Teachers transferred after protests against hijab at Puwakpitiya school | Sunday Observer

Teachers transferred after protests against hijab at Puwakpitiya school

Founder President, Al Muslimaath (an organisation of Muslim Women) Dr. Mareena Thaha Reffai, has requested communities to be patient and not take shortsighted decisions that will cause ethnic unrest in the country.

Dr. Reffai was referring to last week’s incident in Puwakpitiya where a group of hijab clad teachers had to leave a school when parents objected to their attire citing security reasons.

Western Province Governor Azath Salley took steps to transfer 12 teachers in a bid to resolve the matter, but instead it created another issue. Now the school is short of teachers to teach subjects such as Mathematics, Science and English.

“The parents were on a knife-edge following the suicide attacks on Easter Sunday. When the school started last Monday (06) they didn’t want the Muslim teachers to come to school in the hijab but wear a saree instead,” said a senior official at Church of Ceylon Tamil Maha Vidyalaya in Puwakpitiya, Avissawella, who wished to remain anonymous.

The school, where the majority of students are Hindus, educates 806 students from grades 6-13. A total of 40 teachers taught at the school before the recent transfers.

The Sunday Observer learns that the parents were aggravated by a rumour that was spreading in the area claiming there were four women, believed to be involved with the terrorists, wearing hijabs and hunted by the police. However, the Avissawella police said they did not receive a complaint of this nature. A mother of two students who goes to Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, Indra Chandrakumaran, said she was afraid to send her children to school.

“We only wanted them to wear sarees. That is what all other teachers did. When they didn’t cooperate, we started to get suspicious,” Chandrakumaran said. She and nearly 20 other parents stand guard at the school premises every day since the incident.

Member of the School Development Society K. Vedamani, who has three children in the school, said a meeting was called this Monday to request the teachers to wear sarees instead of hijabs till the security situation in the country is normalised.

“It was a fair request. We are scared to send children to school if we believe there is a threat. If other teachers can wear sarees, why can’t they?” he questioned. The clash between the parents and group of teachers ignited when they came to school in hijabs the next day.

Parents were already on security duty. They checked bags and did body checks of students and teachers who entered the school. But, did not let teachers in hijabs to go in.

“They just did not want to cooperate with us. They could have settled the issue without aggravating it if they wore sarees,” the school official said.

The Avissawella police was called to the venue, but the teachers sought refuge from Governor Salley who immediately removed the teachers from the school.

“Now we don’t have enough teachers to teach our students. Ninety per cent of our students passed G.C.E Advanced Level. I don’t know what will happen this time,” the official added.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer the teachers who are now based in Colombo said they did not feel comfortable shifting into a saree in one day, and hence wore the hijabs to school.

“There was a senior teacher in the group who has worn the hijab for 20 years. She taught in that school wearing the hijab for 11 years. How can anyone who is used to a way of clothing make such a shift so suddenly?” a teacher representing the group asked, “What would a saree wearing teacher is suddenly told to wear a skirt and blouse feel? We feel that way.”

She added, “When the parents behaved that way we were humiliated. How can we go back to the same school when we don’t feel secure? We are worried about our students who are now suffering without teachers. What can we do?”

Dr. Reffai of Al Muslimaath said “Attire cannot ensure security as believed by the parents in Puwakpitiya. If one assumes a person can hide a bomb in the hijab, then how can that person not believe the same can be done wearing a saree? This clearly shows that the parents were made to believe this way by some sinister force,” she said.

Issuing a recommendation the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) last year stated “Preventing teachers from wearing the hijab while performing their duties was a violation of the Sri Lankan constitution”.

The recommendation was given after four assistant teachers of Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College in Trincomalee lodged a complaint with the HRCSL stating the school principal and management prohibited them from wearing the hijab to the school.

The government issued a statement banning face coverings, the burqa and niqab. Meanwhile, a hotline was introduced to report violent and hate incidents against Muslims following the Easter Sunday (April 21) attacks that left over 250 dead and many others injured. The Muslim community is under scrutiny by other ethnic groups as the terrorists were all of that faith. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks. 

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