COLOMBO: Eleven Muslim teachers hounded from a Christian school in Sri Lanka for wearing hijabs have been redeployed.
The country’s Western Province Gov. Azath Salley was forced to intervene in the row after the women were barred on Tuesday from entering the Puwakpitiya Tamil Maha Vidyalaya school, located about 30 km from the capital Colombo.
Parent members of the school’s development society along with former students blocked the teachers’ entry to the premises, telling them they would only be allowed back in if they were dressed in saris.
The group’s action came in response to the devastating Easter Sunday bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka, which left 268 people dead and hundreds injured. Daesh has since claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Following the blasts, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena imposed a ban on the wearing of niqabs to allow security officials to more easily identify people, but no restrictions were placed on the abaya (a robe-like dress) or hijab.
Speaking on behalf of the banned teachers, Fathima Shafeena told Arab News that she had worked at the school for more than six years and felt humiliated over her treatment. She said: “Hijab is my traditional Islamic attire and they cannot ask me to replace it with the sari,” adding that the move was a violation of their human rights.
Fathima Afrah, another teacher, said she and her fellow Muslim tutors were chased off the premises in full view of schoolchildren and other teaching colleagues, and she could never return there out of sheer embarrassment. “Although it was a non-Muslim school, I did not show any discrimination while I was teaching in the classrooms,” she added.
Salley summoned senior provincial education officials to an urgent meeting with the teachers on Tuesday afternoon, which resulted in them being transferred to other schools in the province.
Puwakpitiya Tamil Maha Vidyalaya principal, P. Manoharan, told Arab News that the school had 800 children and 41 teachers, and about 35 percent of the students were Christians. He said that he had no prior knowledge of the protest action.
Salley told Arab News that appropriate measures would be taken against those involved in what he described as an “unfortunate incident.”
“The teachers’ dresses were proper and in accordance with government regulations. The government has banned only the niqab face cover,” the governor said. He pointed out that the abaya and hijab were well within the accepted norms.
In a landmark ruling in April last year, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) recommended that “preventing teachers from wearing the abaya while performing their duties” was a violation of the Sri Lankan constitution.
The HRCSL stated that national schools were bound by the constitution and could not violate the absolute right to religious freedom. It reiterated the need for respect for diversity and pluralism in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.