“I have always thought that if women’s hair posed so many problems, God would certainly have made us bald.”
– Marjane Satrapi, “The Complete Persepolis”
Muslim-only launderettes and banning frontline staff from wearing headscarves are not the same thing. It is not hypocritical to object to the former and have no opinion of the latter or even not object to it at all.
There is a big difference between discriminating against a person based on race or religion and having a dress code that may – may – affect some people because of how they identify with their religion.
Some Muslim women wear headscarves. Some Muslim women do not.
There is enough empirical evidence to suggest that many Muslim women face pressure to wear the headscarf, indeed one Malaysiakini columnist related how her college-going daughter was pressured by her female contemporaries to “cover up” but chose to deal with it in her own way.
This idea that there is freedom of religion in this country for the majority, with apostasy laws, with rehabilitation camps for those who deviate, with verboten words for non-Muslims and the constant threats not to interfere with Islam, makes a mockery of the principle of freedom of religion.
The incidents of unilateral conversions, forced conversion by state agencies and the countless court cases involving the trespass of the religion of the state into our private and public domains, is also evidence that freedom of religion is more word than deed in this country. This is the context some people are choosing to ignore.
Furthermore, this is not a question of religious beliefs. Nobody is discriminating against Muslims in this instance. This is more to do with freedom of expression.
Some – some – Muslim women choose to express their religious beliefs by covering up.
Now if they have a choice in this, then surely they can make a choice as to what kind of work environment they desire: A work environment which is flexible about religious expressions, or one which has a stricter dress code which limits their religious expression.
The last thing I want to know about anyone in the service industry, or any industry for that matter, is what religion they subscribe to. It does not matter if you are a Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim. What has displaying your religious affiliation have to do with the job you were hired to do?
Do you know what is discrimination? If the hotel chooses not to entertain customers who wear headscarves. This is discrimination. If the hotel chooses not to entertain customers who express their religious beliefs overtly. This is discrimination.
Some Muslim women do not think it is an obligation to cover up. Liberals are always telling us that covering up is a choice and not an obligation as some Muslims claim. So why is this an issue?
Believe me, you could be discriminated based solely on race and there isn’t anything you can do about it except rage on internet message boards and support political parties that claim they are egalitarian, when most often they make idealistic claims to stoke the base.
Dress codes for civil servants
Some people have linked this situation with overzealous civil servants enforcing a dress code when entering public service premises.
It is not for civil servants to enforce a dress code. They do not have a mandate but more importantly, they work for the public.
While government agencies may have a uniform dress code for their staff and this may take into account religious observances (for whatever reasons), this does not mean that the private sector should do the same.
Some workplaces are flexible when it comes to this issue, some are not. People have a choice as to where they want to work. They do not have a choice when it comes to dealing with a bureaucracy they are paying for.
PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli (photo) claims it is time for an equal opportunity law. Unfortunately, these types of laws work both ways. The rules apply to the private and public sector. This is why so many Malay rights groups have always had a problem whenever this act has been mooted.
Apparently for some Malay rights groups, equal opportunity laws go against the Constitution of Malaysia.
By this I mean, they go against the legal and social contract concepts of Malay privileges. Unless we are talking about an equal opportunity law which does not apply to the public sector. Then it is not really an equal opportunity law but rather another law to justify the importance of political parties to their political and racial base.
A place of work is not the avenue for the expression of your religious beliefs. Your religious beliefs have nothing to do with your professionalism. So to suggest that practising a dress code applicable to everyone is discriminatory is dubious and honestly mendacious.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.