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Buddhist education of women: A feminine perspective

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 This is the second part of excerpts from the Marie Musaeus Higgins and Peter de Abrew Memorial Lecture delivered by Maithree Wickramasinghe. The first part appeared last week.


In complete contrast to the situation at the turn of the 19th century, today, the landscape of education shows a surge of girls and women in both secondary and higher education (I am moving away from the topic of women’s Buddhist education for a moment).
Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2011, of the country’s total student population of 3,973,847 at school level, 50.5% were girls and 49.5% were boys.


Each year, there are more boys enrolling into primary schools than girls; but there are more girls in Advanced Level classes. This indicates that boys drop out mid-stream during their education. There were 62,607 men teachers and 157,279 women teachers confirming that teaching is indeed a female-dominated service.

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In sharp contrast, the university statistics for 2011 (given by the University Grants Commission) discloses that there were virtually 60% women undergraduates enrolling into the universities as opposed to 40% men undergraduates — indicating a clear feminisation of higher education — at least in terms of undergraduate numbers.


Moreover if we were to break that down to look at the gender proliferation within disciplines — women undergraduates are a majority in all streams; except engineering, architecture, quantity surveying, computer and the sciences — the most significant gender gap being in engineering.


On the other hand, when it comes to university teaching staff there are more men than women in all levels of academia with the sharpest gender differences between women and men being at the professorial level. For examples, of 512 professors in the island only 129 are women.


These statistics communicate significant increases in the numbers of girls’ participation in secondary and tertiary education; in fact, there have been more girls in education than boys for a number of years. There are no available gender disaggregated statistics of teachers in relation to their educational qualifications and positions.


Within universities, not only are women lecturers lesser in number than men lecturers; but many women lecturers have yet to reach the topmost rungs on equal terms with men.

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When correlating education with employment in a wider sense, although women have been in the workforce for decades (both formally and informally), there are distinctive gender inequalities in the labour market. Given the relative invisibility of women in the informal sector, the labour force participation rate of women is significantly lower than that of men. For instance, in the fourth quarter of 2012, the labour force participation rate of men was 67.9% while the rate of women’s participation was 31.3%.


Male participation in the labour force has been approximately twice as that of females for the last four decades (the gender disparity being particularly broad among youth and those with secondary education).

No doubt it has been reiterated over and over that in Sri Lanka’s three leading foreign exchange earning sectors (garments, foreign remittances and tea), women constitute the bulk of the work force, thereby making a valuable contribution to the GDP, balance of payments and overall economic development.

What we should note in addition is that they are employed only at the lower end of the employment ladder -­ as assembly line operators, in overseas domestic service, and as plantation workers.

Thus while women may have access to education, their participation in the labour force, in comparison to men, is half that of men’s.
Furthermore, they do not occupy the higher echelons of work institutions. Except for a minority of much publicized exceptions in high places, our often­cited woman prime minister and president in politics, a handful in public administration (including a woman Chief Justice and Attorney General) and a few CEOs in the private sector, women as a sex/gender have not breached the glass ceilings at workplaces.

As such the link between education and the employment of women remains highly problematic. Suffice to state then that despite over a century of women’s education the dividends expected for women as a sex/gender have not materialized. While there is no harm in education being an end in itself – as opposed to the means to an end – can young women afford to be self-indulgent? Or do they remain officially uncounted because they are in the informal sector or in domestic work? How do their educational levels compare with their income levels? The lack of a means of income generally signifies economic dependency, which as we know, can act as a barrier to women’s independence and empowerment.

Extracurricular Activities

In this scenario, let us now consider the quality of education today. What concerns me, in particular, is not necessarily the curricular of formal education (which is, in today’s context, governed by both local market needs as well as the commercialisation of education worldwide amongst other factors), but extracurricular education and value-based education. When it comes to extra curricular activities, I believe that Musaeus is in the lead.

While I was researching for this speech, I happened to surf the website of Musaeus College – I was vastly impressed by the scope and spectrum of academic disciplines, fields, programs, services, sports, hobbies and activities that current students can access – aside from the regular curricular.

For those of you, who are, perhaps like me, unfamiliar with current school activities, I have listed some of them. They include an Astronomy Society, a Commerce and Bank Society, a Creative Writers’ Club, a Diabetic Task Force, a Drug Preventing Society, an Environment Society, a Young Inventors’ Club, an English Debating Circle, an ICT Society, a Music & Drama Society, a Media Unit, a Mathematics Society, a Photography Club, an Orchestra, a Scrabble Club, a Social Worker’s Club, a St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, a United Nations Club, a Welfare Society, a Young Entrepreneurs’ Club as well as Squash, Chess, Rowing, Table Tennis and Wushu.
This is in stark contrast to what was available to us thirty years ago.

Value-based Education

While it is apparent that these girls do benefit from a highly versatile all-rounded educationbeyond the textbook, my question remains -do they also gain a value-based education based on ethical principles? What about core understandings of sincerity and faithfulness; care and compassion; honesty and integrity; gratitude and generosity? Do today’s young women try to understand, respect and include those who are different from them – whether it is a case of sex/gender, language, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability or whatever? What about the capacity to be free from egoism or the strength to admit responsibility for one’s actions? Are our young women able to display equanimity in joy and suffering, in honour and dishonour, and in success and failure? Are they taught to be open to all forms of knowledge; are they able to achieve a degree of balance and independence of thought? And most importantly, are they able to express these values through thought, feeling and action? Or are these young women (and perhaps their parents) hopelessly entangled in an educational system- where the parents themselves seem to be going to school; avidly pursuing the ‘best’ – the ‘best of schools’ the ‘best of teachers’, the best of classes; aiming to win at all costs, constantly looking to score marks; trudging to innumerable tuition classes, collecting dozens of certificates and perhaps even using their children’s achievements for social prestige?

Recently I watched a Japanese documentary, which showed how teachers and pre-teen students after having watched a movie (about a man who had done a great disservice to another man) were deliberating on the need to articulate the word ‘sorry’. These children were discussing when and why and actually how to say sorry: the effect of saying sorry with emotion and without, as well as the politics of saying sorry.

They were discussing what we usually understand to be an expression of politeness from the perspective of ethics, religion, etiquette, public relations, politics, and psychology and so on as part of their formal education. In contrast, I have been told that one of the first principles that you learn in a particular media class in Sri Lanka is not to ever say that one is sorry (though I must confess that I am not too sure about the veracity of this statement).

In universities, we are concerned with the wider social implications of primary / secondary education that is based on the current objectives of single-minded achievement, the ethic of winning, and consumerism. How do such values impact on law and order? On ethnic and religious relations? On those who are weak and poor? On gender equity/equality? One of the initiatives that I am involved with is the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Kelaniya. Our goal is to promote gender equity and equality in Sri Lankan universities and society. This involves, integrating gender issues and women’s specific concerns into university curricular as well as gender­perspectives into academic courses.

Yet, our work does not stop at education. It encompasses changes to policy and practice as well. We are also advocating that equal numbers of competent women be appointed to University Councils and the management of universities; the institution of mechanisms within higher educational institutions to support and offer redress to those affected by ragging, sexual harassment, and sexual and gender-based violence; the recognition of the importance of a healthy work/life balance given that women’s multiple roles as well as rigid employment conditions are seen as possible reasons for the stagnation of women in lower employment ranks; and the development of gender-sensitive infrastructure and facilities such as crèches, areas for breast-feeding, and dry toilets in accessible places.

I am not raising the issue of toilets for humorous effect – but if women’s toilets do not match the increase in numbers; or if they are located in close proximity to male dominated areas such as security offices or monksrest areas then it poses problems for the women who use these toilets – given inequitable gender ideologies and cultural values.

In this sense we are attempting to operationalize value-­?based education relating to gender equity / equality into university practice.

Challenge to Buddhism and Social Responsibility

During the past forty minutes I traced women’s education in this country, discussed the promise made by educationists like Marie Musaeus Higgins, Peter de Abrew, and others, pointed out the significant achievements over the following decades and appraised the disappointing failures in realizing women’s emancipation on a larger scale.

I would now like to turn my attention to the imperative issues of education that we, as Musaeites, or for that matter, educated Buddhist women all over the country have the responsibility to engage with today. I believe that one of the biggest threats to a Buddhist education comes from within – from the fundamentalist corps of Sinhala Buddhists, who not only distort the very goals of education and enlightenment propounded by the Buddha – but who also misinterpret the very doctrine of the dharma for personal and political gain. I am talking about parochial worldviews of Sinhala Buddhism that, for instance, may padlock the spirit of peace, compassion, respect, tolerance and inclusion of others when it comes to different gender, ethnic or religious groups.

For instance, views which yoke together Buddhism with cockeyed notions of culture that may curtail or deny women their human rights (including the right to live a life free from sexual and gender-based violence).

I am talking about a siege-mentality adopted by certain Sinhala Buddhist groups – who bind together Sinhala Buddhism with misguided concepts of patriotism, who refuse to practise insight or self-knowledge, and thereby, abuse Buddhism for political advantage.
I am talking about discriminative worldviews of Sinhala Buddhism – based on pungent notions of racial purity, supremacy and exclusivity that stridently deny the flexibility of a religion that allows for inter-religious practices and beliefs.

Consider how many of you have not sought solace at a church or kovil, aside from the temple in times of crisis? I am talking of militant worldviews of Sinhala Buddhism that currently promote the persecution of Muslims, Tamils and Christians, through scorching populist rhetoric and criminal acts of arson -­ burning down churches, mosques and kovils, forcing the closure of selective business enterprises- chiefly because they are sanctioned by various powers to do so. In this context, it is possible for us to turn to the historical strands of Buddhism in Sri Lanka for guidance.

From the arrival of Sangamitta onwards there has been a tradition of openness, respect and inclusion in Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which promoted the integration of what was worthy and valuable from a variety of cultures and countries throughout the eras.

Archives and archeology tell us that we are all the descendants of waves of migrants over the centuries – not only from the crotch of Bengal but also from the eastern rims of the Bay of Bengal (popularly called Javakas), the shores of Malabar, the Coramandal coast, and the Persian Gulf; furthermore, the invading Portuguese along with kaffirs (slaves from the East of Africa), the Dutch and British with indentured labour from Maduari have all mingled their genes amongst us.

The island has also been hospitable to silk and spice traders sailing the cusp of the Indian subcontinent from Rome, Greece, Central Asia to the lands of India, the islands of Java, ancient Sinae (or China) and perhaps even beyond.

Within institutionalised Theravadha Buddhism, we know that monks had to be brought down from Thailand and Myanmar in the 18th and 19th centuries to give upasampadha so as to re-establish the Buddhist order through the dominant Siyam, Amarapura, and Ramanna nikayas.

In the 19th century, in setting up the Ceylonese chapters of the Theosophical society, Colonel Olcott was amply supported by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Walane Sri Siddhartha Thera and Ratmalane Dhammaloka Thera, along with Walisinghe Harischandra, and D.B. Jayatilaka. If some of today’s Sinhala Buddhist attitudes were in place at that time Musaeus College would never have materialized because we all know how closely Peter de Abrew worked with Marie Musaeus to establish our school.

The cross-fertilisation of ideas and collaboration of people as well as the peaceful coexistence with all faiths and communities of this land (for the most part) has been the greatest strength of Buddhism historically. But in the face of the dangerous strands of so called ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ in today’s context, the challenge for women who want to identify themselves as Sinhala Buddhists, is firstly, to stop being silent. For, I believe that it is exceedingly important to speak out against what you do not believe in-­ even if you are in the minority. Often we tend to ignore extremism if we ourselves do not subscribe to it.

Yet this only serves to crystallize fanaticism as the dominant opinion. At this juncture, speaking out is the least one can do. It will not be easy. After all — if doing the right thing were easy, I doubt that all religions would have to keep urging us to do it. We can all take heart from the young Pakistani girl, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her educational activism.

Luckily, she survived, and went on to win education for all girls in Pakistan, and is today addressing the UN asking global leaders to ensure that every child goes to school – what is considered to be a shockingly achievable goal. If you found a guiding principle or abiding value in my speech, take note; If you found passing inspiration, take it to heart; If you found something of usable worth take it away and use it; The rest – you may throw out. In fact, you may throw out the whole thing if so inclined!

The writer is a professor and the director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Kelaniya.