Reporting on veiled prejudice

Muslim women’s changing attire appears to be contentious to Tamils.

Muslim women’s changing attire appears to be contentious to Tamils.

In 2018, a school in Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee district, a multi-ethnic city on the island’s eastern coast, grabbed rare national attention. A group of Hindu teachers and parents of children going to the school protested against some teachers wearing the abaya to work . Agitators slammed the teachers for choosing to shift from an earlier practice of wearing the saree along with a headscarf to the full-length, often black, gown that many Sri Lankan Muslim women have been wearing for decades now.

I visited the school weeks later, when the tensions had died down a bit, to report on the story. I interviewed the school head, among others, to try and understand how the controversy had erupted. In wearing the abaya to school, did the teachers violate an official dress code? Or was it a convention they were changing? Why were the Hindu teachers and parents so offended by the attire? How did the school management, government education department and the local community respond?

The recent hijab controversy in Karnataka , and the rage and violence around it, took me back to this story.

School and government authorities, including those who sympathised with the protesters, told me that the Muslim teachers’ choice of attire did not violate any rule or official dress code. It merely offended the sensibilities of their non-Muslim colleagues and parents who were used to seeing them dressed differently. In that case, why was it so difficult to resolve the matter?

Because the protesters were not opposing just the abaya . The slogans they raised derided the “impure” Tamil spoken by Muslims; claimed that “Hindu schools were only for Hindus” (the originally Hindu institution is now a national school functioning under the Ministry of Education); and accused the Muslim teachers of bringing “racism” into the campus. It was clear that the abaya had now become a symbol of many things “Muslim” that they feared, hated, or both.

Interviews with protesters, other residents, and long-time social workers in the area revealed that the attack on the garb had stemmed from a deep-rooted sentiment. This was shaped by people’s experiences during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war; dynamics of the continuing discrimination against Sri Lanka’s Tamils and the growing, targeted violence against Muslims; and the familiar manipulation of these tensions — between the two minority groups, and with the majority Sinhalese community — by the political class for electoral gains.

Working on the story also exposed me to diverse opinions that Muslim women hold on why they wear the abaya . Some of them see it as an important religious convention, while for others it is an easy alternative to the pleated saree. Some said they liked the abaya in black, others in colour. Some wear it at home, others slip it on when they step out. While explaining their everyday attire choice to me, they compared it to more Tamil women wearing the salwar-kameez or trousers instead of the saree in recent decades. Their views brought in exactly the kind of nuance that shrill, social media debates or hasty political statements by leaders often drown out.

The insights they shared proved valuable as I covered subsequent controversies around Muslim women’s attires – especially after the Easter bombings of 2019, and when the Sri Lankan Cabinet, in April last year, banned all face veils in public, citing “national security” concerns, ironically at a time when face masks were mandated in all public spaces owing to the pandemic.

This week, the Trincomalee teacher is back in the news. Despite official directives, she was unable to resume duties in the school, as she was allegedly threatened and assaulted. Determined to secure her right to teach at the school, she has mounted a legal challenge as well. Meanwhile, social media arbiters have begun ruling on the matter. Among them, unsurprisingly, are many men with rather strong and certain views on how women must dress.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 12:38:09 am |