Unless we still live in the Tang dynasty, it is common to have a Muslim colleague donning a tudung or headscarf at our workplace. It is also not unusual to have a waitress or salesperson wearing religious headgear while attending to us when at a store or restaurant.
However, on July 29, label owner Raine Anastasia Chin uploaded a post on Facebook revealing the rules of a department store where she had intended to set up a 3-week pop-up booth to sell handmade leather bags.
Chin had shared about an incident involving a part-time promoter she had hired to help her at the booth and the management of the department store, which she had referred to as “A”.
In the post, Chin wrote that the management had asked the part-timer to remove her tudung, citing an in-house rule that any form of religious headgear was not allowed while working in the store. She also alleged that the two managers had spoken to the 20-year-old part-timer in a discriminatory tone.
Standing up to the two managers, Chin questioned the policy, to which they simply answered that it was for “the sake of professionalism”.
Eventually, Chin parted ways with the department store, sharing that she was glad to leave rather than allowing her label and staff to be humiliated.
In a report by CNA, Chin was quoted as saying “Abiding by the rules of (the store) is not an issue, but the discrimination and the tone used … was wrong.”
On 18 Aug, it was reported that the department store in question was Tangs and that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) was looking into the case.
After the matter came to light, Nurin Jazlina Mahbob, the part-time promoter, told the Straits Times that it was the way that the Tangs supervisors spoke to her and Chin that she felt was insensitive.
“(The manager’s) tone implied that if I wanted to continue working there, I had to do as she asked. As much as I do understand and respect the house rules of each company, asking me to remove my tudung in public is a personal insult. Wearing a tudung is not only required by my religion, it is also a symbol of my modesty,” she told ST.
A Tangs spokesman acknowledged to Today that there was a lapse in its communication with Chin and Nurin.
“As part of our onsite partner induction process, we provide dress code, decorum and other useful guidelines to personnel of our partners. In this instance, unfortunately, our standard operating procedure was not followed. We will look into this and remedial action will be taken.”
Notable Muslim figures in Singapore speak up
Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad was first to speak up, calling it an “important issue for the community”. He wrote on Facebook: “Workplaces are an important part of the common space where people interact and work with one another regardless of cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
“Employers should be thoughtful of the policies and practices they set, including inclusivity at their workplaces. I also urge employers to regularly review these policies and take into consideration the views and sensitivities of their stakeholders, such as their employees, customers and business partners.”
He added in the post: “Religious attire should generally be allowed at workplaces, unless employers have uniform, or dress code requirements which are suited to the nature of their work, or for operational and safety reasons.”
Agreeing with Minister Zaqy, President Halimah Yacob addressed the case in a Facebook post shortly after.
She wrote: “Discrimination of any form and against anyone has no place at all in our society and, most certainly, not at the workplace. People should be assessed solely on their merits and their ability to do a job and nothing else. Discrimination at the workplace is particularly disturbing because it deprives the person affected from earning a living. During this Covid-19 period when concerns over jobs and livelihoods are greater, incidents of discrimination exacerbate anxieties and people feel threatened.
“Diversity is our strength and our society has already embraced it. I hope that employers too will fully embrace diversity at the workplace and do their part to uphold the values of a fair and open society.”
Hijab discrimination in Belgium and around the world
The banning of religious headgear is nothing unheard of. In many countries, wearing the hijab is not allowed in workplaces that have dress code requirements according to the nature of the work, or for operational and safety reasons.
It is understandable that wearing the hijab may not be appropriate in places that have high security standards. But surely institutions of education are not one of them?
In Brussels, thousands of protesters took to the streets following a constitutional decision on June 4 to allow the banning of headscarves in Belgian universities.
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In a post-9/11 world, Muslim women everywhere are caught between two stereotypes: They are either seen as the personification of the oppression of a feminine gender that needs to be saved, or they are perceived as a danger in the public sphere, especially when they are intellectually and politically active, such as the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and US Congresswomen Ilhan Abdullahi Omar. They have both received death threats for simply standing up for what they believe in.
Double standard in women’s rights
We often use the phrases “My body. My choice.” and “Her body. Her choice.” when we defend women’s rights over their bodies for sexual, marriage, and reproductive choices, and even how they dress.
Modern society is quick to stand up for women who get catcalled on the streets for wearing a short skirt, but turns a blind eye when someone is being called a “threat” or “terrorist” just because of her hijab.
The feminist slogan should be applied to all women and not just to excuse women who show more skin.
Wearing a hijab is compulsory once Muslim girls reach puberty, according to the Islamic faith. However, in Singapore, many Muslim women wear the headscarf on their own free will.
We do not live in an Islamic state where wearing the hijab in public is required by law. I also believe that we do not live in a society where unreasonable fathers disown you or husbands divorce you if you do not wear a tudung.
As a hijabi myself, I chose to wear the headscarf when I had my second child. I had asked my husband for his opinion beforehand, and he simply replied “up to you”.
Debate over hijab in workplaces
It’s 2020. Public service employees in other parts of the world have shown that the hijab can be incorporated into the uniform code professionally and safely. I’m glad to know that Tangs now intends to review its dress code to allow all employees to wear religious headgear if they so choose to while working.
According to Mothership, a spokesman for Tangs said: “Our corporate office colleagues and back of house employees wear religious headgear, and we plan to standardise this practice across the stores for all”.
Company policies are to be respected, but so is one’s religious beliefs and practices. Debate over religious headgear should be taken with a dose of kindness and not in a high-handed manner.
We can commend Tangs for the swift action it took to fix its store policy..
However, the department store’s move still comes a little too late as we now cannot know for sure whether or not the management decided to change the rules because it realised that it is archaic and that it’s time to be more inclusive.
Or is it doing so only now because it is suffering a public relations hit and needs to defuse the situation?
We don’t know. And that’s a sad thing.