Home » Women’s Attire Stokes Religious Tension in Eastern Sri Lanka

Women’s Attire Stokes Religious Tension in Eastern Sri Lanka


Photo courtesy of NBC News

In times of calamity women are affected disproportionately, and Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious conflicts are no exception to the rule. In the post-war context, Tamil women were left to look for many family members who were disappeared by the state or militants. They were forced to do this while returning to mostly demolished homes in a heavily militarised environment. They had to rebuild entire communities with limited government support.

In a similar vein, following the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, which led to hatred towards the entire Muslim community, Muslim women bore the brunt of mass surveillance controls and had to fight for their right to wear culturally appropriate attire, safety in public spaces, mobility and freedom of association. They became targets of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with many working tirelessly to secure the release of family members arbitrarilydetained under this law.

Piety within religion is often visibly expressed through women’s gatherings and rituals with their bodies, clothing and through control of women’s reproductive abilities. All play a central role in shaping the politics of religious identity, particularly in the post-war context and post-Easter attacks. In the Eastern province, there have been allegations against Muslims of abducting young Tamil girls to marry them, fuelling tensions between Tamil and Muslim minority communities and leading to the ostracisation of couples who cross community lines in relationships or marriages.

There has been an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric in society at large, especially after a group of Muslim terrorists carried out suicide bomb attacks in churches including the Zion church in Batticaloa in the East. As a result, some religious institutions largely represented by male leaders have sought to exert control over women’s bodies and minds in both Muslim and Hindu communities. They use religion as a tool to force women to conform to traditional gender roles including the emphasis on maintaining their “purity” and rules around their reproductive rights. Women’s groups in the East are concerned that these efforts not only to control women’s bodily autonomy but also to incite religious hatred and division, pitting women against each other.

Hindu and Muslim women in Batticaloa have observed increased religiosity within their communities since the Easter attacks, particularly in religious practices imposed on women. These practices are attributed to the influence of extremist religious factions. Hindu women point to RSS influence and Muslim women accuse their men and religious bodies more generally. Hindu women say that various types of fasting requirements have been introduced, demanding significant sacrifices without clear benefits[1]. They also talk about the reinforcement of piety and heightened observation of various Hindu religious gendered rituals such as the Gowri Viratham.

Increasing intolerance for the other is also more and more being made and integral part of one’s religious identity in this region. One prominent woman activist stated, “Many Saiva people (commonly used term in Tamil to refer to Hindus) have become more cautious and suspicious of their surroundings. Unfortunately, this has led to some negative behaviours such as avoiding Muslim vendors due to rumours of sterilisation drugs in food served at restaurants and talking behind their backs. Even at a school in Batticaloa during a parent-teacher meeting, some Saiva people responded negatively when a parent wearing an abaya arrived. These responses were made without much thought or consideration.” This article explores one such public case that was passionately fought by both Hindu and Muslim men over Muslim women’s cultural attire.

The case of Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College

In April 2018, five female Muslim teachers who taught at a state run Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College in Trincomalee were harassed and threatened for wearing the abaya, a long dress commonly worn by some Muslim women in many parts of the world. They made complaints to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in May 2018 and the Commission found that preventing teachers from wearing the abaya while performing their duties is a violation of Articles 10, 12 (1), 12 (2) and 14 (e)  of the Constitution and made recommendations accordingly. Even though the SLHRC verdict was positive,  resistance to the right of Muslim women to wear abayas continued. Four out of five Muslim teachers requested transfers and moved away from Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College.

The sole remaining teacher, Fathima Fahmida Rameez, was continuously denied permission to work at the Shanmuga school because she wore the abaya. For this reason, Fahmida filed a Writ Application and the matter was taken up in the Court of Appeal on February 13, 2022. Fahmida received a letter of reinstatement from the Ministry of Education and, armed with the strength of the letter, returned to Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College to report back to work. However, protests against her reinstatement were held, with some people claiming that wearing the abaya destroyed Hindu culture. During her wait to assume duty, Fahmida was assaulted by a group of protestors. In the ensuing melee, the media reported that the school principal was also injured and a police case was filed alleging that Fahmida had pushed the principal. In response, Fahmida made a counter complaint, alleging that she was assaulted by the principal. Subsequently, a private plaint was filed against the principal in the Magistrate court of Trincomalee. By this point it was evident that certain elements with an interest in fostering division among communities ensured that fissures and tensions remained. They provoked and sustained the dispute around Shanmuga School and the wearing of the abaya for over four years (2018 to 2022). This issue was used as a focal point for stoking tension between communities.

Women’s attire has become central to most nationalist and religious discourses. A conversation on this topic with Hindu women in Trincomalee and Batticaloa shed light on another dimension of the dress code argument within the Hindu community. Many protests related to the Shanmuga School dispute over abaya wearing teachers were organized by a pro-Hindu group called the Ravana Senai, which alleges that abaya wearing Muslim teachers were trying to convert the students to Islam. Simultaneously there were allegations against the school principal, accusing her of instigating a dispute over the Muslim teachers’ dress code by prohibiting Fathima Fahmida from wearing an abaya and relegating her to the staff room. This action prompted other Muslim teachers to wear abayas in solidarity with her.

The incident is an example of a clear violation of both gender equality and freedom of religion and expression. The Muslim teachers were simply choosing to adhere to norms within their culture by wearing a garment that holds religious significance to them. Considering the recent history of Muslim women’s dress code over the last two decades, the abaya, burka and face veil have been regarded as an integral part of community identification and faith in the context of immense Islamophobia. More recently, they have become important symbols of identity for many young Muslim women as they see their attire as a means to resist anti-Muslim rhetoric and combat the Islamophobia faced by their community.

The Hindu protesters were trying to force the Muslim teachers to conform to wearing the saree, which is the female teachers’ dress code in the school and seen to be a part of the Hindu religion and Tamil culture. This curtailed individual women’s choices and the right to freedom of expression of Muslim teachers who wished to wear the abaya. The protest, as reiterated by the HRCSL report, was an attack on the freedom of religion, which is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Constitution. Even the lawyers who might normally help diffuse the situation initially refused to do so. Both sides stuck to their narrow briefs and would not go beyond them to explore a negotiated settlement. However, with the intervention of a courageous and competent senior lawyer appearing for the Shanmuga school principal, risking his popularity and advising objectively, his client agreed to do the right thing by all communities. This approach aimed to overcome populist demands that enhanced divisions, and instead emphasised the need to prioritise overall wellbeing, peace and coexistence by proposing a balanced compromise. Although initially reluctant, the lawyers appearing for Fahmida could not reasonably oppose this approach. Furthermore both women involved, the Shanmuga school principal and the teacher Fahmida, who were weaponised in these efforts to exacerbate conflict, agreed to conclude the matter by respecting each other’s purview. This ultimately led to the case being settled on amicable terms and Fahmida was allowed wear the abaya. However, after the conclusion of the case, she too opted to get a transfer and moved to another school.

This settlement was not to the liking of forces that wanted the fires of hate to continue burning between Tamil and Muslim communities. Forces within both communities continued to decry the lawyers on both sides, accusing them of compromising and betraying their values. In effect it was a victory for both communities as it ended the dispute with peace and dignity. Handling such emotionally charged cases with equanimity, sensitivity and judiciousness contributed a great deal. The magistrate’s decision to have the proceedings recorded in detail helped in calming competing extraneous interests and avoiding misinformation. This greatly facilitated an amicable resolution.

Lingering inter-religious tensions in the East

This school incident contributed to existing tensions and discord between Tamils and Muslims in the Eastern Province, especially among men, further highlighting the need to understand the gendered aspects of religious violence. Many Muslim men took to social media to wage a vituperative battle against Tamil women’s dress code (saree) insulting the teachers at the school by labelling their dress as obscene and their religions as vulgar. These men went to the extent of deeming the Tamil teachers’ saree wearing bodies as cheap and Muslim women’s abaya wearing bodies as dignified. The sexual objectification of one teacher who was vocal and opposed to the abaya was so obscene that some women’s groups who wanted to support Muslim women had to rethink their strategy to avoid getting caught in the conflict initiated by men in the community. Unfortunately, the teacher victimised by this vitriol on Facebook could not enact any counter actions against them due to the insensitivity of police officers towards such gendered verbal assaults.

This incident reveals deep seated ethnic tensions in the Eastern Province, which could lead to further violence and social unrest. It is crucial to address these issues to promote understanding and respect for diversity, different cultures and religions. Women’s rights activists from the Eastern Province are expressing concern about communal behaviour, which they perceive as unwarranted and counterproductive. In their view, such practices only contribute to further division and mistrust between different communities, ultimately harming society as a whole. They firmly believe that promoting greater understanding and tolerance between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in times of crisis, is crucial.

Tamil and Muslim women have faced gendered challenges in post-war and post-Easter attacks Sri Lanka. Their unity and association with one another are increasingly viewed as problematic by certain political and religious groups led primarily by men. The issue of wearing the abaya by Muslim teachers at Shanmuga school is a case in point. Such incidents point to deep seated ethnic tensions and expose the lack of gendered freedom of religion and faith. It shows the underpinnings of violence in the Eastern province while underscoring the importance of promoting understanding, respect and tolerance among different communities to prevent further division and harm.

[1] Focus group discussion in Batticaloa with community mobilisers in August 2023

What’s your Reaction?

Leave a Comment

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture.
You can enter the Tamil word or English word but not both
Anti-Spam Image