Prevent the growth of extremism through stronger institutions
by Nicola Perera
What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the freedom and security to identify themselves openly, to claim their identity, to be visible? Do university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community ensure freedom from discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for these people to live, work and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalization? I’m talking about the ethos of majoritarianism, set in a southern university, which is predominantly the standard of education in the country.
If I were to ask students, staff or administrators how people from ethnic and religious minorities are treated at university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups long established in university culture. Most universities and colleges will have a Tamil society, a Hindu student society, a Muslim majlis, various Christian groups, etc. Each will organize various cultural festivals, like Christmas carols, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalized within the university.
But this accommodation is superficial and symbolic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they really represent? The Faculty of Arts Student Union holds Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and nocturnal piriths at the start of the year, and invites Buddhist monks for the Poyas, such as Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the BDE is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union makes every effort: portraits of the greats of Sinhalese literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, accompanied by quotes from their works. The theater festival is a large part of the Sahithya Ulela, in which extremely popular Sinhalese plays are performed.
This is how things have always been in the academic framework of majority default and tolerance of minorities. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and care for non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political / ideological leanings, represents firmly and centrally the Sinhala-Buddhist religions. and cultural concerns instead of the diversity of the student body as a whole. Majority culture is so dominant that it is the omnipresent flaw, and all minority positions are symbolized as tolerated representations. It is a system and a space that privileges my ethnic origin, where my presence is undisputed, unnoticed and insignificant.
On the other hand, what forms of discrimination, aggression and micro-aggression do students and staff from ethnic and religious minorities face inside and outside the classroom? What could they tell us, if only we could assure them of the safety of talking openly about such things without fear of reprisal? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge prejudices, prejudices, absences? What micro-aggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt alterations do we as staff and administrators? What is the culture that we create at the university?
What about the class of Muslim students who have been told they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colorful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colors they prefer? What about the Muslim staff member who was invited to come and talk to these students, to introduce himself as a model who chose to wear colorful shalwars while covering his head? Is it relevant in any way that these requests were made by a staff member wearing the Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the portrayal of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the norm, which Sinhala staff apparently feel empowered to apply.
What about the Muslim students who were arrested at the entrance of the university after the Easter attacks? Security officers told them to wear their hijabs so that their ears were shown. Is the university capable of recognizing this harassment as harassment? Was it an officially sanctioned policy that required security guards to act this way? Or were they just allowed to perform this harassment at that time by the long established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress and presentation as normal and default, with all minority cultures marked as suspicious deviations? ? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to allow these students to agree with the common view that the university – by its policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of grounds? religious / ethnic? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of haughtiness (as I did when I produced my ID for inspection) before the power of the guards? to make remarks about their ethnicity, to control their dress – a thousand and one ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the mercy of the majority?
It is not enough that the university complacently points to symbolic student groups as proof of non-discrimination. Even the simple portrayal of diversity, to which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays in Sahithya Ulela and ensuring that the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers are also included is necessary, but far from ‘be sufficient. What we need is an active anti-discrimination fight, in word and deed, to identify those situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, corrupted and harassed. discriminated against every day, and to find ways to end these practices and prevent their recurrence, through policies, through education and through our own efforts as those who sustain and perpetuate university culture.
Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Teaching at the University of Colombo.
Kuppi is a policy and a pedagogy that takes place on the fringes of the amphitheater which simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies.