“A trilingual notice freshly placed on the door to the Public Officer’s Box in Parliament stipulated the dress code for female public officers as being saree and a blouse with long-sleeves. And so, a number of female public officers who came to discharge their duties during the budget debate were barred from entering the Box and thus prevented from performing their official functions on the grounds that they were not properly dressed,” the paper said.
But this is not the first time that dress became an issue in the Sri Lankan parliament.
In 2009, a Tamil National Alliance MP from Batticaloa, Thangeswary Kathiraman, was asked to leave the House because she was in Shalwar-Kameez. She had broken a rule which said that female MPs must be in a sari. Thangeswary’s plea that she could not come in a sari because of a large surgical scar on her midriff was rejected.
Asked how the Muslim lady MP of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), A.R.Anjan Umma, was allowed to come in an Abaya and a Hijab it was said that prior permission had been obtained to enable Muslim MPs to come in their religiously prescribed dress.
Traditional Sri Lankan woman in a sarong and sleeveless blouse
Outside parliament too, some institutions have tried to impose a dress code on women. This year, St.Joseph’s College, a boys’ school in Colombo, had put up a board at the gate prescribing the acceptable dress for mothers who come to drop and pick up their children. Short skirts and revealing dresses, tights, jeans and sleeveless tops were banned on the grounds that boys would get distracted if they saw young mothers in revealing clothes. But hostile media coverage of the code resulted in the government’s barring schools from prescribing dresses for mothers and other visitors.
At the height of anti-Muslim feelings in 2014, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extremist Buddhist monks’ organization, carried out a campaign against the Abaya and Hijab, especially the Hijab which covers the entire face. Fully covered up people were seen as a “security threat”.
Since the BBS had the tacit support of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka started a scheme to exchange back Abayas and Hijabs for colorful ones so that the full covered women did not appear to be threatening. The movement died out with the exist of the Rajapaksa regime in January 2015.
Seeing the Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims adopting their own dress codes, moving away from Western modes, Sinhalese Christians, the most Westernized of Sri Lankan communities, also wanted to impose a code in tune with the emerging ideas of modesty. There were attempts to convey to congregations that women coming for service must be dressed modestly.
Not to be left behind, the Tamils too imposed a rule that women and girls attending the annual Nallur temple festival in Jaffna must follow a dress code. In 2010, the Mayor of Jaffna, Yogeswary Patkunarajah, decreed that the women should either be in a sari or an ankle length skirt with the upper part of the body fully covered. The Shalwar-Kameez ensemble was banned because “it is not a Tamil dress” as Patkunarajah said.
Sinhalese women in traditonal dress in a Buddhist temple
During Colonial times, Sri Lankan women dressed in a variety of ways. A few women were in saris, but most were in Western skirts and the Eastern sarongs. The post independence wave of Sinhala cultural nationalism in the mid 1950s popularized the “National Dress” for men, comprising a white sarong and a white full sleeved shirt with a tight collar. The idea was to combat widespread Westernization which had taken deep roots in pre-independence Sri Lanka.
And due to Indian influence, the sari was adopted as the indigenous dress of Sri Lankan women. Wearing it was made compulsory for female government servants. The men could appear in any dress, Western or national, though the ‘national dress’ became a must for politicians.
Commenting on the growing fetish for dress codes in Sri Lanka, Prof.Sasanka Perera of the South Asian University at New Delhi said: “ This sounds like a millenarian move couched in a mistaken sense of cultural puritanism. One hears about such moves in times of difficulties when some people would want to be seen as more culturally pure, politically correct, and more patriotic than others.”
“Usually, this would be justified on the basis of adhering to tradition. But the sari itself is hardly a Sri Lankan tradition. Traditionally, Sri Lankan women, barring those from the upper castes, did not cover the upper part of their bodies if we go by Colonial records. This is a historical fact.”
“Why do women wear sleeveless jackets? It is because they are more comfortable and also because they are considered fashionable. I can’t see any reason why the State has to intervene in women’s dresses in parliament unless there is some drastic informality taking place. This is hardly the kind of thing that should be at the top of the government’s list of priorities. I am also intrigued why such a restrictive dress code is not imposed on men.”