The decision to wear a tudung in a photograph on a banner for Hari Raya was undertaken with prior consultation with an Islamic religious teacher and the chairman of a mosque, said Nee Soon Member of Parliament (MP) Lee Bee Wah.
In a Facebook post on Sunday (17 May), Lee said that residents in her constituency are aware that she participates in the annual celebrations at Ahmad Ibrahim Mosque, during which she would “wear traditional Malay baju with tudung to show respect for their religion”.
“In the initial years, it was the members of the Mosque who loaned me the baju and tudung. I have checked with the religious teacher and also the chairman of Ahmad Ibrahim Mosque, and they said that what I was wearing was OK,” she said.
Lee added that the photograph on the banner “was taken on one of these occasions”.
“In previous years, my banner shows me and a few residents. But this year, to be sensitive to residents who cannot gather during Circuit Breaker, we did not use a group photo,” she explained.
Tudung is the Malay word for hijab, an Arabic term which means “barrier”. It is a “headscarf” or “veil” often worn by Muslim girls and women to cover their hair, necks and chests as a means to demonstrate piety to God.
Mainstream interpretations of Islamic dress code suggest that hijab is only obligatory for Muslim girls upon reaching puberty, which usually takes place in their early- or mid-teen years. However, some Muslim parents enforce the tudung on their daughters at an earlier age.
There are also many Muslim women who begin wearing the hijab past puberty out of their personal will after making a personal hijrah–a form of spiritual migration or transformation.
Several commenters praised Lee for her attempt at cultivating religious understanding and acceptance towards the Muslim community in Nee Soon, noting that she has sought permission from those well-versed in Islam before proceeding with putting the photograph on the banner.
Insensitive for non-Muslim politicians sport the tudung while structural discrimination against Muslim women who wear the garment persists, critics argue
Several other commenters, however, pointed out that while Lee’s decision to wear the garment while visiting the mosque is “very respectful” and commendable, the crux of the issue lies in doing so outside of such a context–including the photograph on the banner.
The photograph, they opined, ignores the reality that “regular hijabis are constantly being denied jobs” and “face micro-aggressions at school or at work” for wearing the headscarf, due to prejudice and discriminatory policies.
Several commenters urged Lee to use this opportunity to champion Muslim women’s rights to wear the tudung in uniformed lines of work, such as in nursing and the police force.
Arts journalist, writer and filmmaker Mysara Aljaru in a tweet last Friday highlighted that “Muslim women who don the hijab have been denied job opportunities”.
“And here you have a non-Muslim politician wearing it while there is still structural discrimination in place,” she added.
Why does this rub the wrong way for Muslim women? Because, Muslim women who don on the hijab have been denied job opportunities. And here you have a non-Muslim politician wearing it while there are still structural discrimination in place. Just the baju kurung is fine. https://t.co/WLncqpsgQK
— mysara a. (@heymysara) May 15, 2020
Nadia Nadira, a National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences graduate who majored in Social Work, narrated her experience of being asked in a “government scholarship interview” if she would consider removing her hijab.
She added that her tutor had also “singled all of the hijab girls, including myself, and commented that she was surprised that we are actually open-minded in our class discussions” at her time in university.
I went for a government scholarship interview twice and they asked if I will be considering to take out my hijab. In NUS, my tutor singled all of the hijab girls, including myself, and commented that she was surprised that we are actually open-minded in our class discussions. https://t.co/oXrZtePlGY
— ✨???? n a d n a d ????✨ (@nadia_nadiraa) May 16, 2020
Prohibition of tudung in public schools, frontlines of govt agencies continues to be a mainstay in S’pore’s policies
The Singapore government, to this date, prohibits the wearing of headscarves by students on public school grounds.
Three primary schoolgirls were suspended from their respective schools in 2002 for continuing to wear their tudung to school despite previous reminders against doing so.
Following the schoolgirls’ families’ decision to sue the Singapore government over their daughters’ predicament at the time, lawyer Sadari Musari told Reuters in Apr 2002: “The directive given by the Ministry (of Education) to the school principals not to allow these three daughters, school children to put on their headscarves—it’s unconstitutional.”
The schoolgirls’ suspension sparked a heated Parliamentary debate on the right of Muslim girls and women to wear the hijab in Singapore’s public schools–and on a larger scale–the Republic’s frontlines of government or government-linked offices, as seen with Muslim female police officers and nurses.
Workers’ Party (WP) MP Faisal Manap, during a motion on the “Aspirations of Singapore Women” on 4 April 2017 called upon Parliament to “not exclude Muslim women who wish to fulfil their career aspirations in line with their religious obligations”.
Citing countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that have permitted Muslim women serving in uniformed organisations to wear headscarves, Mr Faisal questioned as to when Singapore would move to do the same for the Home Team and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
“As a Singapore Muslim, a husband as well as a father to a daughter, I appeal to the Government to make into reality this call for inclusiveness that is often heard in this Chamber,” he added.
Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli–who is presently also the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs–in response to Mr Faisal’s speech, branded Mr Faisal’s approach “worrisome”.
“He [Mr Faisal] 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.
“He dwells on issues that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than to inspire them. In fact, Mr Faisal Manap has used many occasions to raise potentially discordant issues in this House,” Mr Masagos retorted.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post rebuked Mr Faisal’s move to raise the issue in Parliament.
“In the debate on “Aspirations of Singapore Women”, WP MP Faisal Manap brought up the tudung issue again. Minister Masagos Zulkifli challenged Mr Faisal and explained why this was unwise. He spoke with courage and conviction.
“Championing divisive issues publicly, to pressure the government and win communal votes, will only stir up emotions and damage our multi-racial harmony,” he said.
Changes to the status quo should be introduced over time rather than “being pushed for in terms of rights and entitlements”: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the tudung issue
Earlier in 2014, TODAY reported PM Lee as saying that it has always been within the Government’s policy to ensure that racial and/or religious minorities in Singapore are able to practice their culture and creed as freely as possible.
However, he opined that changes to the status quo should be introduced gradually and broadly rather than “being pushed for in terms of rights and entitlements” at the expense of the Republic’s national harmony.
In response to questions regarding when the Government will be ready to allow Malay-Muslim frontline officers in public service to wear the headscarf, Mr Lee said: “You never arrive. Over the last ten years, we have gradually moved. Nobody has really noticed.”
Mr Lee also noted that there had been an increase in corporate officers working for statutory boards who don the tudung.
“I think that’s really the way to go … This is not the sort of thing where you want to put all your attention on this item and measure the progress of, either racial relations or the progress of the Muslim community based on this one item,” he added.