In 2013, there was a public outcry when Singapore’s government policy disallowed women who work in the uniformed public sector to wear the headscarf, otherwise known as the hijab.
The issue of the headscarf in the workplace has gained notoriety over the years, but this time, the outcome was reassuringly favourable. In late March this year, home affairs and law minister K Shanmugam announced the possibility of allowing nurses to wear the tudung at work. While the discussions are still ongoing, many women who wear the headscarf are already celebrating this victory.
“I am grateful we are making progress,” says Junaidah Dahlan, a senior media relations manager at Accenture. Some women, like Nur Basman who works in the finance industry, see it as a stepping stone for other uniformed Muslim women. “Maybe someday it will extend to our policewomen too,” she says, hopeful that Singapore will be as receptive to the inclusion of the headscarf as their Australian and New Zealander counterparts.
Putting on the veil is more than a religious obligation—it is a manifestation of a woman’s spirituality and an assertion of her femininity. The headscarf is a complex symbol with religious and social significance, and many women who are prohibited to wear the headscarf to work are constantly tainted with guilt.
“The headscarf is a complex symbol with religious and social significance”
It’s why this news was indeed a celebratory milestone for the sisterhood. “I know many dedicated nurses who love their jobs, but when they change into their uniforms and remove their hijab, it is with a heavy heart,” says Nur Insyirah Feera, a graduate in Islamic law from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. She is optimistic that this announcement will encourage more Muslim women to pursue their dreams and not worry about compromising their faith.
Healthcare professional Farhana* may be one of the lucky few to be able to wear the hijab to work, but the 34-year-old still fears that because wearing it is not protected by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices or any laws, it could be taken away at any time. “I don’t want to risk my privilege,” she explains, when asked why she prefers to remain anonymous.
The fact that Farhana sees herself as ‘the privileged few’ gives us a grim understanding of how much progress the issue has gained since the nationwide controversy of 2002, when four primary one Malay students were suspended for wearing the headscarf to school.
There has, however, been a shift in societal mindset compared to a decade ago. Many banks and international companies are advocates of inclusivity in the workplace. Take human resource specialist Fatin Rahman, who works at Microsoft. “I feel welcomed here,” she says. “I don’t feel judged about my appearance.”
Wina Othman, a communications specialist at Siemens, admits that she had reservations about going to work in the headscarf and pondered about it for two years. “I was worried I may not fit in,” she shares. When Othman finally put her plan to action, she realised she had been overthinking the whole situation.
It’s not surprising that she was concerned about being caught in a social stigma. While there seems to be a silver lining for some professionals, there are still many establishments with rigid policies—unfazed by societal shifts and oblivious to change. Ex-television personality, Anna Belle Francis, converted to the Muslim faith more than 20 years ago. She decided to wear the hijab four years back, but just as she was going to embark on this new phase of her life, she was also coincidentally offered roles and asked to attend auditions.
“While there seems to be a silver lining for some professionals, there are still many establishments with rigid policies—unfazed by societal shifts and oblivious to change.”
She was unwavering in her decision to wear the headscarf, but had an obligation to update the network. Oblivious to the gravity of the issue, they assured her that she could put her headscarf back on once the recordings were over. “They totally missed the point, but I get it. I don’t expect everyone to be on the same page,” Francis explains. Last year, a part-time handbag promoter at Tangs, Nurin Jazlina Mahbob, was asked by staff of the store to remove her headscarf on her first day. Responding to Mahbob’s case on her Facebook page, Singapore’s president Halimah Yacob—a fellow Muslim woman who dons the headscarf—wrote: “People should be assessed solely on their merits and their ability to do a job and nothing else.”
On a positive front, many Muslim women are actively voicing out their solidarity, championing for their right to wear the hijab based on their free will. Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American scholar of Islam, theorises how the veil has evolved from “a symbol of disempowerment to a mark of liberation” in her book A Quiet Revolution—a study on the veil’s resurgence from the Middle East to America.
Call it the new wave of feminism if you will—this issue is increasingly important for many women who choose to wear the headscarf. Being in control of who you are, and what you represent, is liberation. Decades ago, it may have been about burnt bras, but today, it’s the polar opposite.
Modest dressing today is at its peak of influence. Diyana Abdul Latiff, an educator, attributes this growth to the power of social media influencers. She is proud that the positive influence these modest fashion influencers have on young people is making them more inclined to wear the headscarf.
Today, social media has aided in the normalisation of these modest looks, making them trendy and current. For the uninitiated, modest dressing is a style of clothing that’s loose fitting with longer hemlines and higher necklines. But it also appeals to non-Muslims who prefer a conservative way of dressing.
This collective consciousness that modest wear can transcend race or religion has also been highlighted by Hana Tajima, a long-time collaborator with Uniqlo. In an email interview with Vogue Singapore, Tajima confesses that she has never identified with the idea of modest wear.
“I’m proud of who I am as a Muslim woman, as Japanese, and English, but I’m more interested in the universal ideas of what it is to be a person,” says Tajima, whose highlights from her spring/summer 2021 collection include a puff-sleeved geometric maxi dress and a relaxed pantsuit in ecru.
When Syazana Sukiman started Whimsigirl in 2010, her customer base was predominantly Malay. Today, the Malaysian modest wear brand has seen a significant growth in Chinese and Indian customers. Her observations regarding the accessibility of modest fashion? “It has definitely increased and the variety makes it easier to dress that way.”
The past few years have seen high street labels, luxury retailers and e-tailers show increasing interest in this global billion-dollar industry. This is the sixth year luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter has been curating a Ramadan collection. This year’s line-up includes dresses from Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, while Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz created two signature tunic pieces for the collection.
Singapore has also seen an influx of new modest wear brands. Founder of Lully Selb, Selma Bamadhaj, wants her brand to reach out to not just Muslim women, but anyone who loves fashion. Katt Ibrahim started Katt & Co because she wanted to make modest clothes that were fashionable, fun and easy to wear.
Around the world, brands are incorporating modest styles in their collections. In the recent spring/summer 2021 shows, Cecilie Bahnsen, Max Mara and Ports 1961 featured models like Somali-born Ugbad Abdi and Rawdah Mohamed wearing headscarves.
For many Muslim women, the triumphs may be small, but it is certainly growing. Understanding modest fashion is much more than just being a Muslim woman. This new narrative is not about faith, it’s about choice. So here’s to a future where these women will be given the power to choose, regardless of the circumstance.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated for accuracy and clarity.]