The Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (‘TAFEP’) is currently investigating an incident in which a hijab-wearing woman (‘hijabi’) working as a promoter at Tangs was asked to remove her hijab. Tangs had initially taken the position that this was a case of miscommunication regarding the company’s dress code and grooming standards to the sub-contractor. However, this incident is bigger than a simple issue of communicating guidelines and is part of a larger pattern of discrimination and exclusion that hijabis often have to endure in the job market.
Hijabis often face barriers when applying or interviewing for jobs and have anecdotally reported that they are sometimes passed over for opportunities because of their headgear. Even when they are offered jobs, the hijab is subjected to added scrutiny and judgement over whether it is considered “professional” attire. This has material impact on hijabis when they are denied jobs because of their appearance, feel obliged to defend their choice of clothing or lifestyle, or have to expend more energy to overcome implicit biases of their colleagues or employers.
It is also worth interrogating why the instinct was to assume that the hijab is seen as “unprofessional” or even subject to be scrutinised in this first place. What are the assumptions about the hijab and those who wear it that need to be questioned and unlearned? Are hijab-wearing women any less educated, committed or capable than their counterparts?
Employers or policymakers who offer explanations that the hijab and other religious garments cannot be allowed because Singapore is a secular country signal that personal religious garments pose a threat to our secularism in some way. These justifications frame the hijab as a political issue rather than a personal religious choice and serve as a basis to validate policies which unfairly discriminate against hijabis.
Policies which discriminate against any minority groups, and Muslim women in particular, extend beyond the harm caused to the individual in question and has the effect of further entrenching the marginalisation of these groups. The reality is that many Muslim women, when faced with this dilemma, elect not to take up opportunities or choose to leave their jobs rather than to give up on what they see as a crucial part of their religious obligations. Creating space for Muslim women to wear the hijab at work would encourage greater participation in the workforce and in society, without forcing them to choose between practicing their religion and earning a livelihood.
We are encouraged that TAFEP is seriously investigating this incident and urge other women to seek support if they face instances of discrimination at the workplace because of their religious beliefs. If you are facing or are aware of any such discrimination, you may make a complaint to TAFEP, or consult AWARE’s Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory.
Hijabi women should be allowed to practice their faith without being discriminated against. Until we have comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, it is up to us to look out for each other and call these instances out when we see them.
Edit: Tangs has recently issued statement that it now intends to allow all front-line staff to wear religious headgear. We encourage all companies to similarly review and revise any policies which unfairly discriminate against Muslim women or any other minorities.