What does wearing the ‘tudung’ (headscarf) symbolise? Is it a form of religious oppression or religious obeisance? Does it afford the wearer respect and protect her from lewd attention? Or does it inform others that the wearer follows the behest of some men?
When Nina graduated in July, she was pleased to be offered work with a private company in Kuala Lumpur. Every graduate is both excited and nervous about their first job.
On the second day at work, the owner of the firm told her that when she came in to work the following day she should wear a tudung. Nina did not return.
I think she was wrong to leave without challenging the firm about wearing the tudung. Is there an unwritten law in Malaysia that Malay women must don the tudung?
Had Nina been told about the company dress code during the interview? Nina is independent and not afraid to speak her mind. She would not have accepted the job if she had known about a dress code.
During interviews, most people dress conservatively but Nina would not have worn a tudung just to impress the interviewers.
Like most graduates, Nina would have assumed that her job offer was based on the information in her curriculum vitae; such as her work experience, her grades, her skills, her hobbies and her references. How she conducted herself at interview would have given her prospective employers, a glimpse into her personality.
She passed the hurdle of the interview, so why was the dress code sprung on her after she started work?
Did the boss tell Nina to don a tudung because she happened to be Malay? Would a non-Malay have been offered the job in the first place?
Or did her boss tell her to wear the tudung because it is allegedly a form of control?
Perhaps, the firm is dependent on government contracts. Is there an unwritten code of conduct which compels private firms to enforce a dress code on Malay employees, so as to please government officials who might pay an unexpected visit to the firm?
Or, is the tudung request in keeping with the creeping Islamisation of Malaysia? Does this mean that tudung-wearing will soon be a state-controlled requirement?
Did Nina's boss want her to wear the tudung because he thought it would make her a better Muslim? Surely it is not his place to tell her what to wear or what not to wear. Isn’t religion a personal conviction?
The selendang a versatile garment
During our grandmothers’ time, few if any Malay women wore a tudung. Older Malay ladies would wear the selendang, an alluring accessory which complemented the Malay dress. The selendang was a versatile garment which would cover the women’s head and hair, if required.
Not all women who wear the tudung are oppressed or controlled by their men. Many liberal-minded and feminist women, fighting for women's rights, wear a tudung.
Nor would it be true to say that the tudung symbolises religious obeisance. One furious wife is said to have ripped off her tudung when she discovered her husband’s extramarital affairs.
Had she worn a tudung because he demanded her to wear one? Or, had she worn one because she believed the religion required her to wear one, despite the Quran not compelling a woman to have her head covered?
Another woman takes off her tudung every time she travels overseas. She admitted that it was most liberating to have the sun on her head, and the wind blowing through her hair. Did peer pressure force her to wear a tudung in Malaysia?
How does one explain the tudung-clad women dressed in skimpy T-shirts showing their pierced navels, or those in tight jeans which reveal their builder’s butt? Why cover the head but expose other parts of the body?
Many of us fear the hudud bill, but we ignore the more insidious threat of seemingly harmless requests, such as the requirement to wear a tudung, to conform to other people’s ideals of what constitutes a good Muslim woman.
Today, it is the tudung, but tomorrow, you may find that Muslim women will be forced to give up another hard-won liberty, like going to work, having an education, or driving a car.
I may not be a good Muslim, but would I become a better one if I were to decide to wear a tudung tomorrow?