Examining some of the ‘arguments’ put forth by Minister Masagos on hijab issue at Parliament

By Alfian Sa’at

In the absence of a real debate about the hijab in Parliament, it’s also important to look at the arguments against allowing the hijab in certain occupations. The problem is that many of the reasons set forth by the government are unconvincing and poorly argued, and has given rise to the sense that the issue is being evaded rather than tackled rationally.

Let’s examine some of the ‘arguments’ put forth by Masagos:

1) (In response to Faisal’s speech): “He has used this motion, which is focused on the aspirations of all women in Singapore, to raise again the issue of the tudung, to focus on differences instead of rallying people to be united.”

This is a strange argument to make, because to be able to accommodate the hijab as part of uniforms is to actually take the focus away from differences. It is to see the hijab as something that is integrated into a uniform code rather than something that stands outside of it.

2) “Is it his or his party’s position that these issues are the top concerns of the community? There are real socio-economic problems we have to deal with in our community– education, housing, jobs.”

This is not really an argument, but one which attempts to re-shelve an issue according to an assumed order of priority. An an MP, Faisal has the obligation to raise certain issues in Parliament that affects the lives of his constituents. Anyway it’s self-defeating to say that your bandwidth is exhausted because you have to deal with various issues; if you’re not careful it’s an admission of incompetence.

3) On the virtues of closed-door consultations: “Finally, the outcome of that episode was one that the Mufti – knowing very well what is the priority of our community – made a statement to tell us that knowledge is important for us to pursue, and not just covering of heads.”

This is a false ultimatum, because it sets up the wearing of the hijab in opposition to seeking knowledge. Of course there are ways in which one can wear the hijab and at the same time ‘seek knowledge’ or more accurately, ‘assimilate into the workforce’. What it takes though is some practical solutions and political will, and to resort to ultimatums is to state that one has a deficit of both.

4) “Did I have a platform? Yes I do. Did I have to go out and try to wreak havoc? I did not.”

This isn’t even really an argument, but part of the unpleasant tenor of discussions we keep seeing in Parliament. An Opposition MP member is accused of ‘wreaking havoc’ for raising an issue which apparently MP’s don’t have the maturity and the language to discuss. It is ‘havoc’ only because many of the MP’s seem to be have no reasonable answers to the issue, other than reiterations of how such issues are divisive, emotive, sensitive etc.

There’s also another argument I’ve seen before, but which didn’t surface so prominently this time, which is that to accede to the demands of one community is to open the floodgates to demands from other communities. This was an argument used for Thaipusam: if we allow foot processions for one community, to be fair we have to let others have their processions too. Which is a silly argument, because not all communities have foot processions as their religious obligation (and no, it is not mandatory for the Prophet’s Birthday or mawlid to be celebrated on the streets). Same thing with the hijab—not all communities will have similar dressing requirements.

The arguments against the incorporation of the hijab into uniforms, I think, should focus on the ways it might compromise how one’s work is carried out. The irony is that for all the pride we take in being a practical people, we insist on shelving issues like religious freedom in a ‘dangerous’ category full of raised voices and primordial feelings instead of one where one can soberly weigh the pros and cons.

1) Cross infection

This applies specifically to nursing. The problem here is not with the headdress (which can be tucked into one’s collar) but long sleeves. These can harbour microbes from patients that nurses come into contact with, which can be potentially passed on to other patients. When you wear short sleeves, then you can scrub your forearms after contact with a patient and you minimise this risk.

This is a very real risk as patients’ lives and safety are at stake, especially since superbugs thrive in hospital environments. So what solution is there? Disposable sleeves? How much will this cost and should it be borne by the individual or the hospital? Or how about a compromise where one can wear a headdress but work with short sleeves, probably supported by a fatwa? A mufti once stated that between going to school and wearing a tudung, the former should take precedence. How about making a similar argument regarding the welfare of the patients under one’s care?

2) Neutrality

This is a tricky issue, because it depends on public perception of the attitudes and world views of a public servant who wears the hijab. Wearing a uniform is one way to efface one’s religious identity, which contributes to the impression that one has no religious bias when dealing with members of the public. (This is a blurry area, because there is no way to effectively efface one’s own race, and one is thus always open to charges of racial bias.)

The ideal approach would be to educate the public that once a public servant is in uniform, that person is obliged to serve all members of the public, regardless of race or religion or gender etc. Which means to say that the religious exemption for dressing will not extend to a religious exemption for other requirements in the line of duty. So a hijab-wearing paramedic must be able to administer CPR to someone of the opposite sex, for example, and a hijab-wearing immigration officer must take decisive action against anyone who tries to appeal to their shared religion (to be honest this can also happen when people try to appeal to a common race). There are some grey areas that need to be explored too, like whether a Muslim rape victim, who went drinking, would be comfortable providing a statement to a police officer wearing a hijab.

Ultimately, what the government can do, to show that it is serious about handling this issue, is to study how other countries have managed to incorporate the hijab into their public servants’ uniforms, not just in Muslim-majority countries but also the UK, Scotland, Canada and Australia. Contrary to what the government says, it is not the open airing of the issue that is causing unease. The real cause of agitation is the fact that time and again it’s hastily swept under the rug.

This post was first published on Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook page