global South, LGBT+ women of colour, disabled LGBT+ people, Indigenous peoples with traditions of non-cis-heteronormativity of their own, are near-constantly at risk. What, then, is the most advisable course of action?
A key answer to this question lies in sound regulations and legislation to protect all people, irrespective of private matters such as sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). Yet another crucial step involves efforts to raise awareness on respect, consent, and the decent treatment of people. In order to be effective, such initiatives need to be kick-started right from the early years of the schooling system.
In the absence of protective regulations and mechanisms, many LGBT+ children and youth will continue to experience a great deal of abuse in silence. Consequently, many of them end up with conditions such as chronic depression and PTSD. Traumatic suppression at a young and vulnerable age makes it extremely difficult for many people to ‘come out’, even at later stages in life. Due to their negative lived experiences, many LGBT+ young people are often forced to hide, because of the fear reprisals and discrimination upon coming out.
Erasure of LGBT+ children and youth?
This ‘hiding’ leads to something even more dangerous – the forced erasure of LGBT+ youth. This makes it impossible for them to engage in any kind of self-affirmation, or to stand up for who they are and for their rights.
Instead, they are pushed to the dark margins of cis-het society, where many of them are faced with high levels of danger – of being raped [even by people in circles of friends and family], being exploited and emotionally blackmailed.
The current schooling system of Sri Lanka is one that makes this ‘erasure’ happen at a very young age. When that happens, children and young people are forced to ‘shut their mouths and keep quiet’ for all the 13 years of schooling, enduring all the abuse, derogatory language, discrimination and bullying.
When that is the case, it is no surprise that many children and youth lose interest in studies, as focusing on studies becomes near-impossible in the midst of constant bullying, discrimination and abuse inside and outside school. Many LGBT+ children, especially in gender-segregated schools, are forced to keep away from all extra-curricular activities, as there is next to no structure that is meant at creating a welcoming, inclusive and friendly atmosphere for them.
Erasure, therefore, is an extremely serious shortfall, and can cause irreparable pain and trauma to an innocent young person, preventing them from achieving their potential. This is why we need to work to make our schools friendly, safe and welcoming spaces for LGBT+ children and young people. This is also why we need to make all public services, especially all healthcare services, LGBT+ friendly, and very especially, LGBT+ child and youth-friendly. LGBT+ people, especially youth, are subjected to extremely offensive treatment in healthcare contexts.
When one is subjected to categorical SOGIESC erasure at a young age, the nightmare continues into adulthood. Many lesbian, if not non-cis-hetero-normative women [as well as non-cis-hetero-normative men] are very often forced to enter heterosexual marital ties, without their consent [forced consent, we reiterate, is NOT considered consent). This leads to yet another range of problems including domestic violence, psychological trauma, sexual abuse and high suicide rates.
Attire policing: A Futile and Discriminatory Venture?
Coming back to the issue of homophobic, if not SOGIESC-motivated bullying in schools, we cannot differentiate such bullying and abuse from interrelated forms of bullying. In schools with uniform policies across the world, female pupils are often subjected to extra and absolutely abhorrent levels of ‘uniform policing’. We often hear of teachers taking issue with the length of an adolescent girl’s skirt, leading to sanctions. In countries with no school uniform policies, teachers take issue with the length of skirts and shorts, the width of necklines and more. In some Western countries with an institutionalised brand of islamophobia, there have been cases of girls of the Islamic faith being sanctioned for wearing skirts that happened to be…too long!
When such sanctions are applied, girls are given an extremely problematic message from a very young age – that they constantly need to watch their outfit, so as to not to distract boys and teachers. This also sends the message that skirt length, a bra strap or a visible cleavage are more important ‘causes for concern’, than the right of a girl to be treated with dignity at school, and her right to an education free of socially conservative, judgemental cis-hetero-patriarchal gazes. This kind of attire policing also encourages young girls to subdue, if not devalue their inalienable right to bodily autonomy.
A uniform policy that focuses on bodily autonomy and gender justice would not involve such repressive practices. Many people seem to consider gender-segregated uniforms as some form of a sacrosanct concept that cannot be transgressed. In reality, strict uniform policies are inherently discriminatory, and they should be altered along a logic of strengthening gender justice. If a pupil assigned female at birth wishes to wear trousers to school or a pupil assigned male at birth wishes to wear a skirt or a summer dress, there is no reason for anyone to be appalled. Instead, it is worth focusing on creating inclusive and welcoming spaces for children who do not and/or cannot conform to cis-heteronormative gender standards set in schooling systems. Irrespective of a pupil’s gender expression, every pupil has a non-negotiable right to decent, kind and welcoming treatment at school.
The coloniality of uniforms and ‘uniformity’
As many fellow Sri Lankans tend to tear their hair out over a commitment to cisnormativity in school uniforms, it is worth contextualising the uniform and the schooling systems we have.
Missionary education was put in place not for a love of the subdued black and brown peoples, but to create servile, ‘yes men’ [and subsequently ‘yes women’] to help the colonisers manage their colonial enterprises effectively. Many inanities that are termed “traditions” in leading [gender-segregated] missionary schools are in fact colonially-imposed mechanisms meant at creating the ideal, subservient, colonised subject who would obey orders and keep their mouths shut, and have their critical faculties squashed and their backbones flattened. This emphasis on uniforms, if not uniformity, involves compulsory conformity – which is highly incompatible with a modern discourse on education based on rights, critical and independent thinking, bodily autonomy, tolerance and acceptance.
Missionary education and its key features, such as gender segregation based on the cis fe/male binary, uniforms, and archaic traditions, are all extremely violent and repressive. This is a reality that many Sri Lankans are slow to come to terms with.
The violence of uniformity: A quick recapitulation
To highlight the violence inherent in missionary education and all its ‘vices’ such as compulsory uniforms, one of best examples is the system of ‘residential schools’ [French: pensionnats autoctones] created by the European colonisers in the northerly territories of Turtle Island we know as Canada.
These schools were intended at cultural, social, intellectual, and human genocide. Young children were forcibly snatched away from their parents and communities, and taken to ‘residential schools’ in faraway places, to make sure that it was very difficult for the parents to visit their children. In reality, these residential schools were torture chambers where children were subjected to multiple forms of abuse and torture, in many cases leading to death. The children of the rightful owners of the land were gender-segregated [according to the Victorian understanding of the cis-hetero-normative gender binary]. All the boys had their hair cut very short [which is deeply problematic in cultures where ‘hair’ carries special connotations of sacredness, value and significance]. Children were subjected to beatings and severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse. They were prohibited from speaking their native languages. In many cases, the punishment for speaking their languages were particularly harsh, such as being left alone naked in cellars in sub-zero temperatures and nails being torn off.
To illustrate the violence inherent in Christian missionary education, we quote a personal account of a residential school survivor, Dr Janice Acoose-Miswonigeesikokwe:
One of the rules, we quickly learned, was that boys and girls were to be completely segregated. Thus, my four-year imprisonment in the Cowessess “Indian” residential school haunts me still, because I have painful memories of seeing my brother Fred, caged like an animal behind a barbed-wire fence I passed on my way to class. I am haunted by memories of that first day of school, too, because I can still feel being ripped away from my sisters, herded down a long, dark hall, pushed into a room to have my hair shorn, powdered with DDT insecticide (supposedly because all “Indians” were infected with lice), and then showered with severely hot water.
Once stripped of remembrances of home, I was given a number, a school uniform, and an assigned bed in the “small girls’ dormitory”. Over the years, programmed terrorism effectively encouraged me to respond to the number rather than my name. The school uniform, too, stripped me of any individual identity…some nights I cried myself to sleep because I longed to be at home with my family. Other times I cried at night because I remembered daily physical punishments: sometimes my mouth and face were slapped; sometimes my knuckles were pounded with a wooden block; and sometimes my mouth was taped shut for long periods of time. Too many times I was physically punished and psychologically terrorised for speaking out of turn, asking too many questions, or showing “disrespect” for their god by asking for proof of “his” existence…other times I cried in terror when I heard footsteps creeping up the fire escape to our little girls’ dormitory. Those nights I jumped into my sister Mary-Madeline’s bed and clung to her fiercely for protection as I listened to little girls’ tortured whimpers, muffled screams, and desperate cries for help”. [pp. 18-20 of Iskwewak Kah’ Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak, Neither Indian princesses nor easy squaws, Toronto: Women’s Press, 2016 [2nd edition].
The last residential school closed only in 1996. The repercussions of the residential school policy continue to the present-day, with survivors suffering extremely high levels of trauma. As a consequence of the violent treatment they received as children, stories abound of many residential school survivors being extremely violent towards their own babies and children. The saga of residential schools is one that graphically illustrates the violence inherent in colonially imposed forms of education.
Despite all the violence and continuing repercussions, there is no shortage of individuals who continue to justify such genocidal institutions. The logic [or lack thereof] behind such [non]justifications is very similar to the points raised by individuals in Sri Lanka who strongly cling to colonial notions of ‘discipline’ and ‘uniformity’, and condone atrocious practices such as corporal punishment and bullying of pupils. This was the case in some public reactions to Saakya Rajawasan’s decision to wear trousers to school and drape a rainbow flag around her school bag.
Importance of challenging colonial structures of education
Although there is little dialogue on this matter, it is undeniable that missionary education has had a deeply destructive effect on Sri Lanka. Let’s say it out loud: “missionary education was an act of violence. Its intents were extremely sinister and destructive.” In Sri Lanka, the Temperance Movement made it a point to create a system of ‘Buddhist’ [missionary] education that copied the colonisers’ template of education. Abusive behaviour towards juniors perpetrated by seniors and the normalisation of bullying and corporal punishment, to cite but a few, are continuing repercussions of this violent system put in place under colonial rule.
Not even top-level schools are spared?
As we could observe with the bad experience of Saakya Rajawasan at Colombo International School, not even the English-speaking, Western-oriented top-level ‘international’ schools that cater to world-class universities are immune to bullying and daylight discrimination against pupils. The root cause of this lies in the social conservatisms of those who occupy senior management responsibilities in such schools. In many cases, such individuals have been ‘schooled’ in missionary schools where bullying, discrimination and policies that are ‘celebrations of cis-hetero-patriarchy’ are routine practice. Having attained senior management positions in international schools that work with a global student body, such individuals lose the plot.
The sorry situation at Colombo International School is a fine example. Although Acting Principal Sarah Philipps signed off the letter of shame sent to Saakya’s parents, Chairperson Armyne Wirasinha must take full responsibility for the bullying of Saakya, as the person at the helm of the school’s management structure. Silence, in this case, involves endorsement, and it is clear that neither the Sixth Form teacher nor the Acting Principal received any best-practice-related guidelines from the management on creating a positive, affirming and welcoming environment for LGBTQI+ pupils.
Lack of critical thinking and the necessity of ‘unlearning’
Most importantly, this colonially-induced system of primary and secondary education has created upper and upper middle classes who refrain from thinking critically, who venerate cis-hetero-normativity, with zero tolerance to the slightest non-conformity, and who sheepishly obey orders and seldom question the structures around them. Despite Sri Lanka’s strides in free education through the Kannangara reforms and subsequent developments, it is undeniable that a colonial brand of missionary education continues to regulate the entire sphere of primary and secondary education in Sri Lanka to this very date. This ‘coloniality’ in our education system is inherently connected to persistent barbarisms such as corporal punishment in schools. To give but one example, a recent news headline read “Sri Lanka Deputy Minister wants school children to be caned”, because in the said deputy minister’s perspective, corporal punishment by caning pupils is the “only way” to establish discipline in schools. This politician is not alone, and many MPs, elected representatives, religious leaders and professionals continue to condone such barbarisms. When coming out of a system of education like ours, it takes a great deal of energy, self-reflection and commitment to unlearn the cycles of oppression that operate around us, and relearn to look at things in a critical perspective.
This system in place is such that it produces people who will go to any lengths to ‘protect’ these repressive aspects. Some very vocal public figures who stand for gender equality (such as certain male cricketer-celebrities) never make the slightest comment about the importance of challenging gender-segregated education and routine bullying in elite schools. Cosying into their male privilege and comfort zones, the same guys avoid a single word on the disgusting nature of the gender pay gap in sport.
The bottom line, then, concerns the functionalities of the entire system of education. It is a system focused on memorising and consequently, does not encourage independent thinking. It is a system that makes children and young people obey orders without questioning them. It is a system that has no place for a discourse on affirming, celebrating and taking pride in ‘difference’. Therefore, it is a system that simply cannot accommodate a modern and dynamic discourse on “rights”.
Instead, it is a system that makes children and young people trivialise, if not categorically ignore any discourse on rights. Young people like Saakya Rajawasan who resist are then penalised, oftentimes severely, for not toeing the line.
You reap what you sow?
Being brought up and ‘schooled’ in such repressive educational structures is directly linked to the sheer intolerance of ‘the other’ among many Sri Lankans [e.g. intolerance on the basis of ethnicity, religious faith, sociocultural background, sexuality, gender identity, sex characteristics, and many other factors]. Even when a certain brand of ‘refinement’ comes out of people schooled in places such as elitist missionary schools, it is immediately noticeable that such refined souls have problems with basic perspectives of gender equality, gender justice, and thinking beyond patriarchal frames.
A former Foreign Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka, schooled in a place where “river, lake and mountain meet” and at Oxford once created a diplomatic incident by undiplomatically quipping “shopping is for sissies” and subsequently, “flowers are for sissies”. This, for one, is a fine example of how high corridors of education, from Trinity to Oxford, are focused on sustaining the patriarchy, where refinement does not necessarily include a process of unlearning gender stereotypes and inconsistencies [On that note, it is also important to reiterate that universities are places where gender-based injustices are taken for granted. Hence the vital importance of global campaigns such as #decolonisetheuniversity, #whyismyprofessorwhite, #decolonisethecurriculum and #Rhodesmustfall, #metoo as well as the work of student unions and societies in enhancing equality and justice education in Western universities].
The need for new approaches?
New approaches to primary and secondary education, which focus on the rights of the child, bodily autonomy, independent and critical thinking, are essential to the education sector. In the absence of these, many children who have done nothing wrong will be subjected to high levels of trauma, which, in worst case scenarios, can end up leading to depression and high drop-out rates. Explicit and well-formulated policies of safeguarding that focus on LGBT+ children and young people are absolutely vital. Policies of this nature go hand-in-hand with efforts to end repressive practices such as corporal punishment. In formulating and implementing such policies in a place like Sri Lanka, it is important for policymakers to pursue an intersectional approach, taking local specificities into account. If special attention is not provided, for example, to the inclusion and equal treatment of children irrespective of ethnicity, socioeconomic and linguistic factors, any action plan on strengthening equality in education is bound to fail. In sum, such an initiative needs to be locally-grounded, with SOGIESC specifics included as part and parcel of a broad national policy framework on safeguarding.
Only one path ahead?
To conclude, we wish to reiterate that in this 21st century, especially in ‘neocolonies’ such as Sri Lanka, there is no longer a reason to cling to gender-segregated education, to strict gender binary-based uniform policies, draconian policies on pupils’ hair and the general presentation of pupils. When we reflect upon a modern system of education, what we ought to envisage is a system that trains young people to think critically, raise critical questions, respect difference and otherness, and most importantly, a system where young people are treated in a spirit of equality, beyond futile stereotypes and violent practices of yesteryear.
The one and only path forward is the ‘progressive’ path, focusing wholesomely on equality, justice, and inclusion.
About the authors: Aloka Wijesinghe is a writer and SOGIESC rights advocate. She is the co-founder of Lesketeers. Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is a political analyst and gender justice advocate. She is the author of Decolonising Peacebuilding: Managing Conflict from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka and Beyond.