Colombo Telegraph

What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You

By Thisuri Wanniarachchi

Thisuri Wanniarachchi

The culture of fraternity surrounding school Big Matches in Sri Lanka is a reflection of the misogyny and social malnourishment within our education system. Most of us are blind to it, not merely because we are too frenzied by the artificial hype created by these events, to see the deeper social implications they reflect. But because our national school system didn’t teach us how to open up our minds to understand the backward values entrenched in our culture that we continue to hold on to.

#1. First of all: School is only one step of the way. Life doesn’t end there.

It’s only in sri lanka that we’ve seen people stay fraternized to educational institutions from their childhood. Not universities, but schools. In the United States, this culture of fraternity is seen amongst elite universities, Sports play a major role in US universities and is a multi-million dollar industry. The annual Harvard- Yale game, for instance, is one controversial battle of fraternities, and promotes a culture of sporting rivalry. It’s somewhat easier to understand why a culture of fraternity may prevail among these university students; elite universities are extremely competitive, exclusive and promote a certain culture of academic thought that they collectively take pride in. And above all a social culture (sometimes pretentious, sometimes not) that binds them.

But how do we explain such a fraternity existing amongst students of schools? If you take the students of the schools represented in Sri Lanka’s Big Match season: less than 10% of their annual graduates receive entrance into distinguished universities. Is the reason for their return to school annually, to behave as they would have when they were children, an implication that school is as far as most of our population get in life? No, this is not a statement made to degrade the youth or middle-aged men who go to these Big Matches; it’s a fact. Statically speaking, as of now, only 6% of our Sri Lankan youth are in university. A significant number of the students who graduate from these schools remain unemployed/underemployed or end up at low quality mid-way alternative higher education programs that do not fill the gap of the education that their schools failed to give them. A majority of students don’t get the opportunity to learn how to think socially progressively. They remain socially and intellectually backward.

*(Facts and statistics aside, yes we can all agree it is also very demeaning: you attend these schools when you are a child, before you’ve matured into an adult: a time in our lives we treasure quite a lot, but not enough to go back to our sports-meets dressed in our uniforms. I mean, you don’t have to be the coolest kid in the room to agree that fully-grown adults feeling the need to go back to their childhood school every year is a little weird, unless they do so to mock their childhood selves.)

#2. They never taught you the meaning of the term misogyny.
And now here you are, ignorantly being a total misogynistic a******.

When I was a student at St. Bridget’s Convent, during Big Match season, without any consent, boys would break into our school and vandalize it. It was a joke to us. It was so normalized by our school culture that we even laughed about it. But I now realize that this was patriarchy and sexism taking place in its most ignorant form. How absolutely misogynistic is it that boys feel the need to disrespect the boundaries and space of a girls’ institution breaking and entering in such an act of dominance?

*Oh and by the way, “to disrespect/ disregard an individual’s physical boundaries and space by non-consensually entering it” is literally the definition of rape.

For the past three years I’ve been conducting research on education institutions in Sri Lanka and potential administrative reforms that could help ease the passing of progressive education reforms, which involves deep conversations with education administrators across the country. I’ve met countless female officials who (when we discuss the matter of sex education and its importance to reduce the high number of sexual assault cases) have opened up to me about having been sexually assaulted by their male co-workers but refuse to speak up. A lot of them and when I mean a lot I mean about 95% of them, do not believe they should speak up on it, they believe it will further lower their chances to succeed in the workplace. I think one of the most striking encounters I’ve had was when a female official who was a sexual assault survivor laughed about it at the end of our conversation, saying (translated from Sinhala) “it was bad then, but that’s how we learn.” It wasn’t nervous laughter, it was genuine laughter. She was laughing, but I just wanted to cry for her.This brought me back memories of how once, a few girls in our school were assaulted by some boys who broke in during Big Match season. The girls were crying and the teachers told them to “laugh it off, these things happen.” As if it was something that happens to everyone: a lesson in life that we can learn from. Like it’s an experience we as women ought to have. That’s what our schools teach us. And in a country where almost 90% of the population depend solely on the education they receive from school, our society reflects what our schools teach. And man don’t they set us up for a treat.

Anyone with a knowledge in social psychology would know the widely-accepted theory of “stereotype threat” when a certain social group, be it a gender or ethnicity, is treated a certain way, they are much more likely to be at risk of losing confidence in themselves and giving into believing that they are meant to be treated that way.

#3. They never pointed out the severe levels of transphobia you suffer from; that you feel the need to parade it.

Big Match parades having men dressed up as women behaving in a degrading manner is just another petty and ignorant act of misogyny and transphobia being played out in public. The homophobic terms commonly used by boys and girls of elite schools in Colombo include “faggot” as an insult and the use of the phrase “gay” to describe something that is uncool. Our school system never taught us to be politically correct or how to grow up to be a part of an inclusive society that respects people of all genders, and sexual orientations.

#4. They forgot to teach you that racism is your own insecurity.

The Sinhala-Buddhist centric schools conveniently forgot to teach their kids that racism is a reflection of one’s lack of education. Someone go to the “Battle of the Maroons” to see how blissfully ignorant and backward a majority of boys in these schools are. The racism is a whole other level. It’s like someone did a mass infomercial for “Sinha-le”. (Or maybe that’s what they were going for.)

Here’s the thing: little boys who grow up seeing in this culture will never quite learn how to respect a woman equally, and someday they will become one of the 1 in 10 men in Sri Lanka who sexually assault a girl in their lives, or the majority of men who restrict their wives to the kitchen and the household, and the worst part is: they die believing they did nothing wrong, they will always believe they were entitled to live this way. They will disrupt their work places and god forbid their homes (incestuos rape is very common in Sri Lanka).

They will raise their daughters with much less freedom than their sons; and the kids will carry on the stereotypes with them. The girls who grow up entrenched in this culture lack the self confidence to speak up against discrimination; in fact they may never know how to identify if they are being discriminated against or not, because sexist discrimination is all they’ve known in their lives that it’s so normalized.

We are currently in a phase of administrative transition in Sri Lanka. We are trying to change the way the country works. In this process, more often than not we find ourselves facing the same problems we faced 50 years ago. And sometimes we wonder why? We want to make progressive change but our country is filled with racists, misogynists and homophobes. They are not terrible people; their education system has failed them. They were never given a chance. We know that our education system is the root of the problem; the reason we are still living in the 1960s. Yet, we get so surprised when a kid gets expelled from a school for a false AIDS rumor. And we question “why are people so ignorant?” like we don’t already know the answer. If even the most well-resourced national schools in Colombo seem to fail at teaching students to think progressively, how can we expect the rest of the country to?

We are what we learn.
And they teach us so little.

*Thisuri Wanniarachchi, 21, is the author of novels The Terrorist’s Daughter and Colombo Streets. She is Sri Lanka’s youngest State Literary Award winner and the world’s youngest national nominee to the prestigious Iowa International Writers’ Program. She is currently an undergraduate student and full scholar of Bennington College studying Political Economy and Education Reform.

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