Work or hijab? Singapore debates banning the Islamic veil at work


Beh Lih Yi (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Singapore ●
Tue, September 22, 2020

11:30 a.m.
South East Asia
hijab, Singapore, islamic veil

Every day before starting her shift at a government hospital in Singapore, Farah takes off her hijab – the Islamic veil she has worn since she was a teenager.

Although minority Muslim women can freely wear the hijab in most settings in Singapore, some professions ban the wearing of headscarves – and a recent case has sparked a new debate about diversity and discrimination in the workplace .

Now Farah has 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 gathering 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 hijab, when recounting her job interview two years ago for a position as a physiotherapist.

“I felt a sense of helplessness, it’s unfair. Why did the tudung become an obstacle for us looking for a job?” asked the 27-year-old, who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals at work.

She ended up taking the job but has to take off her headscarf every time she is at work.

Farah’s case is not an oddity.

There was an outcry last month when a woman was asked to take off her hijab to work as a promoter at a local department store.

Halimah Yacob, the country’s first female president who wears the hijab herself, said there was “no room” for discrimination when asked for her views on the case.

The store reversed its policy, but many took to social media to report that restrictions remained on the wearing of hijab for certain public 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 past. The country is predominantly ethnic Chinese, many of whom follow Buddhism or Christianity.

In 2013, then-Muslim Affairs Minister 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 health ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Referring to the department store case, the Singaporean president said discrimination in the workplace was “disturbing” because it deprives a person of earning a living.

“People should be judged 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 heightened, incidents of discrimination heighten 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 for avoiding it.

In the conservative province of Aceh in Indonesia, women without headscarves have been censored. In Malaysia, Islamic authorities surveyed a book about 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 job prospects for women, especially when the coronavirus pandemic has pushed Singapore into recession and companies are 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 Singaporean Muslim women.

“This issue in Singapore is only for 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 – head covering worn by Sikh men – is permitted 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 at a private security company respectively, are both banned from wearing headscarves at work.

She called on officials to explain the restrictions, saying countries like Britain or Australia had 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 acknowledging that these differences exist and living with them. It’s so much more than that,” said Nur, co-founder of Lepak Conversations, an online group.

“It’s about knowing that those differences exist, accepting them, and embracing those differences.” Filzah of Beyond the Hijab said the restrictions can make it harder for women to enter the labor market.

“Some women don’t feel comfortable taking away part of their identity just so they can make money,” she said.

“Having to impose this very difficult choice on Muslim women is unjust and unjust.”


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