The Colombo International School and its Acting Principal have been practicing daylight discrimination against a pupil in the most shameless and despicable way. The pupil’s fault? Wanting to include a rainbow flag in a fashion show outfit. When the Acting Principal, a cis white British woman, did not give permission, the child complied, and instead found more creative ways of including the rainbow flag in her routine, by covering her school bag in a rainbow flag. The Acting Principal, Sarah Philipps, then ruthlessly imposed punishments on the child, with “five negative marks and a subsequent detention, plus exclusion from attendance and participation in all extra-curricular activities including School Anniversary events and fashion show.”
This is an extremely despicable situation, in a school founded by the veteran educator Elizabeth Moir.
The letter sent to the pupil’s parents by the Acting Principal is problematic on a number of fronts.
Uniform Policy: Tom Brown’s Schooldays are long gone, Dear Sarah!
Firstly, Sarah Philipps states that the pupil in question has been wearing trousers for school “although it was pointed out to her that this was not the school uniform applicable to girls”. The Acting Principal seems to be visibly disturbed by a pupil breaking, if not going against the colonially imposed gender binary in school uniforms. In the Acting Principal’s own country, the United Kingdom, schools and education authorities are increasingly developing policies for the inclusion of children within the LGBT+ spectrum, altering strict uniform policies of yesteryear, and in an effort to make schools friendly, protective and caring places for LGBT+ children.
This Acting Principal, however, seems to be completely oblivious to such crucial developments in the enhancement of fundamental rights in education. How come this British woman was clueless about documentation produced in the UK such as the Stonewall guide “An Introduction to supporting LGBT young people: A Guide for Schools”, is an important question.
Several private citizens and LGBT+ rights-focused social media campaigns were highly critical of the Acting Principal.
The Rainbow Flag
Secondly, the entire rainbow flag issue is more than laughable. The rainbow flag is a universally accepted symbol of tolerance, respect, love and human rights. If anything, the pupil should have been applauded and celebrated for wanting to include a rainbow flag in their fashion show outfit.
In more recent years, more colours have been added to the rainbow flag to make it increasingly inclusive of trans and queer peoples, Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour who face considerable marginalisation in the global LGBT+ movement. In other words, there can be fewer flags, apart from the quasi-identical Buddhist flag perhaps, that emphasises values of peace, love and inclusion.
The sanctions imposed by this British white woman, who cannot even spell the pupil’s last name properly in official communication sent to the pupil’s [fee paying] parents, have a deeply and unmistakably colonial dimension. The behaviour of Sarah Philipps stands in line with the homophobia and conservatisms of the British establishment in Victorian times, which continue to be influential in some segments of the British polity. In 2015 it was reported that the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who had voted against equal marriage in 2012, issued guidelines against hoisting the rainbow flag at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at British embassies/high commissions abroad. Such conservatisms, however, are short-lived. The tide is turning in favour of the fundamental rights of all peoples, and this is a truism across the world. In both 2017 and 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May hosted Pride receptions at 10, Downing Street.
The Colonial Legacy of Homophobia: The Elephant in the Room
The British forcibly imposed Victorian conservatisms on Sri Lankans, which we are still struggling to repeal from our Penal Code. Today, in the context of the highest court of justice in the South Asian region’s superpower taking steps to repeal such repressive laws, there is a renewed interest in the entire region on challenging all aspects of persistent British-imposed social and legal conservatisms.
In this context, for a British woman in an educator role in a leading Colombo school to behave in such a way is beyond pathetic. It is as if Sarah Philipps deliberately wanted to deploy her position to impose Victorian conservatisms on brown-skinned Sri Lankan children. It is as if she assumed that she can go ahead and impose harsh punishments on a brown-skinned Sri Lankan child, with no concern over the consequences of such action.
Sri Lanka, I remind Ms Philipps, is no longer a British colony, and this year, by the way is 2018, and not 1898, when the actions of a British educator in Sri Lanka would have gone unchallenged.
Sack Sarah Philipps
The pupil in question has been subjected to the most vile, inhuman and undue harassment. The Acting Principal of Colombo International School, Sarah Philipps, should be promptly sacked, and should not be given any teaching opportunity in any primary, secondary or postsecondary institution in Sri Lanka, in the United Kingdom, or for that matter in any other country or institution with the slightest regard for the fundamental rights of students and young people. Aloka Wijesinha, a young Sri Lankan queer woman and writer, has created the hashtag #SackSarahPhilipps, and there could not be a more timely hashtag.
Fullest Solidarity with the Pupil
While expressing fullest and unconditional solidarity to the brave young pupil, I reiterate that this incident should be deployed as an eye-opener for schools to pay increased attention to the rights and wellbeing of pupils in the LGBT+ spectrum. The way forward invariably lies in the development and implementation of Inclusive and child-friendly policies, and not draconian punishments and ostracising children for being themselves.
Finally, it should be noted that some elements in the Colombo elite are trying to downplay this incident, and paint a picture of this incident as a ‘minor’ matter, not worth being discussed. This is a cautious ploy to protect the privileged white woman who committed an act of aggression and homophobia towards a pupil. At the same time, the same pro-LGBT+ liberals who downgrade this incident would have taken up arms had this incident occurred in a Sinhala-speaking government school. To some LGBT+ activists in Colombo’s elite circles, their class interests and international connections – and not the interests of an innocent LGBT+ child – come first. This incident should be taken very seriously, and it should be scrutinised in detail. A foreign woman with a work visa has engaged in homophobic abuse on an innocent child. This incident falls into the same category as that in which a child was ostracised from a provincial school because their mother happened to be HIV positive. Although the two incidents take place in two polar opposite places in a country with deep-seated socioeconomic divisions, the motifs are not dissimilar. The Ministry of Education should carry out an investigation, and delve into forms of abusive treatment in so-called elitist international schools. Sarah Philipps’s visa should be revoked, followed by legal action. It is time to set a vital precedent, that teachers like Sarah Philipps have absolutely no place in the teaching profession, in Sri Lanka or elsewhere.
*The writer (@fremancourt) is an international SOGIESC rights advocate, international consultant, academic and political analyst. She was the LGBT+ Officer of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, and in May 2018, delivered Sri Lanka’s first inaugural annual Pride Speech in Colombo. She is an advisor to the Community Welfare Development Fund, created to assist LGBT+ Sri Lankans in need. Dr Weerawardhana is the author of Decolonising Peacebuilding: Managing Conflict from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka and Beyond. She is currently a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Gender, Feminisms and Sexualities at University College Dublin.