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The abaya and the tension in Sri Lanka’s east
The abaya and the tension in Sri Lanka’s east
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The abaya and the tension in Sri Lanka’s east
Meera Srinivasan
June 09, 2018 14:14 IST

After Sinhalese mobs carried out a spate of attacks targeting Muslim eateries and shops in Ampara in the Eastern province, in February, Kandy in the Central province saw violence too. A vandalised mosque in Digana, located between Kandy and Teldeniya.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

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Ground Zero
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 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.
Deriding difference
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