Colombo Telegraph

Why Is Jaffna University Imposing An Authoritarian Dress Code?

By Ruba Ratnasingam

A new dress code for students has been promulgated by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Jaffna. It seems to assert Hindu cultural norms on the rest of the student community.

This code comes at a time when an important debate rages in Colombo Telegraph on whether there is racism and casteism among Tamils especially at the University of Jaffna. The interest in the subject is so intense that there have been nearly 300 comments.

With the University of Jaffna placed under a microscope by that article, one would think that university authorities would be cautious. Instead, they seem to tell the world that they would do as they please, regardless of the university’s role as a multicultural institution.

The office of Dean/Arts at University of Jaffna has issued this controversial dress code for staff related to academic work and for students. It seems to settle the Colombo Telegraph debate by showing the university to be very Hindu to the exclusion of others. Dated 17.02.2016 from the Faculty of Arts, the dress code is claimed to flow from a Directive of the Council of the university and the subsequent meeting of Department Heads at 11:00 AM on 16.02.2016.

The new directive says that

  1. Staff related to academic work and students must avoid wearing denim clothing and T-shirts to lectures.
  2. Next Friday and every Friday thereafter women must wear sari to Lectures and men must not appear at lectures with a beard.

Given that there are over 600 Muslim students in the arts faculty alone, their organization the Majlees, has protested against the prohibition of their religiously mandated beard and burqa. Others with their own religious loyalties ask why Friday? Women who consider the sari indecent for showing body shape and exposing the midriff (especially lecturers who need to raise their arm to write on the board) and prefer the very decent blouse and long skirt, feel scandalized by this imposition.

We recall that Dean N. Gnanakumaran who signed the dress code memo, presented an unsolicited letter from his brother, former Colombo Law Dean Selvakumaran, at the Jaffna Council. He and his brother argued against the suspension of Music Senior Lecturer Dr.S.R. Dharsanan pending inquiry into widespread charges of sexual harassment from students. However, after reading that memo at the Council where others objected, Gnanakumaran withdrew it at the next meeting because it proved so embarrassing to the two siblings. Yet the fact remains that when the Council moved to protect female students from alleged sexual harassment by a lascivious academic, Dean Gnanakumaran tried to have that suspension lifted

We wonder why this man who showed no concern for the safety of female students suddenly wants to force them into a sari and thereby purify them. Indeed he seemed to care little for female dignity and freedom from abuse.

With the hartal culture returning to Jaffna, is the university trying to create race riots? A TamilCNN news report dated 25 Feb. 2016 suggests that anti-Muslim sentiments are being stirred up: “The Jaffna University Community held a peaceful rally on Tuesday condemning the UN deferral on the investigation report and insisting on immediate release of this report. Sinhala students studying at this university participated in this protest rally, but no Muslim students participated in this protest.” Previously, according to another news report, “The prayer room used by Muslims for worship at the University of Jaffna in Thirunelvely was vandalised during night by unknown persons who poured waste engine oil and defiled the premises.”

Will Minister Lakshman Kiriella who is “responsible for the general direction of university education” please take note. National policy after the new government took office is for a united Sri Lanka where Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists at University of Jaffna are equal and entitled to live by their faith and culture – not by the dictates of a majoritarian, hegemonic dispensation.

A Sinhalese academic with Cambridge and MIT backgrounds on his batch (67/68 Peradenya Engineering) reunion trip to Jaffna had tried to visit the campus on the 24th in shorts and was turned back by the security guards. Thus the code was implemented well beyond the Arts Faculty for a week at least. Yet when the VC was interviewed on radio this morning, 26th, about the discrimination, she said it was the fault of Prof. Gnanakumaran and the Council had taken no decision as claimed by the Dean. She said minorities were free to wear their religious clothing and beards. She did not make clear that sari and no beards would continue to apply to non-Muslims.

Time was when students imposed authoritarian dress codes on freshers as ragging. What right do administrations have to impose this fundamentalism? At our universities students learn to think and be free. Let them be truly free.

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