Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Hijab Issue: A question of individual rights and freedom (11th November 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings 
Monday, 11th November 2013 

The Hijab Issue: A question of individual rights and freedom 

               On October 12, a petition was started on to allow Muslim women in Singapore working in 'front line' jobs - for example nursing and uniformed services to don the hijab. The petition garnered 12,405 signatures before it was taken down. However, the debate continues.

               The issue has gotten the attention of key figures in government with Prime Minister (PM) Lee and Dr Yaccob Ibrahim weighing in on the issue. But recent statement from the government appears to signal that the government will not budge in its stance. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim recently posted on his Facebook that 'Most Muslims recognise that if we allow employees or officers to modify their uniforms for religious reasons, particularly for the police and the military, it would be very problematic'. This statement led some to question what the minister meant by 'very problematic'. The government's justification for their reluctant to budge has been vague with key figure such as Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo citing maintaining overall social harmony as their key concern. 

               Before proceeding, it will be good to note that on religious grounds, the hijab has been a subject of contention among Muslim jurists and scholars past and present and wearing/not wearing 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.(Source: Thus it is the individual choice of a Muslim woman to consider all views on this issue and make a decision as to whether she wants to don the hijab and the state should respect her personal decision on the grounds of individual choice and belief. 

              It might be helpful to explore the various concerns that the government may have. I personally feel that there are 3 key concerns. 

              Firstly, it is the concern that by allowing Muslim women to don the hijab at these 'front-line' jobs, it will set the precedent for other religious group to request for permission to allow them to don items that are unique to their religion. This concern is understandable. However, we should not be afraid that that by allowing different groups to openly practice their religious beliefs, it will cause social disharmony in Singapore. Every individual has the right to practice their religious beliefs as long as it does not infringe upon the fundamental rights of others and/or hurt others and/or undermine the social stability of the country. The government should evaluate their decision of whether to allow these groups to practice their religious beliefs on the above grounds and as long it does not undermine social stability, this fundamental right should not be refused. In fact, by allowing different groups to practice their religious beliefs, we are openly embracing multiculturalism that we pride ourselves upon. We may dress differently and have different religious beliefs, but if we can come together to have a meal and appreciate our differences, it's a real mark of a mature society that is willing to understand and accommodate people from different backgrounds. And allowing Muslim women to don the hijab across all government agencies will be a good step forward towards promoting inclusiveness and cohesion in Singapore.

               Secondly, on a more practical view, some may argue that donning the hijab in the nursing sector may not be feasible due to hygiene reasons. Others, argue that donning it in uniformed services may be not feasible due to operational exigencies. I believe these are concerns that can be worked around be it adjusting or redesigning uniforms to fit the physical/hygiene needs of the job. Other countries, like Malawi, were able to work around such issues so I do not see why Singapore can't. 

                Lastly, it may be the concern that Singapore may not be ready for our 'front-line' workers to don the hijab. I have faith that we have progressed far enough as a society to be embracing enough that this is not a concern. Besides we have many private corporations based in Singapore that has integrated the hijab into the uniforms of front line staffs and Singaporeans have no concerns about it.

                What is more pertinent is the fact that the real target of this debate- Muslim Women who wants to enter these jobs and who wishes to don the hijab, are not weighing in enough on the issue. We have no idea how many people will this change in policy, if it gets implemented, affect and how this current ban is affecting their career options. It would be good to hear their viewpoint on the issue as they are the one directly concerned. 

                It is tricky for the government to thread an issue where a minority group is involved as on one hand you have to be truly aware and understanding of the group's stance and on the other hand you have to hold your ground and make a decision that is principled which may/may not be welcomed by the minority group. 

                With regards to this issue, I feel that the government should allow the hijab to be don across all government sector jobs. Firstly, this decision should be a principled one where the government recognizes the importance of acknowledging one's rights to practice his/her religious beliefs so long as it does not infringe the rights of another individual, which clearly does not in this case. Secondly, it would be an acknowledgement of the maturity of our Singapore society that we are able to accommodate and embrace different religious beliefs in our society. And lastly, it will be a strong signal to the Muslim community that their views matter and that they are heard. This is a step in civil engagement that I believe the Muslim community will appreciate and the trust that is built up between the Muslim community and the government will be helpful in resolving future concerns that may not be as easy to navigate.


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