(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every day before starting her service at a Singapore public hospital, Farah takes off her hijab – the Islamic veil she has been wearing since she was a teenager.
Although minority Muslim women can freely wear the hijab in most settings in Singapore, some professions ban the headscarf – and a recent case has sparked new debate over diversity and discrimination in the workplace.
Farah has now joined a growing number of Muslims – who make up around 15% of Singapore’s 4 million people – calling for an end to the ban, with an online petition collecting more than 50,000 signatures.
“They told me I couldn’t work here if I wore the tudung,” said Farah, using the local Malay term for the hijab, as she recounts her job interview two years ago for a physiotherapist position.
“I felt a sense of helplessness, it’s unfair. Why has tudung become an obstacle to finding jobs? Asked the 27-year-old, who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisal at work.
She eventually accepted the job but has to remove her headscarf every time she is at work.
Farah’s case is not an oddity.
There was an uproar last month when a woman was asked to remove her hijab to work as a promoter at a local department store.
Halimah Yacob, the country’s first female president to wear the hijab herself, said there was “no room” for discrimination when asked about her views on the case.
The store reversed its policy, but many took to social media to point out that restrictions remained on wearing the hijab for some officials, including policewomen and nurses.
The hijab debate is not new to Singapore, a modern city-state that prides itself on its multicultural and multiracial origin. The country is primarily of Chinese descent, many of which follow Buddhism or Christianity.
In 2013, then Minister of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said wearing the hijab in the workplace would be “very problematic” for certain professions requiring a uniform.
The following year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the hijab issue was about “what kind of society do we want to build in Singapore,” according to local media.
Singapore Police and the Ministry of Health did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Referring to the department store affair, the President of Singapore said that discrimination in the workplace is “disturbing” because it robs a person of earning a living.
“People should be evaluated solely on their merits and their ability to do a job and nothing else,” Halimah wrote on her Facebook, which drew more than 500 comments.
“During this time of COVID-19 when concerns about jobs and livelihoods are greater, incidents of discrimination exacerbate anxieties and people feel threatened,” she added.
The hijab has been a divisive issue for Muslims around the world.
Many Muslim women cover their heads in public as a sign of modesty, although others see it as a sign of female oppression and in the Middle East women risk prison to escape it.
In Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province, women without headscarves have been censored. In Malaysia, Islamic authorities surveyed a book on Muslim women who refuse to wear the hijab.
But women’s rights activists in Singapore say they want Muslim women to have freedom of choice.
Such restrictions have hampered women’s employment prospects, especially when the coronavirus pandemic plunged Singapore into recession and companies were laying off workers, they say.
“Women should be able to practice their religion freely without having to choose between having a job or practicing their religion,” said Filzah Sumartono, a writer who helps run Beyond the Hijab, a website focused on Muslim women in Singapore.
“This problem in Singapore is only encountered by Muslim women, it is a highly discriminatory policy against Muslim women,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Others call for consistency, noting that the turban – headgear worn by Sikh men – is allowed at work in Singapore.
“Why the double standard,” asked Nur, a Muslim law student who signed the petition posted online in June. She asked not to use her full name to protect her privacy.
The 22-year-old said her mother and sister, who work as a nurse and a private security company respectively, are both prohibited from wearing a headscarf at work.
She called on officials to explain the restrictions, saying countries like Britain or Australia have changed course, with disposable hijabs for nurses to address any hygiene concerns.
“I accept that racial harmony is very fragile, but it’s not just about recognizing that these differences exist and living with them. It’s much more than that, ”said Nur, co-founder of Lepak Conversations, an online group.
“It’s about knowing that these differences exist, accepting them and embracing those differences.
Filzah of the Beyond the Hijab group said the restrictions may make it more difficult for women to enter the workforce.
“Some women don’t feel comfortable taking part of their identity away just so they can make money,” she said.
“Having to impose this very difficult choice on Muslim women is unfair and unfair. “
Report by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org