A Veiled Question I Get Asked Often

By Zubaida Ali

One question that I get asked now and again is “Are you Malay?”, and in case I missed the meaning of that, the person asking clarifies “you don’t look like a Malay.” Although seemingly innocent and often dismissed as one of the peculiarities of a multi-cultural society, this statement is loaded with meaning.

What the other person means is: If you are Malay (and presumably Muslim), why are you not wearing the tudung or hijab? The representation of the Malay woman has evolved to include the hijab as one of the visual cues to typecast her cultural identity, but is one that is untrue for me. In other parts of the world, Muslim women are unable to choose what they can wear for this very reason.

Muslim women in Singapore have the freedom to choose how they present themselves in the public sphere. On whether that freedom is curtailed somewhat by policies is something that is contentious. In my opinion, if a Muslim woman chooses to wear the hijab and still wants to work as a nurse in a state-run hospital, a Speaker of Parliament or a retail assistant at Cotton On, she should be able to because her cultural identity should not deprive her of making such choices. Just as my choice not to cover my hair should not deprive me of the opportunities I choose to pursue either.

Unfortunately, the hijab discourse is loaded with other weighty influences and interpretations. The question about a Muslim woman’s choice with regards to her attire can and should only be answered by her. Will society accept that and let her exercise her right to decide? That is the most important question to ask.

Read the other posts here: Questions blog series