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
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. 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
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.
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.
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. 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.
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”.
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.
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”
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, and Article 2.2 says persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.
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 and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs as per article 4.2 of the 1992 declaration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.