Photo courtesy of Edexlive

A statement made by a teachers trade union has opened up another social debate. This is about the female teachers’ school attire. The union points out that just like in any other non-uniform government servants, female teachers should have a right to go to work in any appropriate and comfortable attire rather than limiting it strictly to a saree. I was thrilled to finally see someone bringing this to the table. Any professional attire should be decided by the type of work we do and not based on what our ancestors wore centuries ago. This has been the principle followed by all mature educational systems in the world. But we as a country have become very successful in forcing our female teachers from the kindergarten class to the university lecture theater to dress in a saree (or osaree) while giving their male counterparts a choice between the traditional versus the modern. To my understanding there was no government circular explaining this limitation. This was rather a practice enforced through tradition, not by law.

As we are so good at mixing up the culture and the tradition, with professional matters I see the same thing happening as well. Many are busy shooting the messengers rather than trying to understand the message. It has gone to such a low level as to even to verbally harass the female teachers who supported this new move by coming to school in business casual. It is interesting to notice that this criticism (or bad mouthing) is done mostly by the men, those who have the privilege to wear whatever they want to wear. It is also amusing to see the points they are bringing up to oppose the idea.

The most common argument is that the saree has been the traditional school attire for female teachers in our culture and hence it shouldn’t be changed for the sake of preserving the tradition. Some others say that the mental picture in their mind of a female teacher is always someone in a saree so teachers shouldn’t change attire or they lose the mental picture. Another comment is that when you ask a child to draw a female teacher, they always draw someone in a saree. Some even argue that children prefer to see female teachers dressed up in a saree like their mothers would. Not surprisingly, some criticism has also come from female teachers. Their main argument is that female teachers have built their personality and identity around the saree and without it they lose teacher identity outside the school. I have also seen a very few female teachers going to the length of equating this new move as a conspiracy tarnishing the image of the female teachers.

Those who think that saree is our tradition probably have no idea that it was also something that was introduced to the island just a few centuries ago like sarong as well as pants. It has become very common within the country in the recent past but the truth for those big time tradition preservers is that a majority of the people in the island did not cover their bust with any clothes centuries ago. Would you like our female teachers to report to work like those women in Sigiriya frescoes? That was a tradition too at one point in our history. If you ask a child to draw a police constable now the only reason why they would draw someone in long pants is that their attire changed from shorts to trousers some fifty years ago. The point is that the mental picture of a profession for one generation shouldn’t be the same for the generations to come. Those who bring the argument about children wanting to see their mother in their teacher, conveniently forget that there are so many mothers who do not wear sarees often by choice or due to economic reasons. The female teachers who made the argument about them getting their identity and personality through the saree should probably leave the profession. The comment itself is enough to see how much they know about being a teacher. For anyone with a little understanding of how things happen around the world, all these issues may look like nonsense. However, such comments cannot be taken lightly either as continuous negligence of them can lead to more misinformation.

Why do we see many lining up to defend the status quo of the saree at school with baseless arguments? I believe this is mostly due to the fear of change more than anything else. We, as humans, are wired to feel threatened and get into a defensive mode the minute we see signs of losing our comfort zone. Making progress in our individual lives or in a country has more to do with overcoming this fear of change. Today, as a country, we brag about having a tradition of free education. However, don’t forget the resistance Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara had to face when he proposed the free education act in 1945. According to the history books, this was the time another prominent parliamentarian (who later became a prime minister) infamously told Dr. Kannangara “We will not be able to find even a coconut plucker in the future, thanks to your stupid bill.” Education became a right rather than a privilege after this brave change.

In 1931, Sri Lanka becoming the first Asian nation to introduce universal suffrage (voting right to all adults with no gender discrimination) is another similar example. The tradition until then was to limit the voting rights to a minority crowd of literate, landowning, male adults. Although we boast about having a democratic tradition for nine decades, breaking the old tradition in 1931 was no easy task. The new move received enough criticism from the elite, who were obviously threatened by it. The point I am trying to make here is that the traditions are not something set in stone. Traditions must undergo progressive changes too. If our ancestors did not welcome positive changes into their lives we would be still living in caves and most likely naked too.

It may be true that the proposed relaxation of the attire is a relatively small step compared to many great changes required to make our educational system better and functional. But these kinds of small steps are also important as they can serve as the litmus tests to tell us if we are ready as a nation to move forward rather than being stagnant or going backward. This is also a litmus test on gender equality. Is it not strange to see that only some of us still have to ask for the government’s permission to decide on what they should wear? We are 22 years into the 21st century but some of the comments exchanged in the media on this topic tells me that a sizable fraction of the population is still mentally living in the 19th century. This also shows why our educational system is due for an overhaul. Although the country’s literacy rate has gone up thanks to free education, the average critical thinking capacity is still stuck in the past.