When I started writing this article about Sanya Singhal – the Perth teenager who was barred from her school Aranmore Catholic College for refusing to take off her nose ring, it seemed to me there were no easy answers to the issue.
It seemed to me as if the yarns of multiculturalism and tolerance, of modernity and tradition, of religious beliefs and secularism, of personal freedom and an innate sense of discipline, which normally blend together to create the social fabric of Australia, had suddenly got tangled into an unseemly knot.
Consider this conundrum: do Australian institutions uphold multiculturalism and personal freedom? If yes, is a student of a school of religious denomination free to wear a culturally significant piece of jewellery at school? If yes, does it set a precedent? If yes, is the school within its rights to enforce a grooming code? If yes, can it bar things such as nose rings? If yes, is it an infringement of one’s cultural beliefs? If yes, do Australian institutions uphold multiculturalism and personal freedom? An unseemly knot, you see.
Freedom within limits – an oxymoronic term – emerged as one solution. The key is balance, said some interviewees. We are immigrants and therefore, we must adapt, declared those of the ‘When in Rome’ school of thought. No, we must stand up for what we believe in, affirmed traditionalists.
Naturally, the incident sparked debate online – chatter on Facebook groups, forums, even a Reddit thread – and offline, at dinner tables and in drawing rooms. The Hindu Council of Australia (HCA) weighed in, saying that “the recent misunderstanding … has a potential of affecting the harmony between our communities in Australia and the reputation of Catholic schools among Indians.” However, many – including the school – refuse to give the case religious or cultural connotations, pointing instead at the school’s uniform and grooming guidelines that allow “(a) maximum of one plain silver or gold small stud or small sleeper per lower ear lobe. Additional piercing or ‘taping over’ is not permitted. Diamantes and/or coloured stones are not permitted.”
Should the Singhals have been more flexible? Could the school have made an exception? Is this a cautionary tale for Indian parents wanting to send their kids to schools with religious denominations? My interviews with fellow parents touched upon many of these questions and more.
IS THE NOSE RING A RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENT?
Most interviewees said that while the nose ring may be culturally significant, there is no requirement in Hinduism for girls entering womanhood to have their nose pierced and to retain the piercing for one year, as Sanya’s mother Kalyani has been quoted as saying.
Banker and parent Krishna Neelamraju, a self-professed atheist, says, “I am of Hindu background but none of the women in my family wear nose studs. Perhaps there is a sect or sub sect in which this custom is important.”
So, yes, while it is important, it is not mandatory, not even according to the Hindu Council of Australia, which describes it as a “ritual” rather than a requirement. “The nose piercing is not a fashion or rebellion statement of a teenager but is a deep rooted cultural and religious ritual for girls going through puberty,” an online statement released by the HCA reads.
Religious schools should not make rules to keep students of other faiths out. Tax payers subsidize these schools. Need more than lip service than saying that we embrace diversity.#SanyaSinghal#HinduCouncilAu
— Hindu Council of Australia (@HinduCouncilAu) February 13, 2019
Neelamraju says that because the nose ring isn’t codified in Hinduism – unlike the hijab in Muslims – the issue did not get a lot of traction online and offline. Indeed, many Facebook groups closed discussion on the topic, saying it wasn’t a religious issue at all. “Had someone with a hijab been barred, the issue would have blown up and it would have been discussed at a national level. I don’t look at the nose ring as a religious symbol but rather a fashion accessory,” he says.
Jaineet Malhi, a Perth-based mum of two daughters (the elder has just started working while the younger is in year 6) agrees. She says that although she is Sikh, she does not know of any religious stipulation or mention in Hindu scriptures about nose rings per se, unlike the kada, which all practising Sikhs must wear. Even then, she says, her elder daughter had to make concessions at school. “At her Catholic school she was asked to not wear her kada in the Chemistry lab but that was purely for safety reasons,” she says. “The teachers feared it might knock over beakers or get caught in other equipment. A rule is a rule. Safety is safety.”
The school itself has claimed it is ascertaining whether there are significant religious grounds for allowing the nose piercing.
THE MIGRANT CONUNDRUM: ADAPT TO NEW CULTURE, OR STAY ROOTED IN TRADITION?
Of course, immigration and retaining cultural sensibilities are not mutually exclusive, and so many people advocate for a ‘bit of both’ approach. Vish Chilumkurti, who lives near Brisbane and is the father of a seven-year-old girl, is all for assimilation into our adopted home countries. He says that the fact that we’ve moved countries means that we are in contravention of a long-held but now-obsolete Hindu belief to never cross the ocean, because doing so entailed the end of the reincarnation cycle as the traveller was cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges. “We have moved overseas and it has not hurt us. We should make every effort to integrate with the society here. If we have adapted to so many things, why are we being inflexible about this (the nose ring issue),” he asks.
The better way, if the nose ring was that important to Sanya, would have been for her to wear it at home, he says.
Chilumkurti adds that the coming-of-age ritual is “outdated” and that no girl “would want to advertise it”. The Hindu Council, on the other hand, says Hinduism celebrates menarche, or the first period. In its statement, it said, “In Hindu culture, a girl who achieved (sic) menarche, or her first period, is feted, and pampered at a ceremony where family and close friends gather and lavish gifts on her. The girl would be bathed in fragrant water after applying oil, turmeric etc. She would be bedecked in fine clothes, flowers and ornaments and her feet would be washed. This is because Hinduism celebrates, and does not abhor, menstruation. The Shakti philosophy upholds it as a gift which is responsible for creation of life. Nose piercing of the girl and placing a metal stud is a ritual that is invariably accompanied. As is true of any cultural or religious tradition, most Hindu parents want to and do observe these rituals very sincerely.”
Chilumkurti, for one, disagrees. “It’s almost as if you’re putting the girl on show. It’s best if she concentrated on her studies,” he says rather bluntly. Once again invoking Hindu mythology, he recalls the story of Eklavya, who cut off his right thumb and laid it at his guru Dronacharya’s feet as gurudakshina (offering to the guru). “If the girl’s family believe so much in tradition, they should do what the girl’s teachers say without questioning it,” he says.
Neelamraju, who is an administrator of a number of desi Aussie groups online, sees this as a trend of a ‘minority such as Indians in Australia beginning to stand up for and practise what they strongly believe in’. He cites the example of a family friend, where the mum is a practising Jain and the son goes to a Baptist school. “The child learns Christian culture at school and about Jain culture and customs at home,” he says.
Most schools are also making the effort to become more inclusive. Shikha Chandra says Toongabbie Public School NSW, where her children study, has Hindu scripture class and the school celebrates Diwali each year. “Some girls come in with henna from time to time but no one has any issues,” she says. “They are just curious and say it looks nice.”
SHOULD THE SCHOOL HAVE MADE AN EXCEPTION?
The reflexive counter-question to this question is: would that have set a precedent? And the answer is: almost certainly yes. Jaineet Malhi says that is enough to convince her about the school’s rationale in asking Sanya to take off her nose ring. Chilumkurti agrees. “What if some other student wears another piercing for ‘religious reasons,’” he asks.
Neelamraju says that if the Catholic school has opened itself to students of all faiths, it should be flexible in accommodating their beliefs. “They should give some consideration as long as it does not interfere with studies,” he says.
The Reddit thread on the issue also has some lively comments on the issue. “What is with the obsession that the private and religious schools have with insignificant parts of a student’s appearance? Who cares if a student has a nose piercing or if a male student has long hair, or facial hair,” asked user LordWalderFrey1. Another user, BenCelotil weighed in: “Individuality is a threat to these authority figures who see any deviation from their standards as a personal insult to themselves and, in most private schools, an affront to “gawd”.” However, HotdogAccountant, another user, countered: “There is something a bit rich about sending your non-Catholic (not even Christian) children to a Catholic school and then seeking exemptions from their policies on religious grounds.” To this, MightiestChewbacca argued: “Then the Catholic school (sic) should be denied taxpayer funding until they end descrimination (sic).”
However, there is no apparent discrimination at Aranmore Catholic College; far from it.
Being from Perth, Malhi says she has heard good things about it. “The school is quite liberal and a lot of Muslim girls, who want to study in a Catholic school, go there and they wear a hijab. So, it is very surprising that this school is in the news on a dress code-related issue,” she says.
The bottom line is that schools are well within their rights to enforce a dress code. Most schools do expressly state what is – and is not – allowed. But there are some exceptions as well. Queensland-based Indooroopilly State High School is among a handful of schools that do not have a uniform at all, but rather broad guidelines of an “acceptable standard of dress that promotes a quality learning environment for students and staff and the good image of the school in the community.” But even here, non-compliance with the dress standard “will be considered a failure to comply with school procedures and direct consequences will result.”
Not all schools are so “chill”, though. In 2012, another state high school in Queensland, Mountain Creek State High School, was accused of bullying by the then 15-year-old Amanda Gane over – guess what – a tiny nose piercing. Even then, it was the girl’s mother who had stood by her side. “I understand their policy but the nose ring won’t affect her study,” she pleaded. News reports suggest that school did not budge from its stand.
And just last year, another Queensland school, The Gap State High School, was in the news for giving a detention warning to any students who were found to be wearing shoes with heels that were too high or too low. Of course, a lot of people would remember the 2017 case of Sikh boy Sidhak Singh Arora, who was refused admission by Melton Christian College in Melbourne for wearing a turban. The case had reached the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal, which ruled in Sidhak’s favour.
So, going back to the question – should the school have made an exception? – Melton Christian College did make the exception. And yes, the case did set a precedent, so much so that the school amended its uniform policy to “allow exceptions where genuine medical or religious grounds exist.”
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE (AND WHAT PARENTS AND SCHOOLS SHOULD DO)
Communicate, communicate, communicate. That is what the Singhals – and indeed Aranmore Catholic College – should have done and the issue would not have come to this stage, a lot of interviewees said. Chilumkurti says, “If they had told the school and negotiated beforehand, the outcome would have been much better.”
Indian Link’s Pavitra Shankar agreed, “Both the parties should have sat and talked it out. It certainly wasn’t worth having all this negative attention.”
Chilumkurti recalled a similar incident about his friends’ daughter who studied at an Anglican college. “She also got her nose pierced but the parents spoke to the school beforehand and the girl could continue to wear the stud,” he said.
Sadly, it appears now that the biggest loser in this saga may be Sanya herself.
“As a teenager, she’s already going through a lot of changes. She should focus on her studies,” notes Chilumkurti. Neelamraju believes the parents and school could have met each other halfway, but he says that any parents sending their children to schools with religious denominations should not expect any leeway in terms of rules for religious reasons.
Chilumkurti says that the Indian diaspora across the world is known for its adaptability, skills and education. “Assimilation and peaceful coexistence are our core values,” he says. “That is what we should be known for.”