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.


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.

1 comment:

El Lobo Loco said...

Comments on the issue from a Letter to TODAY on the issue. It was a long thread, so this is just an extract:

"...the question of the hijab's status is a religious issue for the Muslims to decide. That we are not in disagreement.

The question of whether the secular SG govt should allow the hijab is a issue for the govt to decide (with the recommendation of the legitimate Islamic authority, when the issue has been decided within the community).

My concern is those who seek to use fifth column tactics to pursue their agenda. My concern is the special interest group who seek to push for their agenda outside the legitimate procedures for resolving religious questions the Muslim way. My concern is those who would short-circuit the process of legitimate recognition of religious practices simply because their arguments are unable to progress via the proper channels [within the Muslim community]. And who then try to blackmail, arm-twist and pressure the SG govt into doing what they want regardless of or without the decision of the legitimate Muslim authority.

I observed that there is no decision by the legitimate Muslim authority in SG that the hijab is compulsory, and that therefore, it is improper for the secular SG Govt to pre-empt the decision of the Muslim Authority, or to undermine said authority."

The comment is in line with the conclusion of this article (by Md Imran) - that the issue is not a religious issue, but a political issue. That is, whether the hijab is mandatory for Muslim women to wear is a religious question for the Muslim community and legitimate authority to decide.

Whether the SG Govt should allow the hijab in Uniformed services is a political issue?

I'm not sure if "political issue" is used by Md Imran the way I understand "political issue".

I tend to see it more as a "policy issue". That as a matter of policy, the SG govt has accorded special consideration to mandatory religious observances such as the Sikh Turban.

Therefore, as a matter of policy, or for consistent application of policy, if the hijab is declared (legitimately) as a mandatory religious practice, then the SG Govt MUST allow it to be consistent with their policy on the Sikh Turban.

However, until such a legitimate declaration is made, it is actually a political issue. The issue is that one faction of the Muslim community that believes the Hijab is compulsory, wants the SG Govt to recognise this belief and allow the Hijab in the uniformed services. This is tantamount to "endorsing" the beliefs of a faction while the legitimate Islamic authority (MUIS?) has not.

It would seem then that the faction is a special interest group seeking endorsement from outside their religion, by which they can then present to the other faction as a fait accompli.

And that is a political issue.