An Unyielding Spirit of Education: Ms. Shiranee Mills
By Sharanya Sekaram
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Shiranee Mills
Illustration by Danushri Welikala- email@example.com
Ms. Shiranee Mills sees herself primarily as an educator — be it in her role as a teacher and then later Principal of Uduvil Girls College, or in her current role as Executive Director at the Women’s Education Research Centre (WERC). Her deep drive to go beyond sharing knowledge and inspire those she educates has led her to build a profoundly powerful legacy as a teacher and feminist.
Shiranee (as she insists on being referred to, shying away from other monikers) draws inspiration from Harriet Lathrop Winslow. Harriet Winslow was an American Missionary who spent the bulk of her life in Jaffna, focused on developing education. She was also the Founder Principal of Uduvil Girls College — the first all-girls boarding school in the region. This journey has inspired Shiranee deeply. From 1978, in her first post as a teacher at Uduvil (which was also her alma mater), it has been a driving force. A small, green-bound book. “The Memoir of Mrs. Harriet L. Winslow” travels with her as a reminder of this force, “I give it to all the principals and educators I know when they get inducted.”
Born in Jaffna, Shiranee moved to Colombo following her secondary education to complete her Bachelor of Arts in English and Western Classical Culture from the Kelaniya University. She moved back in 1981 to take up a teaching post at Uduvil Girls College before returning to Colombo in 1990 after her marriage. Later with her husband living in Kuwait for work, she returned to Jaffna, despite the growing conflict, to teach again at the school she loved, but the challenges and danger would leave scars. She describes holding her two children under tables when they heard helicopters’ sounds above and running to bunkers during bombing raids.
Uduvil Girls’ College is a private school that comes under the purview of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), and Shiranee returned as Principal in 2005 on the request of the then Bishop. Despite her immense popularity and the rapid development of the school, complex forces resulted in her termination in 2009. Students and parents protested however, ensuring her return to continue her work. Through her visionary leadership, selfless dedication, and tireless hard work, she guided the school to numerous high achievements and accolades, not only in education but also in sports, performing arts, visual arts, and IT during her 12-year tenure as the Principal. She speaks of teaching as a chance to shape a generation, “it is difficult to create awareness and change amongst the adult community as gender stereotypes are ingrained in us, and it is difficult for us to change the older generation — our generation. This is why I say we must start with the very young ones.”
Once again, in 2016, the same forces used the opportunity of her turning 60 to terminate her services. Despite continued protests from parents and students, Shiranee, with deep sadness, was forced to step away from the institution she so deeply loved and served with passion. The students at the school and their parents interviewed by the media during the protests showed their regard for her as one of the most outstanding and democratic educationists to serve a school in Jaffna. Reflecting on Shiranee’s tenure as Principal of the school, the alumni and parents who participated in the protests saw in her a strong personality who could withstand the intimidation and bullying she had to endure. This outpouring of support is what Shiranee sees as one of the most extraordinary acts of solidarity she has ever experienced. “I still think of that, and I get emotional,” she says.
Shiranee is now the current Executive Director at the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC), a post she took on from Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran — whom she credits with being the biggest inspiration in her journey as a feminist. WERC was founded by a small group of feminist researchers and activists to highlight women’s status in the country and publish material which women could use in their struggle for liberation. Shiranee recalls the strong sisterhood of feminists she forged when pursuing a Master of Arts in Women’s Studies from the University of Colombo and the work she has been able to do in her stints within the development sector.
As a Teacher and beloved Principal, she had empowered many young girls to follow their dream. She paved the way for their fearlessness with immense patience and a bright shimmering smile. A woman of indomitable strength, grace, and principles, she continues to find ways to combine her religious and feminist values to fight for women’s liberation. “I am passionate about two things,” she says, “One is about teaching feminist values to the next generation. The second is redefining my faith through a feminist lens because I very much believe that Christian principles are very much feminist.”
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)\
Reference Links and Further Reading
Ms. Shiranee Mills, Women’s Education and Research Center, http://www.wercsl.org/ms-shiranee-mills/
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