Aiseyman! Hijab in the spotlight again!


Aiseyman! Ramadhan is just barely over and some Malay-Muslims are once again stirring up old controversies by re-circulating a 2013 news article which quoted the Minister for Muslim Affairs as saying that allowing the hijab to be worn by women in certain professions would be “very problematic” and asserting that it is the right of Muslimahs to don the hijab regardless of profession because it is obligated in Islam.

The argument that Muslim women in Singapore should be allowed to wear the hijab across all professions because it is their obligation is a seriously flawed one. Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. Not all scholars of Islam (e.g. Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Sheikh Mustapha Mohamed Rashed) can agree with the interpretation of the Quran that says that the Hijab is compulsory for Muslim women. According to these scholars, Islam does not mandate the type of dress code to be imposed upon women, only that a women dresses modestly and covers her private parts.

2. Even if there is a common consensus within Singapore's Muslim community that wearing the hijab is an obligation required by our religion, we should also be cognizant of the fact that we also have an obligation towards our country. We live in a secular state, not in an Islamic Caliphate, so even though we have the freedom to practise our faith and religion, the state has to maintain religious neutrality in governance and public policies. This is the reason why some some professions in the military, police and service sectors require their staff to be in uniform, and religious articles including the hijab is not and should not be part of it.

Some people have raised the question of why Sikhs are allowed to wear the turban in uniformed positions when the hijab is not allowed. The accomodation of the Sikh turban is a British legacy passed down from our earlier colonial days when the British co-opted them into their imperial army. During the colonial period most Sikhs already wore the turban because it was a symbol of spirituality and holiness. On the other hand, the tudung only became part of the Islamic dress code in the early 1970s as part of a trend for conservatve Muslims to reject Western fashion, reaffirm their identity as pious Muslims, and foster a sense of solidary amongst themselves. Perhaps if Muslim women in this region had started wearing the hijab earlier, it might have been accomodated by the British and passed down to our current day. However, since this is not the case, there is no point in comparing apples to oranges.

Muslims in Singapore have a choice, and invariably when we choose something we have to give up something else. In this case, if you choose to wear the tudung at work, then you would have to give up a career in sectors which emphasise uniformity and neurality in appearance. On the other hand, if you choose to work in the military or police force, then you would have to give up your tudung during office hours. We can't always have our cake and eat it too.