Asia next top model malaysiansNovember 17 – Conservative Muslim groups made a fuss after the Malaysian Association of Hotels defended a policy practised by its members that prohibited frontline workers, including receptionists and wait staff, from wearing the tudung. 

The association claimed it was international standard operating procedure.

Muslim conservatives said the practice was discriminatory. They also acknowledged that employers had the right to impose a dress code or to restrict certain forms of religious expression, but said prohibiting Muslim staff from wearing the tudung was not justified because putting on a headscarf would not cause undue hardship to the employer or colleagues, nor pose a security threat. 

They and PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar have called for action to be taken. 

While banning certain workers from wearing the tudung is clear gender and religious discrimination, companies cannot be punished because there is no anti-discrimination legislation in Malaysia.

Former Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad – who was one of the judges on the Court of Appeal panel that had ruled in favour of Malaysia Airlines when flight stewardess Beatrice Fernandez sued the carrier for sacking her when she became pregnant – himself said constitutional provisions on equality and non-discrimination only apply to the government, not to individuals or private corporations. Abdul Hamid had argued that Muslim-only laundromats were not illegal.    

It is also worth noting that it was conservative Malay-Muslim groups themselves which had successfully lobbied against a law proposed by the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) in 2014 to prohibit discrimination. The NUCC Bills are now dead and the Barisan Nasional federal government recently said laws against racism and discrimination were unnecessary because it felt Malaysia’s unity was in a “good and controlled state”. 

Pakatan Harapan itself, including PKR, has expressed reservations about enacting laws against discrimination.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

If we want women to be able to wear the tudung at work, then women must also be allowed to be free of the headscarf and to wear tight-fitting clothes.

In Kelantan, it is a Shariah offence to not wear the tudung or to dress “sexily”, punishable by an RM1,000 fine or six months’ jail. Thirty-one Muslim women were arrested in June last year for not wearing a headscarf and for wearing tight-fitting clothes, with seven of them given mandated counselling. Kelantanese authorities also applied the law to a man last September, giving him a summons for wearing shorts on his way to play futsal. Muslim women traders and workers are required, under a local government by-law in Kelantan, to cover their hair and to avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes or short sleeves.

Like the tudung ban in some hotels, these laws and regulations in Kelantan also amount to gender and religious discrimination. (Religious discrimination does not only mean discriminating against those of other faiths; it also includes imposing one’s beliefs on fellow believers).

How does wearing the tudung (or not) impair your ability to answer questions at the front desk in a hotel or to sell food in a night market? What does physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) have to do with greeting weary travelers or with running a small business?

Any dress code that makes women uncomfortable (like wearing painful high heels and removing the tudung, or donning a headscarf when you don’t believe in it) should not be made mandatory at work, especially when it has nothing to do with their job scope.

Women-targeted dress codes in the workplace are sexist.

Outside work, women should be free to wear whatever they want, whether it’s baggy and ugly ill-fitting clothes, or sexy dresses from a stripper’s closet. The State should not curb our constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Anti-discrimination legislation cuts both ways.

If we want laundromats to stop limiting their service to Muslim customers, then other companies in the private sector must also stop hiring only Chinese or Indian employees.

And if we really want a country that upholds equality, then we must be prepared to review state-sanctioned discrimination, especially policies that have gone above and beyond the ambit of affirmative action.

The question is – are we ready to give up our own privileges?