Trincomalee Abaya controversy: I’m disappointed with Sampanthan. Here’s why

Unless you were under a rock all these days, you might have heard about a controversy in Trincomalee regarding Muslim female teachers trying to wear the abaya.

TL;DR: Apparently, three Muslim teachers, who were wearing saree before, tried to wear abaya at Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College. It’s reportedly after a new teacher came to the school wearing abaya and was allowed to wear it for few days because she needed few days to make changes in her attire. It’s also said that the husbands of those three teachers “threatened” the principal. After this event, few Tamil racists conducted a protest in front of the school with some pretty racist stuff.

Now, after all these, Minister Rishad Bathiudeen wrote to the Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan regarding this. The news about the letter was published on Saturday (28), and despite not getting the letter, OL R. Sampanthan replied him on the same day.

While I’ve been criticizing the TNA for a long time, in the recent times, I’ve started to support them, mainly because I don’t want the group headed by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam to represent the Tamils. I believe Gajen and his allies represent a toxic nationality that will ultimately harm the Tamils and all Sri Lankans.

I recently tweeted how I started to like OL Sam. He was calculated as well as firm in his response to the violence against Muslims in Kandy and Amparai. This is what I tweeted:

So, coming back the story, OL Sam’s reply was really disappointing. I’m going to highlight some of the parts that I found to be discouraging.

He mentions how Shanmuga Hindu Ladies was founded by a Hindu woman exclusively for Hindus. He then claims that despite being taken over by the government, the school, much like other schools, the school’s name, culture, an educational method wasn’t changed.

Here’s why it’s wrong and a bad argument.

I studied at Jaffna Central College until the first year of my Advanced Level. My school was founded in 1816 by British Methodist missionaries. It was founded as Jaffna Wesleyan English School. It went through a couple of name changes before becoming Jaffna Central College.

Jaffna Central College is not a fancy school. It doesn’t produce Einsteins. We used to be better than now, but we never produced ton load of intellectuals. We, in our circles, say that Jaffna Central doesn’t produce intellectuals, rather it produces personalities.

The reason why I mention that is that my thinking pattern is reasonably affected (in a positive way) by my time in JCC. It must be 2003/04, after the 2002 peace agreement, we had Muslims coming back to Jaffna. We had about 3 Muslim students. All were in the primary school. We used to have morning prayers every day, through the speaker system we had installed in our school. We used to have Hindu thevarams, and then Catholic and non-Catholic prayers. But when these 3 tiny children joined our school, we had Islamic prayers for those 3 children. I mean, think of it: They were 3 of them, one of them would be saying the prayers, so only 2 of them would be listening to that prayer from their class.

Even though I started to have agnostic views by them, I was still a Hindu. As a Hindu, I didn’t give a damn about other religious prayers. It shaped our thoughts. I still remember those children saying “bismillahir rahmanir rahim”. I still sing “Anbana yesu ennai thottare…” now. I didn’t lose anything, but I learnt the big lesson of co-existence in my school.

That’s how inclusive my school was. And remember, it was founded by Missionaries. We didn’t lose anything by offering few minutes of our time for just 3 children. I remember one of those students was a hijab (I think it was hijab) wearing girl. What did we lose, Mr Sampanthan?

In his letter, he mentions that the husbands of those teachers threatened the principal. But, he doesn’t mention that there was pretty racist stuff in the protest organized by the parents and others against these so-called threats. It’s only fair that he mentions both parties, isn’t it?

Another disappointing aspect is that he mentions all the issues. He appears like listening to the problems of the Muslims. He even says, “it’s unavoidable that the cultural dresses of ethnicities change”. But in the end, he says “hence I wish that the relevant ministry, department of education, the school society, the parents, the old girls all get together and speak in an amicable manner and, [to decide] respecting the norms of the schools. Whichever the ethnicity it may be, but refrain from introducing new dress culture, and continue as it is already”. He basically says, “the school shouldn’t accept the abaya”, but take long-route and sound inclusive and all. Why?

I have pretty negative views about abaya. I think women shouldn’t be forced to wear it. I don’t respect the politics behind abaya. But, despite all that, I believe that the right to wear abaya should be respected. That’s why I’ve been vocal on this issue. In my weekly column on TamilMirror, I wrote about this. I mentioned there about the recent assault in Iran for not covering her head fully. I mentioned that the women in many countries are being killed by their father or brothers for not wearing the hijab. But, despite all that, I think it’s pretty stupid to regularize what women wear. I think the change should be from within the Muslim society.

It’s also interesting that TNA’s spokesperson MA Sumanthiran shared a post on Facebook that criticized the racism in that protest and supporting the right to wear the abaya. So, TNA doesn’t have a unified response on this issue?

Gopikrishna Kanagalingam

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