The issue of the hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women, also known as the tudung in Malay) in Singaporean workplaces became an issue of debate recently, thanks to a popular online petition calling for its acceptance at the workplace. But why the controversy?

‘The Tudung Issue’

The issue came to prominence in 2002, when four Malay-Muslim parents sent their daughters to school wearing the tudung. The girls were suspended for not adhering to the school uniform, and where schools previously had the leeway to permit amendments to their own uniforms on religious grounds, the issue came under the purview of the Ministry of Education, which enforced stricter regulations on uniforms in the interest of keeping government schools secular. The case sparked a flurry of discussions, arguing both for and against the acceptance of headscarves.

It recently resurfaced when during a forum discussing survey results on racial and religious attitudes, the question came up as to why hospitals did not permit nurses to wear the hijab. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Zulkifli Baharudin responded by saying that while it may be permitted eventually, Muslims should not expect others to always accommodate their religious practices.

Subsequently an online petition called for 20,000 signatures to support the cause of hijabs in the workplace, quickly garnering support from thousands who ‘signed’ it. As the petition was reaching its goal, it was suddenly closed and taken down without any notice.

The petition generated a lot of discussion, even provoking accusations of astroturfing. Debate was often heated, and even the views of former Mufti Shaykh Syed Isa Semait were criticised, leading to the current Mufti Dr Fatris Bakaram penning a lengthy note on Facebook asking for those advocating the hijab to behave more civilly.

Grievances stem from the less than satisfactory resolution to the case of the school girls in 2002, as well as perceived marginalisation of the Muslim community such as curbs on madrasah education and the exclusion of Muslims from ‘sensitive’ military positions.

The government’s position is not wholly indefensible. There are sanitary considerations for nurses should they be permitted to wear the hijab, and allowing the hijab in the uniformed services may lead to different religious groups demanding that their own dress be accepted, leading to a lack of uniformity across the board.

Integration may not seem to be an issue, given that most Singaporeans would encounter hijab-wearing women on a daily basis. However, a quick glance at the comments section of any article on the current hijab issue reveals a lack of understanding of the issue among non-Muslims, and a belief that Muslims are being unreasonable in their requests. While these may be the viewpoints of a vocal minority, it stands that there are legitimate concerns about integration.

The Obligation to Cover

In Islam, women are required to cover their bodies, excluding their hands and faces (and feet in some opinions). Like the daily prayers or fasting during Ramadan, this is a religious obligation. Though some may choose not to wear the hijab for personal reasons, it remains obligatory and not complying is considered a sinful act. Men are also required to dress modestly, and clothing must cover one’s body at least from the navel to the knee.

The widespread wearing of the hijab is a fairly recent phenomenon in this region and a generation ago it would have been rare to find any Muslim woman wearing it regularly. One of the reasons for its widespread adoption is the increase in religiosity thanks to greater access to religious information.

Despite the belief that the hijab is a ‘burden’ enforced upon Muslim women, many do so of their own accord. There is rarely coercion to wear it and it is not uncommon to find families where the mother wears the hijab but her daughter does not (or vice versa).

Fair Employment

It should be recognised that hijab-wearing women are generally accepted in the workplace, as can be seen in many offices around Singapore. Nevertheless, it is widely known that the hijab is not accepted in many lines of work, including nursing, hospitality, and uniformed groups such as the police, civil defence and armed forces. In the case of nursing, this creates the strange contradiction where female Muslim doctors are permitted to wear the hijab whereas their counterparts in nursing are not.

The Tripartite Alliance of Fair Employment Practices recently reported that 1 out of 5 complaints it received related to race, language and religion. While the report does not specifically identify the hijab as a cause for discrimination among employers, there is an account of religious discrimination faced by a Muslim woman. Wearing the hijab would surely have only aggravated her situation.

The call for greater acceptance of the hijab in the workplace is not a rallying cry for the Islamisation of Singapore. Muslims by and large live in harmony with non-Muslim neighbours, colleagues and peers. Greater recognition of the hijab would in fact encourage better integration among Singaporeans through a better understanding of the beliefs and practices of different communities.

Acceptance of the hijab would also increase employment by encouraging greater participation of Muslim women in the workforce, without forcing them to choose between practicing their religion and earning a livelihood.

Moving Forward

Other developed countries permit the hijab, even in the police and military, and workplace discrimination against hijab-clad employees has resulted in lawsuits. Even in Singapore, hijab-clad women are prominent members of parliament and executive directors of renowned research institutes. It seems archaic for multi-cultural, modern Singapore to permit discrimination against Muslim women in the workplace. This is especially so given that Article 15 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore states “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”

In light of its importance to society as a whole, the issue of permitting the hijab in workplaces must be advocated not only by Muslim religious scholars, community leaders and organisations, but also by civil society groups and activists from all walks of life. Only then can we truthfully say that we are in fact ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’.

Comments from government officials have been conciliatory so far; possibly indicating that acceptance of the hijab will come sooner rather than later. PERGAS has formed a committee to handle the issue, and the Malay-Muslim MPs have sat down with the major Malay-Muslim bodies to discuss solutions. Some may be cynical, but I believe there is reason to be optimistic and that all this points towards a favourable outcome for hijab-wearing women and their employment options in the near future, God-willing.

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