Published in The Malay Mail Online
The news of a Chinese Muslim teacher being allegedly threatened to remove her tudung (headscarf) or risk being transferred from teaching in a primary school, if proven to be true, is disturbing to say the least.
As long as it does not cause harm to others, Malaysians should always be free to practise their religion — in this case with their attire — regardless of whether they are Muslims or not.
Despite that, I felt sickened by the women’s wing of Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), whose immediate reaction towards the incident was to challenge feminist group Sisters in Islam to condemn the incident.
Naming prominent human rights activists Marina Mahathir in its challenge, Wanita Isma claimed that Marina had before spoken up for Muslim beauty pageant contestants, and it would be hypocritical if she does not speak up now.
This challenge is of course another attempt to discredit human rights defenders in Malaysia, painting the movement as one that is anti-Islam, or at the least does not have much concern towards Muslims.
These Muslim crusaders could not be more wrong. If anything, human rights defenders would tell you clearly that human rights apply to all, no matter their faith.
It is human rights defenders who will be protecting the rights of Muslim women to don their tudung, as strenuously as they will be protecting the rights of those who do not wish to wear any.
In comparison, Muslim crusaders seem more hypocritical in this situation. Instead of speaking up for the mistreated teacher, they are training their guns at the exact group which will defend the teacher’s rights.
Talk about misplaced priorities.
Furthermore, these Muslim women groups seem to not care much about women’s individual rights, but more about how women should conform to Islamic values.
Human rights activists are not selective in their fight. That trait is usually reserved for religious activists.
There is no way these Muslim NGOs will ever speak up for victimised women teachers who are being directly or indirectly bullied in public schools, just because they refuse or do not wish to cover their heads.
Some of our readers might have heard stories of how women teachers without tudung are treated differently by other women teachers, usually as a focus of gossip and snide remarks.
Even worse, those women teachers were objectified by their shameless male counterparts, who somehow have the notion that women without tudung are easy.
These complaints of bullying will remain as anecdotes. Who will hear their pleas even if they lodge complaints?
The truth is, the odds are stacked against Malay women who do not cover their heads. There is even a derogatory label reserved for them: “free hair.”
This discrimination is even more obvious if observed in the entertainment industry, which perhaps reflects more of the common public.
Last year, there was a big to do when model Felixia Yeap decided to wear the tudung, despite not believing in Islam. She was celebrated by some of the Malay community, as though she had converted to Islam herself.
Spend some time on Instagram, especially when female Malay artistes (normally without tudung) decide to show photos of themselves wearing tudung: they will be bombarded with comments praising their now-apparent beauty.
Other similar comments can also include calls for them to quickly “repent”, or well-wishes for finally “seeing the light”.
How insulting can it be to say that women will immediately turn ugly should they take off their headcover?
This attitude is perpetuated by the common analogy used by Muslim preachers comparing women without headcovers to unwrapped candies.
The analogy usually describes covered women as wrapped candies: clean and safe to be consumed.
Uncovered women are like unwrapped candies: covered with dirt, with insects already crawling on it — nobody will consume unwrapped candies.
Again, it is astounding how some women can accept being compared to mere confectionery, and how some can even perpetuate this loathsome comparison.
Despite all this, the point I wish to make today is that women should be treated equally: whether they wear tudung or not.
Chinese Muslim teachers should be allowed to wear tudung while they are teaching.
Similarly, Malay Muslim teachers have the right to not wear one if they wish to.
This is the true meaning of freedom of choice.
Of course, some Muslim activists do not believe this freedom goes both ways. And that, is hypocrisy.