The Eastern province sees a divide as sections of the Tamil community object to Muslim women embracing the abaya, a full-length, gown-like dress of Arab origin. Meera Srinivasan reports via The Hindu on the widening fault lines in the island nation’s ethnically most diverse region
The arch above the school gate looks like a crown over the pillars that support it on either side. It bears the name ‘Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College’, painted in a turquoise blue that must have been vibrant once but looks faded now. Beyond the arch, a couple of two-storied pink buildings face each other. Their proximity amplifies the commotion that erupts when the bell rings. It is break time.
This school, many in Sri Lanka’s eastern port city of Trincomalee will tell you, is for girls who study well. It was founded in 1923 by Thangamma Shanmugampillai, a local advocate of women’s education. Shanmuga ‘College’, as many secondary schools in Sri Lanka are called, steadily built its reputation and has preserved it for nearly a century.
However, when the school made headlines in late April, it was not for an academic feat. It drew national attention when controversy erupted over a few of its teachers wearing the abaya, a full-length, gown-like dress of Arab origin that many Sri Lankan Muslim women have begun to wear in recent decades. Seeing this as an aberration from earlier practice, where Muslim teachers wore the saree in Tamil style accompanied by a headscarf, a group of parents and teachers from the Hindu community protested, demanding that the teachers abide by an unwritten but apparently entrenched school ‘dress code’.
At first, this seemed like a case of Tamils objecting to the Muslim teachers’ change of attire in a ‘Hindu school’. But beneath the surface are cracks that manifest in small and big ways, at times exploding into visceral hate speech. With its almost equally proportioned ethnic mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, Sri Lanka’s Eastern province could be an ideal site to demonstrate reconciliation and coexistence among the different communities. For the same reason, it is the most challenging too.
In two of the Eastern province’s three districts, Ampara and Trincomalee, Muslims are the majority, whereas in Batticaloa district there are more Hindus, and the Muslim minority, comprising around 26% of the population, is concentrated in pockets along the coast and inland. The districts skirting Sri Lanka’s east coast are among the most scenic parts of the country, where lagoons, lakes and lush fields paint the landscape in shades of blue and green.
The protesters who gathered outside the school in the last week of April held placards in English and Tamil with messages such as, “Hindu schools are for Hindus, let us not entertain racism here”, and “Even if you don’t speak in pure Tamil, do not speak in crass Tamil”, indicating that the issues at stake were larger than what teachers should wear to school.
The Tamils unleashed a commentary on the Muslims’ culture and language in unmistakably derogatory terms, provoking hardline Muslim groups to return the favour in a counter protest. Social media was rife with charges reeking of prejudice and suspicion – of “spreading Wahhabism” by one side and of “continuing the separatist Eelam struggle” by the other.
Though mostly Tamil speaking, Sri Lankan Muslims, who comprise about 10% of the island’s population, have historically identified themselves as a separate ethnicity. A majority of the Tamils in the island’s north and east are Hindus, accounting for most of Sri Lanka’s nearly 13% Hindu population. The island’s Tamils see themselves as an ethnicity distinct from the Muslims, despite a common language. They often speak of Muslims, many of whom are engaged in agriculture, fisheries and trade, as a “prosperous” community, well networked and upwardly mobile.
As recent incidents stirred up latent tensions between the Tamils and Muslims, some within both communities are visibly troubled. “We thought the situation was going to escalate. Everyone was forwarding hate messages and rumours via social media. It was getting dangerous,” recalls a Tamil youth, who manages a small business minutes away from the school. “But the fact is Shanmuga has traditionally been a Hindu school. That must be respected, don’t you think?” he says, requesting anonymity.
He was echoing what veteran Trincomalee parliamentarian and leader of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R. Sampanthan highlighted in response to Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister for Industry and Commerce, who had taken up the cause of the Muslim teachers. Appreciating the changes in the culture of attire among all communities, and noting it was each community’s right to make its choices, , the leader of the political alliance of Tamil nationalist parties urged education authorities to resolve the matter in a way that “respects the traditional dress code followed in the [said] school” and ensure “no community introduces new ways of dressing.”
His seemingly conciliatory tone, however, hardly concealed an uncompromising message: Muslim teachers teaching in a traditionally ‘Hindu school’ must abide by the ‘traditional Tamil attire’ for female teachers — the saree. However, Shanmuga College, though denominated as Hindu, is a state-funded school under the education department. Students from all communities are admitted — 120 Muslims are enrolled among the 2,000-odd students — and teachers from any community may be appointed.
Among Sri Lanka’s 353 such ‘national schools’, there appears to be an implicit recognition of the role played by religious movements in establishing them, as seen in their official self-identification as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ schools. Despite some diversity within, most national schools are ethnically marked, including in the mixed Eastern province. Since the controversy, all the four Muslim teachers at Shanmuga College, according to an authoritative source, have sought a transfer to a Muslim school in the same district, so they can wear the abaya to work.
For the men from both communities, who voice strong views on the abaya, the attire worn by Muslim women is symbolic, signifying either adherence to religious convention or defiance of ‘Tamil culture’, depending on their religion. On the other hand, women, including those who use it, offer a more complex reading in which history is not incidental.
Mainstream narratives around Sri Lanka’s almost three-decade-long internal war focus on the north, where Tamil militant organisations were based, but the east has seen its share of action and suffering. Several thousand people lost their lives in indiscriminate shelling by government forces and bloody massacres by all sides.
From the violence unleashed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Muslims in the 1990s, to the 2004 split within the LTTE when its eastern commander Karuna Amman broke away, the Indian Ocean tsunami the same year, and the armed forces’ capture of LTTE-controlled territory in 2007, the Eastern province has endured profound losses and devastation.
The impact of that is still seen in the large number of women headed households, the wide prevalence of poverty in the province — Batticaloa is among the island’s poorest districts — and the high rates of outmigration, in the form of low skilled labour, to West Asia. Resilient locals are labouring hard to rebuild their lives, but recent bouts of communal tension foreshadow a difficult future.
“I grew up in Kattankudy and have always lived here,” says Fahmiya Shareef, an activist in this Muslim dominated locality of Batticaloa district. A narrow alleyway leads from the main road to her house right at the end. She can recall the August 1990 mosque massacre, when over 100 Muslims, kneeling in prayer, were mowed down in gunfire by the LTTE.
Now 41, Shareef remembers a time when Tamils and Muslims lived in amity in the 1980s. “Many of our boys joined the Tamil militant movement. Muslims were very sympathetic to their struggle, and at the same time tried being a bridge to the state.” Once, when the state security forces were hunting Tamil youth suspected to be linked to the LTTE, her father, who was a school vice-principal, disguised some of his Tamil students as Muslims and smuggled them to distant border villages.
In the years of heightening conflict, the relationship soured. Mutual distrust replaced respect, and hostility overwhelmed cordiality. Tamils increasingly viewed Muslims as accomplices of the state, and Muslims in turn saw Tamils as an oppressive local majority trying to carve out a separate state in which Muslims were either discriminated against or displaced. Ties spiralled downward from the early 1990s, when the LTTE attacked eastern Muslims and forcefully evicted northern Muslims overnight.
Proposed re-merger of provinces
That trust deficit remains intact today and dominates all debates, ranging from a proposed re-merger of the north and east (from 1988 to 2006, the Northern and Eastern provinces were temporarily merged to form the North Eastern province) to allocation of local, provincial and national resources. Unlike the Northern Tamil parties, Muslim political parties are coalition partners of the government, holding key portfolios. This leads Tamils to accuse them of favouring their ethnoreligious electoral base while distributing government jobs or public funds.
“There is certainly truth in that allegation, but the Tamil community cannot get too far by resorting to hatred and divisive politics in return, can it?” asks K. Thurairajasingam, general secretary of the TNA’s main constituent, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi, and a former minister in the Eastern Provincial Council. “As far as the east is concerned, it is home to Tamils and Muslims. We have to work together in a way that is fair to all the people here.”
Protesters outside the Trincomalee school derided the Tamil spoken by Muslims as “impure” and “crass”, forgetting that some of their northern Tamil brethren do not consider their eastern dialect “pure” enough. Objections to Muslims span other spheres of culture too, including dietary habits. In May, a hardline Tamil Hindu organisation protested against the sale of beef, mainly by Muslims, in parts of Jaffna, claiming Sri Lanka to be a land of Hindus and Buddhists where the cow is revered and therefore cannot be slaughtered. Muslim women’s changing attire also appears to be contentious to Tamils. “Why must they suddenly wear these new outfits imported from Saudi Arabia?” asks a senior academic in Batticaloa.
His barb brought to mind what Shareef said earlier: “The abaya issue was not really a problem of our udai (clothing). It was about our urimai (right).” Young Batticaloa lawyer Jawshana Musammil, herself dressed in an abaya, concurs with Shareef. In her view, to tell someone that their attire is inappropriate is a violation of their fundamental right.
To many Muslim women, the abaya is about following a convention. For some, it is about convenience too. Working women find it quicker to wear the abaya during their morning rush, as compared to the pleated saree. Some of them have received abayas as presents from a relative returning from West Asia, others buy the dresses in the local market. Some of them wear it in black, others like experimenting with brighter colours. “Even many Tamil women today prefer wearing the salwar kameez to the saree. Can we say that it is wrong? Culture keeps changing with time for all of us,” says Shareef.
In the 20 years that she has spent working with women of all communities in the East, Tamil activist Lakshmi (name changed on request) has seen many changes to women’s clothing and attitudes about them. “So many Tamil women tell me that their husbands force them to wear the sari or the thali. Similarly, there are Muslim women who are not particularly fond of the abaya. If you ask these women, they will tell you it is an issue of patriarchy more than religion,” she says, adding that the battle against male dominance is common to all religions.
However, in Sri Lanka’s east, everything is seen through a communal lens first. Further, in recent times, sections within all communities are showing signs of becoming more conservative and insular, many living here observe.
“You must remember that religion has its own power base,” says Fr. Veeresan Yogeswaran, at the sea-facing office of the Centre for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Trincomalee, which he heads. In a setting as complex as in the Eastern province, where religion is not merely a matter of personal belief but also a means to accessing resources from public and private actors, people of all faiths appear to be asserting their identities and cultures.
Pointing to the growing number of evangelical groups among Christians and Muslims as a cause of concern for Hindus, Fr. Yogeswaran says, “Putting up churches in predominantly Tamil villages will be seen as an attempt to disrupt coherence.”
Local Tamils speak of new mosques that have sprung up in the last few years, and of the massive Batticaloa Campus of Sri Lanka, a private higher educational institute. It is chaired by an influential regional Muslim politician.
Further, there is concern over a possible “north Indian influence”, says Fr. Yogeswaran, referring to more aggressive Hindu organising in the east. “The Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east, are essentially Saivites. Their kovils are all Siva temples. But increasingly, you notice many Vishnu temples coming up here.”
Murmurs of a likely Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh influence, coupled with the efforts of organisations such as the Siva Senai, which led the anti-beef campaign in Jaffna and has claimed links to Hindutva groups such as the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in India, have fuelled these fears.
In the Sinhala majority south, where many Sri Lankans worry about the growing incidence of anti-Muslim attacks over the last five years, hardline Buddhist organisations have been talking about combating a “growing threat of radical Islam”.
Targeted both ways
That is perhaps why Shareef worries about Muslims “getting beaten on both sides.” The Muslims of the Eastern province, sandwiched by the Tamils at its northern end and Sinhalese in the south, are feeling squeezed. More so after Sinhalese mobs carried out a spate of attacks targeting Muslim eateries and shops in Ampara in February, alleging that a Muslim-run restaurant had mixed sterilisation pills in food served to Sinhalese customers.
Weeks after the anti-Muslim violence and destruction, which also spilled over to Kandy in the Central province, where it claimed at least two lives, lab tests of the food sample found the complaint to be false. “We live in constant fear of being attacked again,” says Mohamed Mustafa Junaideen, leader of a cooperative society in Ampara. Both the Tamil and Sinhalese instigators of the two protests have political reasons, some suspect.
“There are forces who know that if you disrupt peace in a [multi-ethnic] city like Trincomalee, it will affect the whole country. They use that for their political gain,” says social worker M. Noorul Ismiya. “Whatever the conflict might be, you will find women at the receiving end of it. As a feminist I am uncomfortable with the idea of an abaya, but at the same time I believe that no one in the world has the right to tell a person what she must or must not wear.” The abaya has become a prop for a more virulent prejudice, she adds.
Lawyer Musammil, who has many Tamil clients, says that she keeps hearing about a host of issues in Tamil society ranging from domestic violence and alcoholism to indebtedness caused by microfinance. “There are so many big problems around us and silence about them, but some people harp on a matter like women’s attire which has no consequence to their lives,” she says.
Those like Shareef fear that in the long term, if the two minorities can’t stand in solidarity with each other, then the future of the individuals in either community would remain bleak. She cannot see why identities must complicate coexistence. “Like in a fruit salad, we could be in a common dish but still retain our distinct colour and flavour. But when you try to blend us all into a juice, then the one fruit you add more will dominate the taste. That will be at the cost of others.”