Saturday, November 9, 2013
A matter of individual choice, not communal right
By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib -
8 Nov 2013
Several people have asked why I’ve not weighed in on the ‘hijab issue’. To be frank, the only reason why I’m apprehensive about commenting on the matter is because of the way the issue has been crafted and the utter lack of civility, divisive attitude and extremely patriarchal and bigoted nature of some of its major proponents who are dominating the various social media platforms, particularly on the Malay online sites.
But here’s my stand on the matter, in gist.
1. This matter is a political issue, not a religious issue. Therefore, any discussions on the matter must be submitted to public reason, not theological arguments. The issue has to do with policies in dealing with multicultural space in Singapore. As such, there must be an over-arching framework in dealing with such issues.
2. The over-arching framework, in my opinion, ought to be individual liberty and the right to practice his/her religion as long as it does not infringe on the fundamental rights of others, cause harm to others or undermine the nation-building process.
This matter, therefore, must not be seen as an assertion of communal right, as no one person, group or institution can lay claim to being representative of the entire Muslim community. The call for allowing hijab must be seen within the lens of individual liberty and rights with regards to practising his/her religious belief.
3. The call for women to be able to don hijab in the uniformed services and front-line jobs in government sectors is legitimate from the standpoint of point 2. The hijab can be tailored to match the uniform, as has been done in many government and private sectors in Singapore and other countries. It does not infringe on the rights of others nor cause harm to others, nor is it inimical to the nation-building process (which professedly subscribes to ‘multiculturalism’ policy)
4. It must be noted that the call for allowing Muslim women to don the hijab is not equivalent to ensuring all Muslim women don the hijab. The latter is undesirable, nor should be tolerated as it infringes again on the liberty and right of an individual to dress as she deems fit according to her personal or religious belief.
5. The wearing or non-wearing of hijab must be left to the individual’s discretion and no woman should be coerced to wear it on religious grounds, just as she cannot be coerced to take it off on secular grounds.
On religious grounds, the hijab has always been a subject of contention even among Muslim jurists and scholars of the past and present, and wearing/not wearing it has never been part of the fundamental belief system of Islam. However, traditionally, the hijab has been seen as part of the (non-definitive) Muslim women’s attire and the State ought to respect this standpoint and allow ease for those who so choose to wear it.
[This conclusion does not follow. If the hijab has always been a subject of contention even within the practitioners, and wearing it has never been part of the belief system, then "why should the State respect this contentious practice?
If the wearing or non-wearing of the hijab should be left to the individual's discretion then, can it not be argued that if it were allowed in uniform services, it is de facto a passive if not active endorsement of the hijab and in turn lead to pressure or "coersion" on muslim women in uniform service to don the hijab?]
6. Public education must continue in ensuring that Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, do not adopt stereotypical views on the hijab and confuse the women wearing it as ignorant or oppressed, nor with the view that women who do not wear it as immoral or immodest.
The dignity of the woman to decide for herself with access to the full spectrum of views on the hijab must be paramount. And in the context of multicultural Singapore, the right to wear and the right not to wear must be respected on grounds of individual human rights and dignity, choice, and freedom of belief.
In addition to the above, I think we have to ask a fundamental question on how dire the situation is, since there is really no restriction on hijab in many sectors of employment, with the exception of the uniformed services (army, police and some parts of nursing; and uniformed government schools, ie primary and secondary levels).
It is wrong to over-exaggerate the situation, as if Muslims are ‘persecuted’ or ‘oppressed’ with regards to the hijab, which is how some voices (especially those with an “axe to grind”) are portraying it. Yes, one may argue the State has not been sufficiently reasonable with regards to the policy, yet the matter must be argued in a rational and fair manner.
One missing element, which I feel is crucial to this whole debate, is the voices of those who really want to serve in the uniformed services but have been told to remove the hijab. I would like to hear their voices instead of those who loudly claim to represent this group’s interests -- we have no empirical evidence on whether it has caused ruin to the family income, emotional hurt, psychological trauma, alienation, etc, as has been claimed.
Until then, I prefer to focus on other issues in the Malay/Muslim community that require immediate attention and the galvanising of resources and brainpower – issues of under-development and poverty, for instance – and where the negative impact on the community and Singapore society as a whole is much more significant.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is a social activist and founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals. This first appeared as a Facebook post.