Four Muslim teachers from a Hindu majority Government School in Trincomalee suddenly realised one day that their Islamic religiosity appeared devalued because of the saree they were wearing and therefore decided to revalue their piety by switching to the black coloured abaya, which is a recently adopted Arab cultural dress and spreading no doubt in many parts of the Muslim world.
That there is a correlation between the spread of this dress and a religious ideology that supports it is never in doubt. However, the school authorities, forgetting the fact that theirs is a government school, reacted by reminding those teachers that they were breaking the traditional norms of the school and insisted that either they switch back to the saree or leave the school.
Had that school been a private institution, its authorities would have been on a stronger wicket. This incident, as expected, got mixed up with the relevant ideology and led to public protest from sections of the Muslim community. In the end, the teachers took their case before the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and won a decision in their favour. Congratulations!
This victory over a piece of dress raises a number of other issues that will continue to fester interreligious and inter communal-relations in plural Sri Lanka, although HRCSL urges the Government and its educational establishment to encourage tolerance of cultural and religious diversity.
On the question of a dress, the basic or primary criterion that should decide its acceptability or suitability is the climatic condition in which that dress is worn. Sri Lankan is a hot and humid country in which the dress one wears should be loose enough to allow air to penetrate and cool the body while adhering to the cultural values and norms of the society in which the wearer lives.
There is a difference of opinion about whether black or lighter colour dress suits hot and humid climate. However, it appears that ‘floaty, breezy, delicate fabrics of the lighter colours allow all the solar heat fighting its way to our skin to just reflect away instead’.
Even if black is acceptable, the tightly-fitted head cover of abaya will be extremely uncomfortable on humid days. The sweat it produces is bound to create health problems. The saree instead avoids these discomforts. This is why it became indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. Let the scientists and medical experts and not All Ceylon Jamiyyatul Ulema (ACJU) have the final word on this.
The second issue is the relative religiosity of abaya. This assumed Islamicity automatically downgrades saree wearers as less Islamic. This means millions of Sri Lankan Muslim women, both alive and dead, are and were condemned as imperfect Muslims, if not non-Muslims. This is the absurdity of the conclusion to which the Islamicity argument drives one.
Thirdly, even if one goes along with the Islamicity criteria there are two other conditions that need to be justified according to Islamic jurisprudence. One is ‘dharurat’ or necessity, and the other is ‘maslahaor’ welfare. Is abaya a necessary attire for a woman to be a pious Muslim? A corollary to that question is, does cloth make a Muslim?
To answer these questions in the affirmative would devalue the entire faith of Islam. The second condition is more important than the first, especially in a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society like Sri Lanka. Does abaya enhances or disturbs public welfare? Welfare in this context would mean public peace, cultural acceptability and national integration.
In short, shouldn’t the promoters of this attire and the teachers who took their case before HRCSL also care for a verdict from the court of public opinion? This court is more important than the court of HRCSL. In deriving the rules of ‘fiqh’ in Islam ‘ijma’ or public opinion is one of the sources.
Does this ijma include only Muslim opinion or even non-Muslim opinion in a society where Muslims live as a minority? Any dress that appears confronting in the eyes of the majority will make the wearers increasingly isolated.
Above all, there is an element of hypocrisy in the fight for abaya in terms of human rights. It can cut both ways. If it is a human right to wear that dress then it is equally a human right if a Muslim girl wants to get out of it and wear something different. This freedom is denied in several Arab countries.
In Sri Lanka, the democratic ethos that prevails in this country has allowed those teachers to fight for and win their human right. Will these heroes and heroines be brave enough and dedicated enough to fight for human rights demonstrate in front of the embassies of such countries in Colombo demanding those rights be extended to their sisters in the Middle East?