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Teachers’ Dress Code and the Rest of the Iceberg

Reading Time: 4 min

The talk of the town in Sri Lanka these days seems to be about the dress code of teachers. There are two camps. One believes a teacher should have the freedom to choose between the saree and more comfortable attire and another that argues teachers shouldn’t be given that choice on grounds of modesty, tradition, and culture. Wasantha Handapangoda the president of the so-called Sri Lanka Podujana Education Services Union belongs to the latter. In addition to condemning the request by the Ceylon Teachers’ Union at a media briefing held on November 7th, 2022, she called the furore a foolish argument compared to all the other problems in the country. Interestingly this issue that Handapangoda wants us to think is a foolish argument, is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg unveils three grave reformations Sri Lanka needs ever since independence.

Separation of Religion and State

The separation of religion and state is key for preventing domination of the majority religious group in any nation that aspires to move forward and Sri Lanka is not an exception. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist priests have a vast degree of influence on the voters because the population is predominantly Buddhist. Owing to this atmosphere politicians who wish to secure their votes in elections don’t dare make moves against the wishes of influential priests because such moves mean political suicide.

This religiopolitical climate has given Buddhist Priests the freedom to interfere in any decision-making process as they wish. This awful reality manifested itself when the distribution of “හතේ අපේ පොත” (“hathe ape potha” – an educational publication on sexual and reproductive health) was stopped after a group of priests who claimed the publication is culturally insensitive demanded its withdrawal. Now, Thiniyawala Palitha, Wathurawila Siri Sujatha, and Kumburugamuwe Vajira want to decide what the teachers can and cannot wear.

Staying relevant is key for a nation aspiring to become a “Developed Country”. In the eyes of these Buddhist priests, however, the relevance of time doesn’t seem to be the way forward, but culture is and the minister of education has agreed to comply with their ridiculous demands. Hence this isn’t a silly argument like Wasantha Handapangoda would like us to believe. It shows some of the religious leaders would do anything to reverse our progress as a nation with which they will succeed unless the state and religion are separated.

Statesmen instead of Politicians

In the meantime, the University of Peradeniya, U.G.L.B. Jayasooriya, W.A.D.P. Wanigasundera, and Saliya De Silva, Saga National University, Japan, conducted research on the “Effect of Dress Code of Sri Lankan Female School Teachers on their Job Performance” which found that teachers preferred casual attire over the sari. The sari, which requires time and effort to drape, is generally uncomfortable for teachers. For the study, a representative sample of schoolteachers from the Western and Central Provinces was chosen.

According to the poll, most respondents chose to wear casual attire (54%). When doing the four tasks (cleaning, ironing, dressing, and strolling after dressing), Wilcoxon Signed Rank Test revealed a significant difference in felt comfort, and participants “preferred informal wear over conventional attire.” 30% of the respondents experienced accidents as a result of their current attire. They argued that wearing informal clothing would make teaching and participating in extracurricular activities more effective.

Wasantha Handapangoda and Susil Premajayantha the minister of education however don’t seem to agree with the facts discovered through the said research. Simply because they don’t want to move against the wishes of the Buddhist monks. After all, they are politicians who will say or do anything to get elected or stay in power. On the other hand, a statesman is someone who does everything for the common good of the people he or she represents. Handapangoda and Premajayantha both show Sri Lanka needs statesmen, not politicians.

Responsible & discerning Citizens

Roar Media in an article published on November 25th, 2022, stated in one rural school parents staged a protest against the teachers’ choice of not wearing a saree to school. In another, teachers were harassed — as a ‘proactive measure’, the teachers alleged — by zonal education ministry officials after they wore casual clothes and posted photos on social media. One teacher was threatened by her principal; she recorded it on her phone, only to have the phone confiscated and the footage forcibly deleted [Full Article].

All of the incidents mentioned above occurred because some teachers chose to wear what they wanted, instead of adhering to an outdated dress code. In social media also teachers were criticized for their choice of not wearing the saree to school. In the meantime, news media has been drawing attention to several challenges and crises faced by school children in Sri Lanka. In addition to the drug menace taking over our schools, there are many economic challenges affecting the school children.

It is reported in poverty-stricken areas girls don’t go to schools during menstruation because they cannot afford sanitary napkins. School children are suffering from malnutrition. The prices of schoolbooks and stationery items are skyrocketing. The government is creating an issue out of the teachers’ attire to distract people from such real problems affecting the school children. Unfortunately, some parents in rural areas have bought it. Hence the reason why responsible and discerning citizens are another grave transformation our nation needs.

Wrap Up

As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, this issue surrounding the teachers’ dress code is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg shows a simple request by the Ceylon Teachers’ Union has been religionized, politicized, and weaponized by those who wish to twist the situation to their advantage. After all weaponizing nationalism, pseudo-patriotism, racism and culturalism have served our politicians well ever since the independence (Ex: The Sinhala only Act implemented by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike). The public always swallowed the bait. While it’s not clear how is it going to serve our politicians in the long run, it’s obvious that the Politicians and a handful of influential Buddhist monks are leveraging the situation to distract the public from the pressing issues in the education sector in need of attention. Unfortunately, history repeats itself and the public has swallowed the bait once again.

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