20 July, 2024


Shamuga Hindu Ladies’ College Abhaya Crisis: A Case Unsolved

By Raazi Muhammadh Jaabir

Raazi Muhammadh Jaabir

Trincomalee Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College is a National School located in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. Until 2012, all the teaching staff and majority of the students were Hindus.

Between the period of 2012 to 2018, 5 Muslim female teachers joined Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College to teach various subjects. All of these teachers decided to fight against the long-standing systematic violation committed by the school administration against Muslim teachers wearing their cultural dress to school.

On 22nd of April, all five of them informed the principal that they will be wearing their cultural dress to the school hereafter. But school administration objected and gave them the option either to go on transfer to another school or remain in Shanmuga wearing sarees as an alternative – a usual response prepared by school for Muslim teachers seeking to wear their cultural dress. But the teachers were very firm on their decision. On the following Monday, they went to school wearing their cultural dress, Abhaya[1]


Since the day they decided to wear their cultural dress to school, the innocent teachers had to face so many challenges and abuses. They were warned by the Management Committee of the School against wearing their cultural dress. They were intimidated and insulted by many fake ids on social media. A call for protest against these teachers were circulated all over the social media by unknowns.

On 25th April 2018 a protest was staged in front of the school against the teachers for entering school wearing abhayas. The demonstrators requested the principle to oust the teachers from the school.

On 26th of April, teachers were summoned by the officials from education department with the presence of many dignitaries. It was reiterated in the meeting that Shanmuga is a Hindu Ladies School established by a Hindu Lady, Called “Thangamma” exclusively for Hindu girls. So only the Hindu culture ought to be followed[2]. If the teachers insisted on wearing abaya agitation against them would continue, they were warned. But teachers also very firmly refused to remove abaya as it was their Human Rights and Fundamental rights.

It was decided that this matter would be referred to Ministry of Education. Until then, teachers were informed that if they want to continue at Shanmuga,

1. They should not wear abhays inside the school.

2. A room will be arranged in the school to change their abhayas to Saree.

3. They have to remain in Sarees during School


They can get a temporary attachment to other schools of their choice till the decision arrives[3].

Since very little options left for them, they unwillingly accepted temporary attachments to other schools[4].

At Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

Having waited 29 days for a decision from the ministry for a decision, the affected teachers lodged a complaint at Human Rights Commission, Trincomalee on 21st of May 2018 with the complaint number HRC/TCO/27/18[5].

After the investigation, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that Rights of the teachers were infringed by the school administration and the Commission directed the respondent school to ensure that the teachers are able to wear the dress of their choice, abhaya to perform their duties at their assigned school- Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College, Trincomalee where they should be allowed to work without hindrance or harassment[6].

Even after the release of the recommendation from the human Rights commission, school administration did not restore the teachers to their original school. Three years already passed; the violation still continues.

Cultural Rights assured in ICCPR & the Constitution of Sri Lanka

Cultural rights are enshrined as fundamental Rights in the Constitution of Sri Lanka[7]. Moreover, Sri Lanka has ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 11th of June 1980.Both the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the ICCPR assures the cultural Rights.


Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion[8].

The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 22 paragraph 4 advises that the freedom to manifest religion or belief may be exercised, “either individually or in community with others and in public or private”[9].

It elaborates that the freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching encompasses a broad range of acts and the concept of worship extends to ritual and ceremonial acts giving direct expression to belief, as well as various practices integral to such acts, including ritual formulae or ceremonial acts[10].

Article 27 of ICCPR provides that “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”[11]

Article 2.1 of the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities also emphasised that persons belonging to minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely, without any interference or any form of discrimination[12], and Article 2.2 says persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life[13].

Moreover, according to Article 4.1 States are required to ensure that persons belonging to minorities may exercise their human rights without discrimination and in full equality before the law and create favourable conditions to enable persons belonging to minorities to express their characteristics[14] and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs as per article 4.2 of the 1992 declaration[15].

Constitution of Sri Lanka:

By the Administrative actions of not allowing the teachers to wear abhaya, obstructing them from performing their statutory duties and

Transferring them from their school to other school on attachments for more than two years for the reason of not wearing Saree, the school administration has infringed the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion of the Petitioners’ choice, by way of adopting an oblique/circuitous method and in violation of Article 10 of the Constitution[16].

Due to the selective and/or unequal imposition of regulations on dress code and by purported imposition of which far in excess of the Teachers’ Code of Ethics and Conduct, and General Rules issued by the Ministry of Education in the Circular 2012/37 dated 05th October 2012, school administration has  failed to ensure, assure and guarantee equal protection of the law. Thus, and otherwise, the teachers’ fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 12(1) of the Constitution have been infringed by the actions and/or inactions of the school administration[17].

Due to the failure to take necessary actions to safeguard and guarantee the Fundamental rights of the Petitioner guaranteed under the Constitution; by adopting oblique/circuitous methods to issue unreasonable, irrational and arbitrary rules and regulations, school administration has denied to the teachers, the constitutionally assured freedom to engage in the Petitioner’s lawful occupation infringing the Petitioner’s rights guaranteed under Article 14(1)(g) of the Constitution[18].


Not allowing the Muslim female teachers wearing their cultural dress to school premises is a blatant violation of both their Human Rights enshrined in the ICCPR and Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution. It is really disappointing to see that these violations are committed by Principal, members of the education departments and directors of the provincial education institute. Even after the recommendation of the Human Rights Commission is issued the violation still continues.

If the educated elite specially those who teach school children to create healthy generations with the full consciousness of Human Rights start to violate the Rights of others, how would the generation, these members of education sector are supposed to create, would behave in future in relation to Human rights?

Also, if the educated elite who are expected to promote, protect and propagate Human Rights start to violate Human Rights how could we expect the laymen would protect HR.

Mechanism for remedy

1. As the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has issued their recommendation, only available remedy domestically is to file a writ application against the school administration to implement the recommendations of HRC.

2. Lodging individual complaints is not possible since Sri Lanka has not ratified the optional protocol on ICCPR that allows individual complaints.

3. Shadow report can be submitted by the NGOs to the OHCHR.

4. Special rapporteurs can be informed of such violations and asked to respond.

5. This could be included in the Periodical Reports on Sri Lanka.

6. Meeting could be arranged with the HR representatives who visit Sri Lanka for field visit.

[1] The abaya is a simple, loose over-garment, essentially a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world

[2] Zonal Education Office, Trincomalee (2018). ‘Finding a permanent solution for the problem arose from wearing “Abaya”, the Muslim   cultural dress by the Muslim teachers at T/Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College’. Minutes of the Discussion Regarding Wearing “Abaya” by Muslim Teachers at T/Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College 26 April 2018.

[3] ibid

[4] Vijayanadamoorthy, A. (2018) Temporary transfer letters to the teachers, April 27.

[5] Fathima Fahmitha and others, (2018) Letter to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, May 21.

[6] 2018. Final Recommendation. Complaint No: HRC/TCO/27/18. Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

[7] 1978. Constitution of Sri Lanka. Chap. 3.

[8] 1976. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Art.18.

[9] Human Rights Committee, 1993. General Comment No. 22: The Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion (Art. 18). Human Rights Committee.

[10] ibid

[11] 1976. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Art.27.

[12] Adopted by General Assembly resolution 47/135 of 18 December 1992, Declaration on The Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

[13] ibid

[14] Ibid, Article 4.1

[15] Ibid, Article 4.2

[16] 1978. Constitution of Sri Lanka. Art. 10.

[17] 1978. Constitution of Sri Lanka. Art. 12 (1).

[18] 1978. Constitution of Sri Lanka. Art. 11(1)(g).

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Latest comments

  • 12

    This is not a simple issue. Schools are supposed to be child centered and not teacher centered.

    The teachers do have their human rights so are the children.

    In a child-centered education, rights of teachers are marginal and they must fit in to the rights of children.

    Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multiracial and multi-religious country where adequate space is allowed for diverse cultural practices to bloom and where diversity is celebrated.

    Teachers are expected to serve anywhere in the Island whereas children could chose their school close to their homes.

    “Nearest school is the best school”.

    Teachers who disagree with the policy adopted by a school and then they have every right to seek alternatives and could easily be posted to schools where they are wanted.

    Schools have a certain degree of autonomy and outsiders have no right to dilute such autonomy.

    Shamuga Hindu Ladies’ College is a Hindu school and the students are required to study in a Hindu cultural environment with understanding about different cultural perspectives

    If the school administration insist on a dress code for the teachers as well as for the children, it is best to follow the decision of the school administration.

    • 10

      No. Remove the tribal word Hindu. Make it TS Ladies College. Let anyone study there. Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus. This is 21st century. There shouldn’t be any Hindu schools, Buddhist schools, Christian schools and Islamic schools. That tribalism is dead and gone elsewhere.

      • 3

        Tribalism has no religious label– it has only a community label.
        If they do not teach any religion at school, the labels will bee redundant.
        The state/community can subsidize private teaching of religion.

      • 10

        You are possibly right. Then first remove the schools using, Buddhists Ladies College, Muslim Ladies College, Husseniya Muslim School, Christian College, Kotte from the education Map of Sri Lanka. Also, ensure or provide for Lady teachers of all faiths to teach in Muslim Schools island wide, wearing saree in Kandyan, Low Country style (even with showing their midriff) rather than limiting the teacher cadre to these Muslim schools island wide to those of the Muslim Faith, to ensure Equality of rights of all communities. Limiting such positions in Muslim schools, as at present is a human rights violation itself.

      • 10

        Goat Am

        If so why should Muslim women wear Islamic tribal dresses like Abaya ?

    • 7

      ‘Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multiracial and multi-religious country where adequate space is allowed for diverse cultural practices to bloom and where diversity is celebrated.’
      Is it really? Or is that merely what it ought to be? I think that it is a Hindu school so the Muslim teachers should dress the way the other teachers dress. Can you imagine a Hindu lady teacher with saree and bare midriff teaching in a Muslim school? It would not be allowed.

      • 10

        Are bare midriffs part of Hindu traditional attire?
        What matters is if it hurts sensibilities of the school community.
        In what way does the Abaya look offensive?*
        Verti and shawl (optional) on bare body is Hindu male attire. Will a Hindu school today encourage it for its teachers, although some temples insist on verti and barebody.

  • 2

    The dress code has changed the model of dress code these days is like the abaya and forced to guide to the new dress

  • 17

    Some people seem to enjoy wearing their uniforms: like the military and police, the hamuduruwo and priests, and the hora-suit wearing politicians. If the Muslim women like wearing their uniforms, just let them do it. What is the harm to others? Only they will get heated up in the tropical weather. Thangamma might have founded the school. But now it is a public school run on public money. Hindu culture … What Hindu culture? Children in that school – like in all schools – are into the internet and social media all the time, learning things that are alien to Thangamma’s Hinduism.

  • 7

    If the school does not tolerate Islamic attire, it can no longer be a ladies’ College.

    • 7

      What is Islamic attire? Hindu attire? Buddhist or Christian attire? There is no such thing as this. You get various national and ethnic attires . The local Islamic or Muslim attire is for the women to wear a saree with the end of the saree covering the head. For young women it was either the half saree or the shalwar Kameez. This blended with the island’s indigenous Buddhist and Hindu cultures very well . If there is an Islamic attire this is the acceptable Islamic attire for the country and its culture , that was practiced for centuries . Not these newly imported Arabic forms of attire , from western Asia or the Gulf , that only reflects some extremist barbaric form of Islam and an alien culture, that was never practiced in the island until very recently. These horrible black forms of dresses, covering the entire body does not suit the island’s hot tropical climate nor its culture and the tolerant traditional Sufi Islam that has been practiced in the island for centuries.

      • 9

        I pity the women who are forced to wear these sack cloths and walk around, whilst the men who force or impose this on them are happily wearing in walking around in comfortable western clothes and talking about Islamic culture , dress and values , that are not indigenous to the country but recently imported from the Arabian Gulf and are now trying to be passed off as local and home grown, to suit their extremist agenda. Whenever you see in any Islamic society the women restricted and forced to wear all these oppressive dressed covering the body and many times the face , you know their men are becoming extremist , intolerant and adopting an extremist forms of Islam, that are now being imported from the Arabian Gulf and other countries.

  • 9

    Trincomalee was once the most cosmopolitan town in the country after Colombo, and had a predominantly Catholic (Portuguese) Burgher community too.)
    It also had an exemplary secular tradition until two decades after Sinhala Only, until around 1977.
    When the FP MP Rajavarothiyam died in 1963, the Sinhalese community in the town insisted that they will build the funeral pyre.
    There were no communal clashes until 1977. Even the Satyagraha of 1961 did not provoke communal tension.
    Initially there were only Hindu and Christian (RC & Methodist) schools for the upper grades. They accommodated children of all religions. The Ramakrishna Mission Hindu College (now Sri Koneshwara Hindu College) went a big step further to cater to the specific needs of Buddhists and Muslims.
    It was only since the 1960s that its small Sinhala school started to grow into a Sinhala Mahavidyalaya. Muslim schools came up fast from the 1970s.
    To my knowledge there is no dress code for Hindu and Buddhist female teachers. I doubt if there is one for Muslims or Christians either.
    Female teachers then dressed simply and modestly. A few Catholic teachers wore blouse and skirt. It was no issue.
    What matters and should matter is that the dresses worn by the teachers inspire children to have sober social values and a tolerant approach towards others.

    • 5

      Yes,I agree with SJ on this issue
      What matters is the well being of the students. An educational institution’s purpose if not thev sole purpose is the welfare of the students and other matters I feel is secondary
      Let us not use CT to propagate or peddle religious or communal disharmony in the name of, language, religion,ethnicity, colour
      Let there be peace in our already torn society. LET THERE BE NO MALICE
      Ratnam Nadarajah

    • 4

      100% correct SJ

  • 9

    The author of this piece states that cultural rights are enshrined as Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and that the country has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Therefore, both the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the ICCPR assure the Cultural Rights of all people.

    If the author or anyone else believes this crap they must be very naive persons indeed. One instance of the blatant disregard for these rules and laws is the new restriction the Dept. of Immigration & Emigration has imposed on Tamil women (Hindus & Catholics). The rule now is that women may not wear the ‘pottu’ in their passport photos. This is despite the fact that the ‘pottu’ is permitted in passport photos by the ICAO and every other country in the world. Truth to say, a dot on the forehead alters a person’s appearance to a lesser extent than spectacles, moustache, beard, or even false eyelashes!

    In view of the virulent anti-Tamil racist position taken up by the GoSL in this matter, one can hardly blame the position taken up by the administrators and staff of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College!

    If you ask the Controller of Immigration & Emigration as to who proposed this idea, he will never name that party.

    • 4

      You mean to say as per Sri Lankan government a Muslim woman is allowed to wear the Hijab for passport photos , as this allowed per Islamic cultural practice but a Tamil woman( Hindu or Christian) is now allowed to wear the Sindhur or Pottu on their foreheads as per their cultural practices , when this is allowed throughout the world. I fail to understand how a dot on your forehead is going to alter your facial features but a hijab will not., This is outright racism . Islamic practices like the Hijab are imported but Tamils area native and indigenous to the island and have far older history than the Sinhalese, most of whom a recent imports from South India, Why is everyone silent about this?

  • 6

    The path he is driving the Muslims is to confrontation again. The nationalization of Religious school has an agreement that the schools can maintain their cultural ID. These cunning Muslims teachers, agents of Muslim politicians, are not willing to obtain a transfer for Visaka or Colombo Buddhist Girls High School, to avoid further teasing Sinhala Community beyond what they did at towards the end of Yahapalanaya administration. This is telling the apparent motive of this standoff is only getting an opening to forcefully chasing out the Hindu students and teachers out the Hindu school and changes it in to Muslim entity, with the blessing of Muslim-Sinhala government. Otherwise, they would have asked for transfer to Visaka and would be practicing their newly invented Arabian Culture, not the culture. Shanmuga School allows Muslims teachers to teach with the locally known Muslim ID, until now. There is no need for them to accept all the tribal practices that come out of the world over from time to time, flourishes and die. France, which has ratified the ICCPR has ordered no religious IDs in public work places. Quebec is going for the same.

  • 8

    There is no Muslims culture of South Asian, even in Bangladesh or Pakistan, full Muslim administration with Sharia laws, wearing full cover. Muslims’ Muslim culture is not just the all ways each Mullah are interpreting the Koran according to their own whims and fancies.
    Arabism is only on the growth itself. Most of its practices are invented & interpreted as time passes, not anything practiced from Mohamed’s’ time. So, for those who claim Arabism as the Islam, they do not have anything standardized. Princess Zima, most out seen Saudi Royal female member, rarely cover her full head but many times the thupetta fallen on her neck.
    There is no ICCPR ratification in Lankawe. The UN’s ICCPR is only against forcing Tamil Muslim women into Desert Arabian Culture. MMDA should be repealed in Lankawe for all to feel the justice is same for everybody, but not it is only for the Muslim Sinhala government agents.

    The guy’s entire argument is foul logic and pure racism. He, a hypocrite, tries to pick on the victory of from burning bodies to burring, which was achieved by voting to 20A, and build on that. Entire last, October Muslims racists who were not willing ready reconcile, blowing the Northern Muslims’ exodus out of proportion, though they are only race, the government under took to settle in South, after a displacement.

  • 7

    These racist are forcing the Muslim peasants who are not willing to return Jaffna, which is under the Rapist Army Jackboot, controlled Army and Sinhala Administrators, without any development. If the government wants to give protection to these peasants, it should re-stress their right to live anywhere, free from Muslim politicians’ tyranny to settle them where they can reap a parliament member by claiming 5% votes in non-Muslim districts. This 5% is a flaw government introduced in election law to use to plug out Sinhala MPs from Tamil neighborhood but now it is used only by Muslims Politicians against Tamils. Muslims peasants are preferring to remain in south where the business opportunities flourish and they are near to capital Colombo. When Tamil are abandoning and Jaffna and leaving to Colombo repeatedly, even after so many pogroms, these Muslims political leaderships, for the votes trying keep tied the Muslim peasants in North not moving out. This master plan is the one have put Rishard in prison now.
    Muslim community can live as Arabian Nationalists or Lankaweyans. It is only up to them fly on any kite of their preference. But corrupting the Muslim-Sinhala Government like what they did in Yahapalanaya time or by voting to 20A in Royal time is only complete destruction to all three communities.
    Please, writers and leaders of Muslim community, correct yourselves.

  • 3

    Based on human rights, can teachers attend school in mini Skirts/Shorts
    Tight Jeans and teach children? Whether they be boys or girls. You may dispense with school children’s uniform. Can Sri Lakan Air hostesses be accommodated with abaya?

  • 2

    What about Kamala Harris? will she be allowed to be in the White House with saree. holy ash and pottu?

    • 13


      Why not ? Kamaladevi can wear any dress of her choice so long as they are decent enough to be worn by the Vice President of US.

  • 4

    Yes,I agree with SJ on this issue
    What matters is the well being of the students. An educational institution’s purpose if not thev sole purpose is the welfare of the students and other matters I feel is secondary
    Let us not use CT to propagate or peddle religious or communal disharmony in the name of, language, religion,ethnicity, colour
    Let there be peace in our already torn society. LET THERE BE NO MALICE
    Ratnam Nadarajah

  • 6

    A teacher need not and should not be required forego his/her fundamental rights.

    Teachers are at least equally important and critical to a successful education system.

    I know for a fact that there’s a Muslim School in Trincomalee where female non-Muslim teachers are employed, and these non-Muslim teachers are not required to follow any Muslim dress code.

    Traditionally, back in the olden days, female Muslim teachers would wear saree in a unique fashion in that they pull it over their head to also serve as a head covering. Hence, their Muslim identity was readily on display. If this was acceptable at this particular school then, why wearing an abaya now is an issue?

    What is Trincomalee Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College, which is a public school, teaching its students and the community? It can’t be anything good.

    • 3

      “Traditionally, back in the olden days, female Muslim teachers would wear saree in a unique fashion in that they pull it over their head to also serve as a head covering.”
      Sugandh, have you seen Ferial Asroff’s photos (in not quite in olden days)?
      BTW, what do you mean by “What is Trincomalee Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College, which is a public school, teaching its students and the community? It can’t be anything good.”?
      Do you have a clue about its performance in various fields

      • 2

        Dear SJ:
        My comments were strictly with respect to the plight of these 5 Muslim teachers at Trincomalee Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College and vastly what Trincomalee is now. Any attention to Ferial Ashroff and her likes is tangential.

        Well aware of the academic and extracurricular successes of the particular college. Those successes will not be impeded by these 5 Muslim teachers if they were to wear an abaya.
        The college’s precedence on morality and equitable treatment of humans is sadly off the mark. That is a disservice to the community.

  • 2

    Will any Muslim lady teachers demand to wear Abaya in Buddhist schools.?

    • 0

      There is no question of demanding. I doubt if there will be an objection in many urban Buddhist schools, as the Abaya does not cover the face and is essentially a decent dress that does not conflict with Buddhist ethical values.
      Much of the objections to the Abaya by Tamils here border on bigotry. I wonder why.

      • 3

        Abaya does limit the facial expression of the teachers for the child to understand the teachers opinion when answering question. With the passage of time Facial Cover too may be requested. The abaya dress itself is relatively new in Srilanka. This dress was imported to Srilanaka by the ladies who went for employment in the Middle East . It is essentially a ‘show case’ dress to exhibit that the ladies have been employed in the middle east.

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