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Hijab issue as a litmus test

By Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir

profilepichijabTo be sure, the hijab issue has altered the life courses of many Muslim girls in Singapore. In some instances, it has even altered the life courses of entire families.

Since a few decades ago, young girls who have worn the hijab have had to make many decisions at critical junctures of their lives that other Singaporeans are not subjected to. Some parents had gone through great lengths to home-school their girls in order to preserve the Islamic requirement for the hijab, which was not considered a part of the common space in national schools. Others have even migrated with their families to matriculate in more hijab-friendly countries such as Australia, UK and other Asian countries. The fate of the four girls suspended from national schools in the 2002 ‘tudung issue’ is a mere microcosm of a larger social reality.

Denied entry into national schools, some have enrolled in full time madrasahs, even at the expense of spending an extra year for their secondary school education because some madrasahs do not provide the Express stream and those who do have filled their quota. After the O levels, many among those who took the local madrasah route go on to further their dreams in local polytechnics that allow a Muslim girl to observe the hijab, although it again cost them another extra year coupled with higher tuition fees, and arguably a more difficult route to the university compared to the junior colleges.

In the polytechnic, hijab adorning girls have to make a premature decision regarding their course of study. What course will give them the best chances in landing a hijab friendly job? For when it comes to joining the Singapore workforce, hijab wearing women in Singapore are again at a crossroad. Faced with a situation whereby careers adjudged to be ‘frontline’ such as jobs in the nursing, policing, tourism industries just to name a few, have shut their doors. I have listened to too many stories of valuable Singaporeans having to make a cocktail of these unfortunate decisions.

Much has been made over the manner in which some among the Muslim community have expressed their anger at the recent round of campaigning over the hijab issue. However, it has to be stated that these reactions do not exist in a vacuum. In its elementary form, it represents the collective frustration of the community over the sacrifices made by many – themselves, their wives, siblings, relatives, friends and neighbours – and the exasperation of many years of lobbying the government to no avail.

The Singapore Muslim community is not alone in this predicament although it must be mentioned one of the few to have stubbornly insisted on the hijab ban among the highly developed countries.

There are many ways one can approach the hijab issue. I have heard some of the best arguments made by the most intelligent people from the perspectives of multiculturalism, democracy, law, and human rights among others. It is not my intention to reproduce them here. But at the end of the day, all arguments lay before the doorsteps of the state. As it stands, the state’s rationalization that the hijab will prove as a hindrance to national integration is empirically weak and not based on substantive evidence.

The hijab issue serves as a litmus test for the Muslim community specifically to the extent in which their voices are heard after the numerous rounds of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and Suara Musyawarah(the mini Malay version of OSC) dialogues conducted the past year. By using the term ‘Muslim community’, I am not in any way suggesting that the community is a homogenous one but intrinsic in the hijab lobby are the values of choice, respect and tolerance, which the state have exalted in the recent population debates. Hence, does the Singapore Muslim community need to wait another 11 years before they are heard again?

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Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir is currently a Visiting Scholar at New York University and the City University of New York. He is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Muslims as Minorities: History and Social Realities of Muslims in Singapore (National University of Malaysia Press, 2009), Muslims in Singapore: Piety, Politics and Policies (Routledge, 2010) and The Future of Singapore: Population, Society and the Nature of the State (Routledge, 2014)

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