Beyond Secularisation and Segregation

Abaya in a Hindu Ladies’ College:


By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

The recent demonstrations by the Tamil teachers, alumni and members of the larger Tamil community, in Trincomalee town, against the Muslim teachers at Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College who came to school in the abaya, speak of a larger problem that bedevils our educational system and the state. Hot on the heels of the anti-Muslim violence which parts of the Eastern and Central provinces witnessed in March this year, and in light of the growing tensions between Tamils and Muslims in the East, the anti-Muslim positions taken by a dominant section within the Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College community are deeply worrying and alarming.

The racist slogans on the placards held by the Tamil protestors targeted not just the female Muslim teachers and what they wore but also a ‘non-standard’ version of the Tamil language which the protestors, in an essentialising fashion, claimed the Muslim teachers and other Muslims spoke. The protests drive home the point that anti-Muslim sentiments are rife among the educated classes within Tamil society and that it is high time we woke up from our delusional slumber of victimhood and confronted head-on the chauvinisms that have taken root amongst us.

There are many questionable assumptions about culture, religion and gender that are at work in the manner in which the female Muslim teachers are treated by the Tamil-Hindu administration of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College and the larger community connected with that institution. The protestors have woven a narrative about the place of history in the life of the College in their desperate attempts to give legitimacy to their chauvinistic action. All these suppositions and the manner in which history has been brought in to deny the female Muslim teachers their right to wear the abaya to their workplace need to be unpacked and challenged. Before scrutinizing these assumptions, looking at the school system in Sri Lanka and the ways in which schools continue remain aligned with cultures, ethnicities and religions, despite nationalization, may help us contextualize the crisis at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College in the larger histories of secondary education in Sri Lanka.

The school system that comes under the purview of the Ministry of Education or its private schools branch has cultural and historical multiplicities within itself, even though the state provides free education to hundreds of thousands of children regardless of their social, cultural and economic backgrounds. Many of the public schools in the country were founded by Christian missionaries and Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist revivalist movements as part of the colonial and anti-colonial epochs that the island went through. Some of these schools, as private or semi-government schools, are still governed by religious organisations, even though they follow the state curriculum and prepare students for public examinations conducted by the state.

Nationalisation of schools

Though many of the schools founded by missionaries, anti-colonial and social reformist and nativist/nationalist groups were later taken over by the government as part of its nationalisation drive and are fully under the purview of the provincial and national ministries of education at present, the state allows them to retain their religious, regional and cultural identities or some semblance of those identities for historical, geographic, demographic and social reasons. As a result, in Sri Lanka, we have a rather interesting educational situation where the public education system recognizes, at least implicitly, the historical role ethnic mobilizations and religious movements played in shaping the educational traditions of the country.

By admitting students from various religious backgrounds and posting teachers from different cultural backgrounds, the nationalisation of education has diversified in cultural and religious terms the students, teachers and non-academic staff of some of the schools that carry ethnic and religious labels in their names. Yet, we cannot arrive at any exhaustive generalisations about the relationship between nationalisation and cultural diversity as several of these schools, despite being run by religious figures and religious organisations, had students from multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural backgrounds prior to nationalisation. The intrusion of virulent ethnic and religious nationalisms into some of these schools in the post-Independence era has made them less diverse or mono-ethnic post-nationalization. For instance, Ananda College, now considered one of the iconic Sinhala-Buddhist (nationalist) institutions in the country, had an active Tamil Association and a Tamil Literary Society until the mid-1950s.

Nationalisation has made schools like Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College culturally and ethnically more diverse than before or meeting places of different cultures and religions. But the attempts on the part of their administrations, the communities around them and the alumni associations to use the schools’ historical cultural and religious alignments and affiliations to stifle pluralism in the everyday administration of the schools, to control and regulate the conduct of the culturally heterogeneous teachers and students who occupy their precincts today, and thereby establish the dominance of a single religion or ethnicity or culture to the exclusion of others, must be resisted, at all costs.

It is important that the state and school administrations ensure that the teachers and the students who are part of these schools today find the regulations that govern them meaningful and relatable to their lives, identities and their social and cultural locations.

Whatever the imagined or real past of these schools may be, the governance of these centers of education today should attend to the concerns of those who are now part of them: the students, teachers and the non-academic employees. Thus, the imposition made by the administration of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College that the female Muslim teachers should not come to school in the Abaya must be called what it is: a chauvinistic, anti-Muslim regulation that cannot be justified under any grounds.

The anti-Muslim protests at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College has re-kindled conversations about the place of culture, religion and secularism in the public educational system in Sri Lanka. Some Tamils and Muslims who are concerned about the developments at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College and their ramifications to inter-ethnic relations in the region advocate that all state-run (and private) schools should be made secular. But secularism as a tool to make educational (and other) public institutions non-discriminatory has its limits both theoretically and politically. Theoretically speaking, secularisation or achieving a complete separation of religion (or for that matter culture and ethnicity too) and the (public) institution is an almost impassable exercise.

Is there anything—arts, architecture, philosophy, science, history—outside of cultural or religious signification or association in our world today for it to become a marker of secularism automatically? To ask a specific question in relation to the issue at hand, what is a secular dress that can be made common to all the teachers at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College that is free of signification and does not produce any hierarchies? As most things associated with our lives are always already marked for religion and culture, one can think of secularism at its best only as a desire that is indefinitely deferred. Such an understanding of secularism then requires us to envision institutions that guarantee pluralism not just within their own boundaries but also in the larger social, regional and national terrains of which they form a seminal part.


More than liberal notions of secularism which seek to regulate diversity in a sweeping and indiscriminate manner without recognising the disparities such regulation will produce, I find the term "secular-minded" which Kalana Senaratne deploys in one of his recent articles and Sivamohan Sumathy elaborates on later in her response as a way of thinking about reforms that can attend to the disjuncture between the secularist prescriptions coming from the state and the religious and other allegiances its polities have, useful in re-imagining the place of culture and religion as both continuities and discontinuities that operate simultaneously in the life of public institutions such as state-run schools. While it is important to remember the role of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College in providing education to Hindu women in Trincomalee in the early decades of the twentieth-century in an atmosphere that allowed them to practice their own religion, it is equally important to understand that the cultural profile of its staff and students has undergone significant changes over the decades with the nationalisation of the school and the admission of non-Hindu students and teachers into its classrooms. It is imperative that the governance and institutional culture of the school be informed by these changes. The administration’s move to force the female Muslim teachers to not wear the abaya because it is against the Hindu values and traditions the College has maintained over the decades points to the former’s unwillingness to give importance to diversity in its vision for the school.

One is legitimately worried that blanket secularisation of public institutions may lead to a hegemonic erasure from the memory of those institutions the role they played in the past by mobilising religion and culture as a bulwark for social change and their organic relationship to the various social and educational movements that combated casteism, colonial ideologies and patriarchy.

The history of the relationship between religion and education in colonial and postcolonial Ceylon is a complex and multi-layered one. This history does not have a singular trajectory; nor can it be narrated or theorised through a single lens. While there is no doubt that many Christian educational institutions that advocated social justice were complicit in colonial oppression and promoting Euro-centric ideas, nativist educational institutions, whose birth paralleled the anti-colonial moment of our histories, failed on their part to challenge the hierarchies of caste, gender, ethnicity and religion.

Even this formulation is reductive and simplistic for a number of reasons. For instance, despite the attempts on the part of American missionaries to open up educational opportunities for oppressed caste communities in the North, casteism quickly became part of the church and its institutions. On the other hand, schools that were founded by revivalist and nativist movements did give a seminal place to the teaching of the English language despite its centrality in the colonial apparatus.

The website of the old students’ association of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College states that the school ran a separate English stream till 1951. In another development, the cosmopolitan character of the education Ceylonese received at some Christian educational institutions motivated some of them to question the ideological assumptions of colonialism, join secular and left-leaning political movements and initiate anti-colonial struggles that envisaged the postcolonial future of the island in inclusive and pluralist terms.

One such secular, anti-colonial movement that rose to prominence in the 1920s was the Jaffna Youth Congress whose founders were influenced by the education they received from Jaffna College, a product of the collaboration between American missionaries and native Christians in the North in the 1870s. Unless it critically attends to these complex histories and their legacies and memories, including the dominant ones, and places them in a critical dialogue with the new socio-cultural configurations taking shape in the schools at present, secularisation of public (and private) schools is bound to create its own hegemonies.

My issue with secularisation stems, in part, from my concerns related to contemporary political developments at the regional and national levels as well. At a time when religious majoritarianism rules the roost in the public sphere in Sri Lanka and many other countries with the aid of electoral democracy and the liberal state, secularisation of schools that have a central place in the history of minority religions and religious minorities on the island will be counterproductive and hegemonic. Therefore, one needs to be cautious about a secularism that is blind to the ways in which religion acted and continues to act as an organizing principle, as a site of oppression and resistance and as an inspiring force for social change being promoted as solution to the crises that riddles our education sector today.

Preventing Ghettoization

As another solution to the challenges posed by cultural and religious diversity in educational institutions, especially in the wake of the unjust treatment of the Muslim teachers at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College, some have called for the segregation of schools along religious lines. Under this scheme, only teachers and students from the community that a school has been traditionally identified with will be allowed to study and teach in that school. This is a non-solution that will only lead to the ghettoization of communities and turn the country’s seats of learning into ethnic and religious enclaves that would discourage and dissuade communities from interacting with or understanding one another. Despite the hold religion has had on the everyday activities at many public and private schools in the island, it is noteworthy that these schools have been able to contribute to the cultivation and creation of individuals and organizations that are cosmopolitan and pluralist in outlook in both urban and rural areas and have resisted the workings of parochial nationalisms.

This local cosmopolitanism, though not always able to penetrate in radical ways the class and caste boundaries that divide societies, became possible because these schools recruited teachers and students from multiple religious and cultural backgrounds even as they gave a central place to one religion in their administrative rituals. When a child has one religion at home and is exposed to another in the school and makes friends with fellow students from different religious backgrounds, the child begins to learn from a young age the importance of cultural coexistence and religious tolerance. In some children, this exposure also produces the embryo of a consciousness that views truth not as fixed and singular but multiple and fluid. Therefore, the argument that religion-based schools are responsible for the communalism in the country does not always stand the test of reason.

A consciousness that resists ethno-religious isolation is necessary in today’s local and global contexts to combat chauvinisms. Educational institutions should step up to the task of cultivating citizen-subjects who act with a sense of commitment towards those around them and the earth’s pluralism. The times that we find ourselves in, demand us to come up with creative solutions to the problems relating to cultural pluralism in our schools. These solutions need to see a future beyond blanket secularization and religious segregation. While there should be room for our schools to critically remember the historical roles they performed as institutions affiliated with particular religions and ethnicities in the past, the school administrations should be mindful of the needs and aspirations of its culturally diverse students and teachers. In order to make free education culturally meaningful, we have to find ways of working toward these two goals which appear to us as antithetical and mutually exclusive at the first glance.

Widespread Islamophobia

The anti-Muslim protests at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College demonstrate that the current wave of Islamophobia in post-war Sri Lanka is not limited to the Sinhala Buddhist community. Hegemonic forces within the Tamil community backed by Hindu nationalist organizations across the Palk Strait like the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been actively involved for the past few years in re-constructing the North and East as Hindu lands. Hindutva politics works hand in hand with the forces of patriarchy active in the social and institutional terrains of the North and East. This toxic intersectional politics produces the non-Hindu woman, and in the case of what happened at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College the female Muslim teachers, as its Other(s) that need(s) to be either policed and contained or banished and ejected.

Tamil nationalist politics that dominates the cultural and social landscapes of the North-East should also own up its culpability for the anti-Muslim sentiments among the Tamils and in institutions like Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College where students and teachers from the Tamil community form the majority. The ‘Othering’ of Muslims that Tamil nationalism has contributed to over the last several decades in the region has created a ripe ground for Hindutva movements to unleash their anti-Muslim propaganda without having to face much opposition from the Tamil community. By laying the entire blame at the doorstep of Hindutva movements, we try to exculpate Tamil nationalism from its destructive role in having fermented anti-Muslim sentiments among the Tamil community and sanitize it as a ‘secular’ ideology.

I would frame the proclamation made by the protestors and the leader of the TNA R. Sampanthan that Muslim teachers are free to wear a headscarf as long as they wear the sari as a Tamil-Hindu nationalist desire to produce a Muslim female subject that does not threaten the claims of cultural entitlement that Tamil nationalists make over the territory of the North and East and the public institutions it houses. Even though some members of the Muslim community also hold that the Muslim teachers should not do anything to disrupt the traditions that a Hindu educational institution has preserved for decades, I disagree with that position too and insist here that the Muslim women’s decision to wear the abaya to Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College be respected even as some of us, non-Muslims and Muslims, want to examine the politics of gender the abaya signifies within the Muslim community today, the material and socio-historical contexts in which that signification happens and the self-articulations, exclusions and protests the abaya has produced. We need to acknowledge that the Muslim teachers appointed by the state to Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College are indispensable to the education system that is in place in the school and that they cannot be treated as some aliens who can be forced to accept the diktats of the cultural nationalism of the Tamil-Hindus.

Finally, I wish to push my critique beyond the communal conflicts that culture and nationalism generate within the state and its institutions towards gendered hegemonies within the Tamil community that nationalist patriarchy has set in motion. The control exercised over the dress code of the Muslim teachers should also be seen as an attempt on the part of the state and the Tamil-Hindu administration of the College, the larger Tamil community and its men to neutralize the sari as the norm not just for Muslim women but also for Tamil female teachers and to impose upon Tamil women the burden of embodying and preserving the culture associated with the Tamil nation. This cultural imposition reveals that there is little room for Tamil female teachers and workers to articulate their cultural identities in their own terms in multiple ways. A related question is why is the sari considered Tamil, or for that matter the abaya Muslim?

We need to understand that these identifications are our inventions and that they come into being through discursive processes we initiate through signification. While these processes have their own histories and involve hegemony and resistance at multiple levels, there is nothing natural or originary about them. Even as we question and resist the ban on the abaya at Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College, we should also reflect on the manner in which the sari is naturalized as Tamil. Coming back to the question of gender and nationalism, one must ask why the state, our schools, our alumni associations and our societies and we, men, both Tamil and Muslim, do not assign ourselves any cultural responsibilities and why there is no culturally determined dress code for male teachers and male workers. All these questions and conversations are essential to challenge upfront the patriarchal, racist and communal ideologies and structures of power that are working together in pushing the abaya-clad Muslim teachers out of Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College. It is these questions that can act as starting points for our efforts to make our schools institutions that uphold academic and other freedoms, democracy, social justice, multiculturalism, religious coexistence and gender equality.

(Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka and attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya.)

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