The only difference was that I was not dressed in a saree that day, and I certainly felt happy. What we wear is not important for these kids. It is our relationship with them that matters
I think these young teachers need to be aware of our customs and our identity
In a much-anticipated move, the Cabinet yesterday approved to revoke the 2019 and 2022 circulars on the official attire of staff grade officers in the State sector, which permitted females to be attired in any appropriate clothing in addition to the customary saree and ‘osari’. This was after dozens of female teachers in the State school system defied a long-standing tradition of donning the saree, the customary garment worn by female Government employees in Sri Lanka.
Instead of the traditional six yards of fabric, they chose to be attired in tunics, pants and dresses, what they termed ‘relaxed’ clothing.
A small but significant campaign demanding work-friendly attire for teachers emerged when a circular dated September 27, 2022, was issued by the Ministry of Public Administration. The circular addressing the attire of public officials, made way for female employees in the state sector to abandon the saree, a need many felt due to the ever-increasing economic constraints.
The Ceylon Teachers Union in a letter to the Ministry of Education requested that teachers too be permitted to follow this change in work attire. In response, however, the Minister of Education Susil Premajayantha expressed strong opposition to this suggestion, stating that there will be no change whatsoever to the present dress code of teachers.
“Our culture has not been changed based on the concepts of other countries and the West,” he said.
“The Maha Sangha, Hindu, Muslim religious leaders, elders, and academics, after seeing a story published in a newspaper, requested me personally to not make any changes to the cultural identity,” he said addressing a public event.
Opposition from Maha Sangha
The Minister was not alone in expressing such strong opposition. Among the first groups to respond to this request were several prominent Buddhist monks who voiced their strong opposition.
“I don’t think that the people who prepare these circulars understand the consensus of the people. If there is a uniform, it can be worn even every day. It is the knowledge and the behaviour that makes a teacher. Perhaps, there should be a uniform for all in education, including university students” Dodampahala Rahula Thera, an Advisor to the Ministry of Education speaking to media opined.
The issue soon took over social media by storm, with members of the public as well as the teaching community deeply divided over the matter. Some teachers felt that despite the economic constraints, the attire should remain the same due to the fact that it is a considerable factor in commanding the respect of students. Others felt that the saree has long been hampering the freedom with which teachers are allowed to operate in a classroom setting.
Last week, when school teachers posted pictures on social media, clad in outfits other than the saree, many including parents – were critical of the move.
“It is sad that these teachers aren’t realizing what they are doing. Seeing a teacher clad in a saree was a big part of our childhood and school experience. We had reverence for our teachers. This school culture should not change. What’s to stop these teachers from wearing whatever they want next? How will our children respect teachers?” one parent who wished to remain anonymous said.
No legal barrier for teachers to wear relaxed attire
The only guideline on the attire for teachers according to Section 5.1.b of Circular 2012/3 on “Code of Ethics and General Rules on the Ethical Conduct of Teachers” requires teachers to “Dress in culturally appropriate, clean, smart, and well-tailored clothing, maintaining decency and modesty, at all times.” The circular does not refer to a mandatory dress code involving the saree or the Sri Lankan ‘osari’.
“There is no legal barrier which prevents teachers from wearing relaxed attire to school,” General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) Joseph Stalin speaking to the Daily Mirror said. It is not written anywhere that teachers should report to work dressed in saree. There is no dress code for teachers.”
“At the same time, we are not carrying out a campaign against the saree. If a majority of the cadre prefers wearing a saree to school, that is not a problem. But this dress code should not be restrictive. All we ask is that teachers be allowed the freedom to choose,” Stalin said.
Asked about the ministry’s response, Stalin said that some individuals have long held traditional beliefs and ideals, who are of the view that all teachers must be attired in saree or osari.
Following a discussion with the Ministry of Education, Stalin said that if arbitrary and unsystematic changes are made, the CTU will consider legal action.
“The Education Ministry has not changed the circulars till now. But if the Ministry of Public Administration makes any changes to the circulars, it will also apply to teachers. If these changes infringe teachers’ rights, they will definitely have to go to court,” he said.
“If the teachers are forced to wear sarees, the Government should then provide a uniform allowance. I believe it is best that the Government look into the more pertinent needs, such as the needs of our children, rather than focusing on the saree,” Stalin added.
Fashion vs. convenience
Last week, students who were accustomed to seeing their teacher clad in the traditional saree were greeted with the sight of their young teacher in different attire. “When I walked into school, these kids told me that I look beautiful in my casual attire. But this was not an exceptional comment,” Sandunika Rathnayaka, a teacher at a state school said.
“They greet me this way every day. These kids tell me that I look beautiful every morning. The only difference was that I was not dressed in a saree that day, and I certainly felt happy. What we wear is not important for the kids. It is our relationship with them that matters,” she said.
Asked how her fellow staff members at school reacted, Sandunika said that her colleagues were supportive.
“The Principal of my school is very progressive. She commented that I look good in casual attire. My colleagues too are great. Some of them didn’t necessarily agree with me, but they commended me for taking a bold step for what I believe in,” Sandunika said.
“We are not trying to do away with the saree for all teachers. Just as some would find the saree comfortable, for some of us, draping the saree every morning is just torture and prevents us from being effective at our job. All we ask is that we are given the freedom to do our jobs better. We are certainly not attempting to walk the ramp or come to school clad in bikinis, as some had suggested on social media,” Sandunika, who is a member of the CTU stressed.
However, a more senior member who had been a teacher in the State school system for almost two decades had a different opinion.
“I don’t think it is right to change the attire from saree just because it is not convenient. We have been wearing the saree and performing our duties very well in the classroom and outside too. I think these young teachers need to be aware of our customs and our identity,” Swarna Hewamanna, a teacher from Kandy said.
Study finds 15% of teacher's salary spent on sarees
15 per cent of a teacher’s salary is spent on purchasing sarees and related garments to conform with the Education Ministry’s dress code, a study found.
The study conducted by Lasni Buddhibhashika Jayasooriya, a doctoral candidate of Kyushu University, Japan found that teachers in Sri Lanka spent a considerable portion of their salaries on their attire alone.
“Teachers spend quite a lot of money on sarees. In our research we found that 15% of a teacher’s salary is spent on saree related costs. You see, saree is not just the six yard fabric, there is the saree jacket, the lining fabric, tailor fees, underskirts and shoes which suit the saree,” Jayasooriya explained. The research examined how clothing of Sri Lankan female school teachers affects job performance, using a representative sample selected among school teachers from Western and Central provinces.
The researchers studied how much time is taken just for the preparation of this attire, time which they believe could be used to prepare for the lesson. Washing, ironing and draping takes a considerable amount of time when it comes to the saree, the researchers found.
But these are not the only aspects the researchers studied. “Ergonomic factors are also something we looked at. We looked at how convenient it is to move your hands, legs and walk around,” she said.
“Our argument was that a teacher’s role is a dynamic one. Teachers are supposed to move frequently while they engage with the students; they are supposed to be really active. But we found that the saree can be really restrictive. Teachers who teach subjects like physical education are especially challenged.”
The study conducted between 2018 to 2020 was supervised by Prof. Padmasiri Wanigasundara of Peradeniya University and Prof. Saliya de Silva of Saga University, Japan. “We interviewed 15 teachers and we collected data from 100 teachers using self- administrative questionnaires for this study. Not only did we find that the saree was restrictive, but we also looked at certain vulnerabilities the saree caused. We found that 30% of teachers in our sample had faced accidents due to the saree. Incidents like tripping over their own saree, the fall of the saree being entangled, especially when using public transport like the train, these were common events,” they found.
The researchers also noted of how the accepted dress code for teachers in Sri Lanka were discriminatory against females. “The irony here is that men are given the freedom to wear western attire to school. The saree was introduced to Sri Lanka around the time a nationalist movement was born around the time of independence. It’s technically not even our own dress. So, why are women the ones to safeguard Sri Lankan culture with the saree?” Lasni questioned.