The following is a contribution from an anonymous writer.
I remember some years ago when Singapore made international headlines for prohibiting young Muslims girls from wearing the tudung or hijab in public schools. The brief story was that these children (albeit just a handful), having followed the instructions of their parents, turned up at their respective schools wearing the Muslim headscarf – only to be refused admission for flouting school regulations as the tudung wasn’t part of the school uniform. Some of these kids – whose parents refused to have them remove their tudungs – were eventually suspended from school. This sparked a national outcry from the local Muslim community who argued that it was unfair to enforce this ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools as Sikh boys had been allowed to wear their turbans in classrooms.
As a schoolgoing kid, my parents had never forced me to wear the tudung so I didn’t have any issues with the school authorities. However, now in my late 20’s, and having the freedom to make my own wardrobe choices, I decided to don a tudung because it just felt right and was to me an important part of my spiritual journey as a Muslim. I started wearing a headscarf while pursuing my degree in a local university and had no problems as we could wear whatever we want as long as we were decently dressed. My friends and lecturers were at first surprised that I started wearing a tudung and were curious about my decision but nobody really cared to be honest. After all, this was part and parcel of Singapore’s multicultural society. For me, I was just happy that I could be myself without having to worry about any form of discrimination by society at large. After all, our national pledge clearly states that we are citizens of Singapore “regardless of race, language or religion” and that we pledge “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality”.
I have to say that my grades were above average and I was fairly confident of finding a job within two months of my graduation. However, I found that regardless of my good qualifications, I was told several times at various interviews that company policy meant I had to remove my tudung if I wanted the job. At first, I felt outraged and appalled that employers had no respect for my religion. Whichever way I chose to dress, I felt that it shouldn’t have a bearing on my suitability for the job. In fact, I often got pretty annoyed seeing how some girls dress so inappropriately for job interviews wearing micro skirts and plunging necklines. What were they trying to prove? I felt offended as a woman that they had to resort to such lowly tactics to land a job.
I had a hard time for months, going for one job interview after another, only to be told the same thing – that I’m exactly what they were looking for, sans the tudung. Many a times I felt the urge to just go with the flow and remove my tudung for the sake my own career. But was this the life I wanted? To live on others’ terms and to be OK for people to tell me what I can or cannot wear at the workplace? A female friend once asked me if I felt ‘trapped’, wearing a tudung. On the contrary, I told her felt free. Because I wear a headscarf (and of course dress decently), I knew that I would be assessed based purely on my own merit and any job offers I got wasn’t because of how sexy or beautiful I looked but because of my intellect and ability to perform the task. I learnt to love myself and my faith more than any fancy job in the market. If employers couldn’t accept me for who I was, then I couldn’t accept working at such organisations either. It’s a two-way street. As much as employers want to find the best person for the role, jobseekers like me have a choice too. As for the companies that didn’t hire me because I wore a headscarf, all I can say is that it was their loss and not mine.
After much perseverance and a huge amount of patience, I finally landed the perfect job where I’m passionate about my work and where tudungs are a non-issue as long as the brains behind the veil get the job done well! It’s been a tough ride, but I made it through. However, I do worry for the tudung-wearing freshies out there who are now looking for a job, especially with the current economic situation in which jobs aren’t easy to find. Singaporean executives in general are finding it tough to get interviews, much less the educated Muslim women who face discrimination by employers.
While it’s easy to say that the government should do something about this unfair practice such as introducing specific legislation to prevent racial discrimination against tudung-wearing women, I think the larger issue at hand is the social stigma associated with the headscarf. I mean, if a woman is immediately identifiable as a Muslim because of her tudung, why should that be a bad thing? Perhaps this came to be established through media discourse about Muslims who have been portrayed as terrorists, and for being backward, among other negative labels.
This needs to change and I do recognise that change does not take place overnight. Change can only happen through education, understanding, and acceptance, and this needs to be cultivated from a young age. If primary and secondary schools can’t even accept female Muslim students wearing the tudung, how can we expect this to be accepted in the working world? If Singapore is truly the multicultural nation that we claim to be and if we were to be true to the words in our Singapore pledge, then perhaps our society today would be less discriminatory against a harmless woman in a headscarf who has similar goals and aspirations as any other regular Singaporean.