Tudung or Not Tudung?: Hijabis in Singaporean Workplaces

Tudung or Not Tudung?: Hijabis in Singaporean Workplaces November 5, 2013

In Singapore, the hijab is more commonly referred to with the Malay word ‘tudung’, which simply means a covering. In October this year, a petition was started on Avaaz.org by a “Syafiqah K.” to allow Muslim women in Singapore to wear tudung (hijab) in the workplace. It aimed to reach 20,000 signatures, but was closed down recently with about 7600 signatures short of its goal. It was originally planned to be sent to several figures in the government.

As of today, the Singapore government has what appears to be an almost arbitrary policy on Muslim women wearing hijab in the workplace. According to political rhetoric, the hijab is not allowed in “front-line positions”  that require daily contact with other Singaporeans, including non-Muslim ones. However, there is no law that details this specifically.

According to my observations, there are professions that involve contact with people (thus appearing to be rather “front-line” for all intents and purposes) and yet allow hijabs. Examples include public transport companies, teachers, doctors (except when in scrubs), and politicians. In the government, for example, hijab is allowed as long as it doesn’t involve the “front-line” (case in point: my sister works in the tax authority wearing a hijab). Examples of professions that totally do not allow hijabs include police, military and navy officers, and nurses. As for private companies, their dress code is left to their own discretion.

This petition sparked a public debate in the mainstream and social media, for the second time. The first time (that I know of, at least) was in February 2002, when four little girls were banned from government primary schools after their parents sent them to school in hijabs and modified school uniforms (with lengthened sleeves and skirts). The then-mufti of Singapore (who is considered a civil servant because the Islamic authority is considered a government body) declared that “education is more important [than the hijab]” and urged their parents to comply with the school uniforms.

A glaring omission in this past debate was the voices of those girls. Note that their parents packed them off to school with hijabs when they were only seven years old. As hijab was not even obligatory on them, it appeared to me that their parents politicised the issue of hijab to highlight their own concerns that Malays, as the indigenous people of Singapore, were being marginalised in public policies. As for the government, the stock answer is that maintaining harmony between a Chinese majority and a Malay minority is hard work.

Facebook image created by anonymous artist to show solidarity with Singaporean Muslim women. Source.

This theme surfaced again in the recent hijab debate: the “integration” of Malays into the Chinese majority. Malay (and presumably Muslim) nominated member of parliament* Zulkifli Baharudin’s opinion is that Muslims need to integrate better, and “not expect others to accomodate them all the time”. He attributes the “strong religiosity” of Singaporean Muslims to something primitive, and resistant to the “years of progress, education and Westernisation”. His views echo the sentiments of Singapore’s minister mentor** in his book ‘Hard Truths’ (2011), when he said:

“I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam… Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you’.”

Predictably, the Malay community feels attacked by the continual belittling of their customs and faith by the state apparatus and the Chinese majority.

The current mufti of Singapore, Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, has framed the issue in a way at least one blogger thinks is correct: that the hijab should not be seen as problematic to integration or racial and religious harmony, and that Muslim women who feel inclined to wear hijab on the basis of religious conviction should be allowed to do so in any profession, just as Muslim women who do not feel inclined to not wear hijab should be able to do so as well.

What about the voices of Muslim women? Their lack of visibility and voice is lamented in the public debate. On one hand, the thousands of Muslim women who signed the petition were dismissed by an MP Zaqy Mohamad, as engaging in a strategy of “astro-turfing” which he implied as being illegitimate and not constructive.

“The initiator has not identified himself or herself. So no one knows who initiated it, or whether the response is real.”

On the other hand, the handful of hijabi Muslim women who work within the state apparatus, such as Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, are pressured into giving her stand. I don’t find it surprising that she is hesitant to do so, because she is part of the state and she cannot openly counter its official stance, just as MP Zaqy Mohamad has to push official rhetoric in order to remain in office.

Personally, I believe the inconsistent hijab policy in Singapore has allowed a space for Muslim women to practise their personal convictions through different strategies. For example, I know one long-time hijabi who wanted to stop wearing hijab by deciding to become a police officer, thus avoiding social pressure. Another works as a nurse, and wears her hijab going to and leaving from the hospital. Yet another hijabi trained as a nurse, but decided to become a teacher after she realised she could not wear her hijab.

So what do we make of this debate?

It’s difficult to raise our voices in restrictive political conditions. In the semi-authoritarian state of Singapore disguised as a liberal democracy, there is no room for petitions and referendums. The inconsistent policy of allowing hijab in certain professions means that the issue can be used by both the state and the people to point out how much and how little freedom Muslims have, respectively.

At the same time, it is not to say that only democratic societies are able to handle such debates. Perhaps the blurred lines of the policy means that it is possible to have dialogue and debate in society about this issue. One profession at a time, it may be possible for Muslim women in Singapore to freely choose their career and how they practise their faith.

* NMPs are a uniquely Singaporean political creation, consisting of politicians who are chosen by the president to enter parliament, and do not represent any political party or electorate.

** Again, another uniquely Singaporean position for the man to whom much of the country’s development is credited under his authoritarian rule, Lee Kuan Yew.

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23 responses to “Tudung or Not Tudung?: Hijabis in Singaporean Workplaces”

    • I think the official reason is hygiene or safety. Though you could of course give endless counter-examples of countries where hijab is allowed in the nursing profession, like the Netherlands, where I live for example.

      I don’t think there’s a clear or convincing answer as to why nurses cannot wear hijabs.

  1. I don’t mean any respect by asking this question. Can anyone explain to me the importance of wearing a hijab other than modesty? I am really would like to get the perspective of a woman who wears one. I can see why in certain care giving professions it might not be too settling for the patient or the student not to be able to see the full features of the woman who is administering to them. I hardly wear sunglasses, but when I am wearing them and begin to speak to someone, I take them off so they can see me. Since i tend to communicate on visual level, I do feel strange talking to somene who is wearing very dark sunglasses. I think generally it is not too unusual to want to see what the person looks like when you are talking to her or get a visual on the people around you if you have eyes to see.

    • The muslim women in Singapore wear tudungs and not abayas, so it is just a head scarf that covers the hair and their face is perfectly visible. Anyway, then Singaporeans should be more tolerant in accepting people that don’t look exactly like the norm when serving them, rather than making them conform to their own standards just for their own ‘comfort’ because Muslim caregivers are equal citizens as they are. That reminds me of how some people regard office ladies who don’t wear makeup as ‘not professional’ – it’s wrong and damaging.

      • After writing my comment, I thought about the nuns who taught me when I was a child in Italy back in the early 70’s. Every part of them was covered other than their faces. Their faces were distinguishable to me and it was something I was used to seeing. I believe the reason they covered themselves up was so that the focus would not be on their physical beauty but on the other traits and non-physical virtues that were part of their being. Perhaps educating people that not all women who wear hijabs are being forced to do so and that a great number of them do it because they wish to for whatever their reason might help people from other cultures better understand and appreciate the practice and look beyond the hijab.

  2. on turbans being allowed(a reoccurring argument for the hijab is that the sikhs are allowed to don it(turban) and had always been allowed to do so in uniformed groups since WWII)-

    bringing up the turban is but a diversion from the main point, but lets get into that. the turban’s purpose is to ultimately protect the hair. the importance of hair to the Sikh is (on a very very serious note) likely just as important as one’s family jewels is to oneself. the damaging of it is an absolute no-no, not even on a dare of the century. new innovations have been made to its protection to date but the fact does not change that it(the hair) is to be kept, and long as it is so, there are hardly any other ways to navigate that- it wasn’t some political issue, there was no ulterior message or motive, it was the only convenient way or we could just might as well ban all of them outright.

    a sikh might want to go around inconspicuously but there is no a given choice around it. physics and nature would not allow for all that hair to sit safely yet be totally inconspicuous. at that, if the relavant unformed groups could come up with some way to achieve that then f*ing “A” lets get to it!

    but here is the thing. when a sikh is in uniform with a turban, we see him as just a sikh, in a uniform. that dude is performing his duties as a uniformed individual without trying to impress upon the point of him/her being a sikh. we- or at least myself- don’t see or feel any hint of a sikh trying to impress upon us any message by donning a turban, it just is. (oh i personally want to know, out of sincere intrigue and curiosity, the implications of a sikh’s hair being damaged in the call of duty. do enlighten me if you know)

    then we look at the hijab issue now. why the sudden call for it? what is wrong now? what changed? what is the crux of it, the heart of the issue?

    would a muslim woman be suddenly less religious when she removes her hijab and dons her uniform to perform her chosen occupation? if yes, then wtf?! if no, then once again why? なんで?为什么? mengapa?

    one might say for “modesty” but then again, what is so immodest about the uniforms? where is that line of modesty? is it still modest when you are on the ground choke-holding a suspect or undressing someone for medical reasons? seriously where is that damn line? is it still modest if you wear a hijab but put on lipstick, makeup, paint your nails, wear colored contact lenses or use perfume? *mind blown*

    i mean, one could look for other occupations which allows one to wear whatever right?

    intention, i think, is the key. what is the intention here in this fiasco? perhaps if we get to that, we’d solve so much more problems.

    the uniform is a signal to which signifies that one understands and places his/her duty before his/her prejudices. when someone decides to don something, an accessory or what not that is conspicuous beyond that which is set, what is he/she trying to say? what, is the message? what are the implications? that i want to know. i sincerely do- because it is kinda scary where this is going.

    • Hijab is just as important as to some women as that turban and just as harmless. It’s only been politicized because Islam has been politicized, by extremists and by non-Muslims, but the average Muslim doesn’t wear it for political reasons. What is modesty is a question that women have been negotiating for centuries, but ultimately, it’s up to a woman. It’s not really fair to tell a person to give up their career or their beliefs.

      What Singapore is really afraid of is Saudi/Salafi fundamentalism -I’m Arab and I’m saying this- which is understandable, but I don’t think Singapore has anything to worry about. Malaysia’s doing fine, isn’t it? You could ban the abaya, that’s one idea, but it could just incite people. In the end, I’m not sure what the solution for Singapore is.

      • i posted a comment the same day you posted yours but i just realized that it was blocked. Moderator, hello! why was it not approved?

        in any case, the point here is that anyone of any religion could participate in any uniformed occupation. the occupation has its own set of rules as to what is worn, so as to achieve an outlook which serves to signify that the people wearing it are on duty, and that they are all representing the organization, its ideals and its core values, regardless of race or religion, or any other discriminating factors.

        here, in a nutshell, you have a group of people who want the rules changed so that they can make it a right for them don an article of a religious nature. the question is- what good reason do you have to demand that? how can that make you do your job better?

        you see, no one is being discriminated from having a job owing to their religious beliefs. a muslim woman can join the police force or any other uniformed group if she so desires. the hijab is an article that is up to the woman herself. as concluded from a lengthy discussion with a close muslim friend of mine, the hijab is ultimately a choice for the individual and is not forced upon by anyone, and if it so pains an individual to take it off in public while in line of duty, then she should seek another job.

        another thing my friend told me is that if there is a valid reason, such as when one is performing a duty, or in an occupation which upholds some important values of islam or the task at hand is one of benefit to humanity, there can be a compromise in one way or another. as the op pointed out, there are muslim women in the front-line of the police force that come to work in a tudung, take it off whilst on duty, and dons it when heading back home from work.

        this tudung issue in its current context is seen to me as a group of people demand “privileges” where there is no valid reason for any. i am very certain that there are many christian who’d love to wear their crosses, buddhists who’d love to wear their beads, taoists who’d love to wear their talismans, but it does not take a genius to figure out why the uniformed groups limit and require them to be inconspicuous.

        also, malaysia(Boleh!!) is really not a good example to use. it is anything but secular like singapore – its majority population are malay muslims, naturally, the law of the land reflects that. malaysia as of the past decade has been………drifting away(though not much, but one could see the gradual drift… slowly, but definitely surely) from its status as a “moderate” muslim country.

        • I apologise for the earlier comment not showing up – it seems like it got lost amidst other comments that were coming in. I’ve approved it now.

          • danke! so that’s how it works – the original article’s writer moderates his/her own article. i’ve always thought that it was moderated by the site’s mods or smth. thanks and cheers!! 😉


          • No problem – but just to clarify, I’m the editor of the blog and not the author of this specific piece 🙂

    • @rin , in reply to “Hijab is just as important as to some women as that turban and just as harmless. It’s only been politicized because…”

      (your comment was still in moderation when i read it and typed this, and i realized i can’t post it as a reply till your comment was approved, so i replied to myself but address it to you instead it =P )

      it certainly is not fair to tell someone to give up their career or beliefs, however, i question the need for the push for allowing any religious symbols in an institution which does not require any. and though it would be likely not to improve nor impair work performance, it brings to question the wearer’s intention for donning it. take for example, a muslim policewoman who does not wear a hijab and one who does. what is the one wearing the hijab trying to signify with it? what is the message in there, really?

      being in uniform represents that the individual is acting upon a set of rules and also assuming a position or code of conduct which is no different than that of his/her colleagues. to say that it is not enough and that that individual deems fit to put on a hijab which differentiates herself from other colleagues, what is the rationale behind it? that is what i really want to know- and the modesty arguments i’ve seen thus far just do not justify it.

      one can be a muslim, not don a hijab and still perform outstandingly as a policewoman, as one could definitely see from our current police force – which is why i cannot but see this move as dubiously motivated.

      i would agree for muslim teachers in primary and secondary schools to don their hijabs certainly but not for the students. students should definitely know that there is an ethnic and religious diversity to the people/role-models that are educating them and that they have equal standing as educators irregardless of their race language and religion.

      uniformed occupations that should ethically not or should have little to do with religion however should abstain from allowing religious symbols into their dress codes be it hijabs, crosses, beads or whichever. certain occupations requires one to make certain compromises, and i think that it is fair that the rules for front-liners of the uniformed institutions in question are as such. it does not give special concessions (other than the turban which brings us to the earlier post) to other religions, beliefs, political indications or to even conspicuous fashion accessories. reasons for such rules are valid and reasonable. and if that compromise or sacrifice is not one that you would make then perhaps that is not the job for you.

      essentially, the issue here is that no one is barring anyone from any jobs, individuals of any religion or race can engage in it as long as they meet the requirements, but now, there is a demand for change so that individuals who do not want to compromise or conform to the rules(which are valid and reasonable) can engage in it- which i think is a fundamentally wrong approach.

      malaysia, however you’d wish to look at it, is not secular by far as politics and governance goes, unlike singapore. understandably it(uniformed staff donning hijab) would be the norm for them and has been for a long time. however, the situation for singapore is that there is a push for its advocacy- and that is what intrigues me.

      i see the underpinnings of some social discontent to which the hijab is where it is currently diverted upon, but that is just my opinion- which is why i do strongly agree with the op that there should be a debate, a conversation on such matters so as to arrive upon the core of the issues at hand.

      • While I understand the purpose of uniforms in indicating unity, I’m not sure scarves would seriously impact that any more than conspicuous jewelry. The uniformed employees are still representing their employer and a team.

        Again, others choose to make a woman wearing hijab political, but for her, it is a personal choice, and even if others disagree, she may view it as necessary for her modesty and enjoined by her religion. Certainly, opinions within the Muslim community vary, like any community, and every Muslim woman does not wear hijab. This doesn’t indicate that those who do shouldn’t be allowed to or that their beliefs shouldn’t be taken seriously. There are Sikhs who do not wear the turban. That does not mean I expect them all to take it off. Everyone values their own spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be, to the utmost. It’s not for me to decide whose is more credible or right or dictate their religion to them.

        • certainly it is a personal thing- i do not doubt that. but perhaps i would like to wear a crucifix on the outside or that i would like to have a pentagram painted upon my forehead. and as you’ve said, “Everyone values their own spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be, to the utmost. It’s not for me to decide whose is more credible or right or dictate their religion to them.”, can you imagine the uniformed forces, what they’d look like? doesn’t take a genius to figure it out does it. The funny visual possibilities aside, if everyone were to be given free reign to don trinkets or odds and ends in line with their religious convictions to which is personal and not to be dictated by others, it would provide for overt signs for one’s inclination and or identification with certain groups that has got nothing to do with the institution one is representing. In short, it provides an outlet for division. it is ultimately unnecessary and undesirable for such professions.

          and as such, some professions require a sacrifice or a compromise from its occupants to some degree in terms of freedom of expression. it requires them to make that sacrifice or compromise so that a certain state of order
          or baseline could be achieved.

          while one may not have any ulterior motives to donning an artifact of any kind, it still has a profound social effect, regardless of one’s intent.

          thus i would have to reiterate as i have said so in other posts that individuals not willing to make the compromise should not engage in the said professions because they have made their ultimate convictions clear. if it is, to you, more important to observe your religious needs then pursue those needs- i sincerely applaud you for finding your calling in life.

          also, as concluded from a lengthy discussion with a close muslim friend of mine, the hijab is ultimately a choice for the individual and is not forced upon by anyone, and if it so pains an individual to take it off in public while in line of duty, then she should seek another job.

          another thing my friend told me is that if there is a valid reason, such as when one is performing a duty, or in an occupation which upholds some important values of islam or the task at hand is one of benefit to humanity, there can be a compromise in one way or another, within reason. as the op pointed out, there are muslim women in the front-line of the police force that come to work in a tudung, take it off whilst on duty, and dons it when heading back home from work, just as i’ve observe with my past colleagues in the hotel industry.

          as such, i can see the demand for allowing the tudung in the uniformed groups in this context in no other way than a demand for a privilege without a proper rationale or sound cause.

          (oh and for the sikh-turban argument, i’ll not write any mroe on that as there is already quite a few posts on that already)

    • Hi Mr. Alvin. I am a turban-wearing Sikh from Malaysia, and I feel there’s a very easy way to make a distinction between a Sikh man’s turban and a Muslim woman’s tudung/hijab.

      Sikh men have always (and I stress this, always) worn a turban to protect their hair. This is since our religion’s inception in the mid 15th century.

      On the other hand, there is nothing to suggest Muslim women wore tudungs from day one. Case in point. If you look at all the older photos in Malaysia or watch our local movies, do you see a single Malay-Muslim woman clad in tudung? The answer is a point-blank no.

      The tudung influence started coming in the 1970s only.

      So yeah, just wanted to point that out. Cheers!

      • thank you for your input! what you’ve mentioned is exactly what i’ve been trying to say. way before the sensitivities of the current times, the sikh have been donning their turbans charging the frontlines (WWII singapore, during our independence, during the early race riots). there was no other way around it then as it was now. a sikh in a turban in a police uniform is just a policeman like any other colleague of his- its has never been seen as any more than that.

        but now, in this context where it is a muslim woman’s choice to don a tudung, it gives rise to different issue altogether in that on one hand, you have muslim women whom are able to perform just as well in their duties without having to don a tudung-which not only serves no operational purpose and makes them stand out from among their peers-, and then another group of muslim women whom choose to or rather in this case demand to have the right to don their tudung without good reason other than to placate their own definition of modesty.

  3. Majority of Singaporean are non muslim and most do not like hijab or tudung.
    Modesty is in the mind, nudist believe being nude is modest.

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