Preserving culture using a teacher’s saree

One of the most prevalent opinions held by ordinary Sri Lankan citizens at present is that for a country that boasts about a history of diverse and rich cultural and traditional values, Sri Lanka has not achieved enough, and that the country’s tendency to excessively revel in those values is one of the reasons that have kept it stagnant.

The whole debate on how much the country should allow its cultures and traditions to influence modern-day affairs is an old one.
However, with the requests of teachers’ trade unions to allow teachers to wear any comfortable and suitable attire to school due to difficulties pertaining to purchasing sarees for female teachers, and in accordance with a circular that permits public sector employees to wear a suitable attire of their choice for work, which was opposed by Buddhist monks and the education authorities on the grounds of cultural and traditional reasons which they said are associated with teachers’ usual dress code, that debate has been renewed.

Many question as to whether cultural or traditional values should be allowed to prevent teachers from choosing a different dress code when such a change is a timely need. Therefore, The Morning looked into what the general public thinks of the matter.

Looking for culture in attire?

The majority of those who spoke with The Morning expressed great displeasure and criticism about the ongoing discourse on the attire of teachers, and even students, being based on cultural values or identities, rather than on the necessity of timely education sector-based reforms. They noted that not only is Sri Lanka assigning an unnecessary degree of importance to culture and traditions, but that it is also confused as to what its true cultural identities or values are.

“Minister of Education Dr. Susil Premajayantha, who wears Western clothes quite often, says that he will not allow anyone to change the female teachers’ attire, the saree, which came from India,” 32-year-old entrepreneur, V.A. Manik said, emphasising that Sri Lanka is clearly confused as to what its cultural identities and values are, and that it is absurd that the education authorities are forcing female teachers to stick to an attire that is not even Sri Lankan, while continuing to require male teachers to wear Western clothes, the shirt and trousers.

“How do the education authorities justify this inequality? And, if we are so concerned about cultural or traditional attire, why do they not ask male teachers to wear a sarong to school?” she questioned.

Some further questioned the rationale behind imposing strict policies to uphold cultural and traditional values in schools. According to them, Sri Lanka should be prudent enough to discern different values that schools and religious places should uphold.

In this regard, 44-year-old cab driver Kamal Priyamantha said: “We have various formal and informal institutions including religious places to uphold cultural and traditional practices or values. Although schools too can talk about culture and traditions, especially as a subject, that is not the primary purpose of a school.

“School policies should be based on what is best for students, teachers, education, and the overall education sector, and not on what cultural or traditional values that politicians or religious leaders think Sri Lanka as a country should continue. What teachers wear should be based entirely on what is best for the school and the teachers.”

He opined that forcing a person to wear a certain attire due to cultural reasons that they may or may not believe in, and not due to professional reasons, is unfair.

Priyamantha further spoke about seeking to uphold cultural or traditional values through the attire, which he said is unacceptable: “We have a proud history from which we do not seem to have learnt. If those who are immersed in protecting cultural and traditional values look at the history that they brag about, they could learn two lessons.

“The most important one is, culture changes, and it is inevitable. The culture and traditions we see today and are trying to protect came into existence just a few centuries ago and have been evolving since. We are merely trying to protect the current version of this culture. The second lesson is that it is not attires or rituals, but people’s attitudes, knowledge, understanding, and the practical use of culture and traditions that uphold them.”

Attempting to force people to protect culture and traditions that are of little use in day-to-day life, he said, only distances the people and culture or traditions.

Deciding on the attire of teachers’ and students

In response to The Morning’s question as to whether the attire of school teachers (both male and female) should be changed, and if yes, what factors should be taken into account in that process, many said that not only the attire of school teachers but those of students too should be changed.

According to 49-year-old public sector employee Piyal Perera (name changed on request), as far as the attire, classroom-based academic activities, and updating teaching methods are concerned, Sri Lanka’s education sector has remained stagnant for decades, and the need to change them in accordance with new developments in the education sector has been stressed for a long time. He added that the prevailing economic situation has merely raised an opportunity for such reforms.

Pointing out that before the colonisers introduced such education systems, Sri Lanka had a more relaxed system in place that was closer to nature and the practical uses of education, he added: “The attire of not only teachers but also of students should change, and they should have been changed some time ago. Many Western countries that had a classroom based education system, which includes a uniform for students and a specific attire for teachers, changed that system later. They realised that what helps children to study and teachers to teach is a relaxed system, not one with restrictions.”

Perera added that as teachers’ trade unions have requested, Sri Lanka should allow teachers and also students to wear clothes that are comfortable and are suitable for a school setting. Adding that it can not only help teachers that may have difficulties in purchasing sarees due to economic hardships, but can also help students to feel more relaxed in schools, he opined that it would also increase students’ performance in school.

Speaking of the same, Priyamantha said that before jumping into conclusions as to whether or not to allow teachers to wear comfortable and suitable attire, Sri Lanka should take into consideration the potential advantages and disadvantages of such a step.

“Both Buddhist monks and the Education Minister keep saying that there is a cultural or traditional value in female teachers wearing sarees. They should first explain what this cultural or traditional value is. In addition, if they are intelligent enough to discuss the practical importance of attire, they could also explain how a female teacher wearing sarees could benefit educational activities, or the students in a way another form of suitable attire could not. We can move forward as a nation only with such a logical analysis that actually makes sense, not unexplained cultural values that have no relevance to the education sector.”

He further said that the influence of religions or culture on sectors that are not directly related to such should stop in a context where it is science, innovation, and logical thinking that determines the future of a nation.

Unchanging cultures vs. changing lives

In addition to Priyamantha, several persons pointed out the importance of culture changing to match people’s modern-day needs.

Perera added: “This is a never-ending discussion. Even when I was young, there were various groups that wanted to protect culture and traditions at all costs. They did not care about the need for culture to change so that people can adjust to economic and social developments. There were also groups that sought to change culture and traditions, sometimes in an extremist manner.

“The most important fact is, regardless of who and how many wanted to protect or change culture, they changed. Culture and traditions that we see today are not what was there in society around three to four decades ago.”

He said that in a context where cultural values inevitably change, it is best to change them in a way that benefits the people. The failure to guide this change in such a manner, he warned, would result in changes that are detrimental to the people.

Meanwhile, 62-year-old retired public sector employee Ananda Silva (name changed on request), said that for the Government to develop the country, it is essential that the Government, the education authorities, and influential figures help the country do away with cultural and traditional beliefs that impede the country’s development process.

He said: “It has been happening for a very long time. In my lifetime, I have seen so many progressive plans being disregarded due to cultural or traditional concerns. The saddest part of it is that, it is not those who wanted to protect culture and traditions at the expense of the country’s development, but ordinary people that suffer due to those decisions. We should stop mixing up religions and culture with development.

“Look at Thailand, for example. Thailand is a Buddhist country like Sri Lanka. But, since that country’s leaders are not narrow-minded to ignore national needs and innovation to protect its culture, they have embraced many so-called Western businesses. Today, it is one of the leading tourist destinations and is a proud Buddhist country.”

Silva added that in a context where the education authorities keep hesitating to take a simple decision to introduce a more affordable and comfortable alternative dress code for teachers, there is a huge doubt about their ability to take more serious decisions for the education sector.

Overall, those who spoke with The Morning expressed support for the idea of changing the teachers’ dress code, adding that the teachers’ well-being and comfort should be taken seriously by the education authorities.