By Alfian Sa’at
Are we not sick already of the way certain issues are debated in Parliament? The raising of the perennial ‘tudung issue’ has become some kind of weird tussle for legitimacy–as representative of minority rights– between opposition MP Faisal Manap and PAP MP Masagos Zulkifli.
Masagos seems to be an advocate for closed-door, behind-the-scenes deliberations, which is another name for elite governance. (Who gets invited to these sessions? How do we know that the supposedly representative committee that is assembled is not a rigged public?) Faisal believes that public debate is important, and seems to have more faith in ordinary Singaporeans being able to think through an issue that involves religious freedom, secularism and occupational requirements.
Of course, in all the rhetoric about how an issue is ‘sensitive’ or ‘divisive’, one avoids addressing the issue altogether. So let’s start from the beginning. Some Muslim women wear the hijab in public. It is important to note that this does not only consist of a head-covering but also clothes which conceal the whole body with the exception of the face and hands. This is an important point because any modification of uniforms to accommodate the hijab will mean introducing long sleeves and long pants to replace short sleeves and skirts.
Why do they wear the hijab in public? If you live in the US and watch nothing but Fox News, you would think that it is because they were pressured to do so by their brothers and fathers, who believe that a woman’s modesty is a commodity to be perpetually guarded. But if you live in Singapore, you will know that there is a high degree of autonomy practised by those Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab. And two of the reasons often cited might be counterintuitive to those who think of the hijab as some kind of patriarchal constraint: comfort and freedom.
‘Comfort’ does not only mean physical comfort, but also the psychological and spiritual comfort that one feels by doing something which one thinks is consonant with one’s religious teachings. (And here we must also make space for women who are equally comfortable with *not* wearing the hijab, because they don’t think it is dissonant with religious teachings.) And ‘freedom’ is often freedom from the kinds of gazes and judgments that seek to objectify a woman’s body—from the way her hair is styled, to the tanlines on her shoulders, to the hair on her arms or legs. It is a way, for some people, of unplugging from pernicious body standards, or a gentle request that one is evaluated on the basis of something other than mere appearance.
The picture is of course a lot more complex than above. Why is it that young, single women wearing the hijab can sometimes signal that they are suitable prospects in the marriage market, or at least advertise for the kinds of partners they seek? (Clue: not the abang-abang havoc.) And why do some hijab-wearing women wear make-up if the aim is to deflect male attention? An answer would be: because they are not nuns. The interesting thing about the hijab is that it occupies a space of reconciliation between the clerical and the worldly. We associate the wearing of headdresses with those who have taken clerical vows, such as nuns with their wimples. Veiling is often a strategy to retreat from the social and secular, and to concentrate on self-cultivation.
The hijab then affords a compromise between a spiritual turning-inward and a projection of a public self, and in a sense speaks of that lack of distinction, in Islam, between a ‘person of God’ and a ‘person of the world’. (Something outsiders sometimes have difficulty understanding, when many religions have a separation between the clergy and lay believers). And this is why this particular religious garb also manifests itself as fashion, in an explosion of colour and styles.
There have been concerns about how the wearing of the hijab was never as widespread ‘in the past’, and how its ubiquitousness is hence a sign of growing conservatism, and even worse, separatism. Well, in that past, the place for women was in the domestic sphere, where husbands were supposed to be sole breadwinners and women were expected to stay at home. However, over time, more women were receiving education and entering the workforce in larger numbers than before.
In that navigation between traditional gender roles and modern economic pressures, the hijab afforded some women an unprecedented measure of mobility. Rather than being a manifestation of conservatism, the hijab was these women’s answer to conservatism, a response to the voices of elders insisting that the home is the only safe place for women, their fears about ‘improper’ interactions in work environments. It was a form of negotiation with modernity and again, a way of being free. While the primary reason often cited by women for wearing the hijab is a religious one, it’s also useful to look at its sociological dimensions.
I realise only too acutely that I stand accused of speaking on behalf of women who wear the hijab. The choice to wear (or not wear) it is a deeply personal one, and there is something coarse about subjecting such choices to any form of scrutiny. But I really feel that we need to counter those prevalent modes of thinking that sees the hijab as a tool of patriarchal oppression, or as segregationist rejection of mainstream clothing norms, or as fierce assertion of a resurgent Islamic identity. There are women among our fellow citizens who choose to wear the hijab when they are out in public, or in their working environments. It makes them feel comfortable, secure, peaceful and at ease with themselves. What can we do, as a multicultural, multireligious society, to respect that choice and ensure their wellbeing?
This post was first published on Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook page