Published: Sunday February 8, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday February 9, 2015 MYT 11:41:04 AM

More than just a hijab

By wearing the headscarf, does one end up confining herself within an unforgiving frame?

Last year, I was part of The Star’s Voices of Moderation campaign launched during the Merdeka-Malaysia Day celebration period.

Among the 15 personalities featured, there were only three women: Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Zainah Anwar and myself. I was the youngest and lesser-known.

The moderation campaign generally attracted good responses from the general public, but some of us were criticised more than others. Some of these criticisms, at least the ones that I’ve come across, touched on our background as middle-to-upper class liberals who are apparently out of touch with on-ground reality.

Some are directly targeted at the women for our appearance. The three women featured are all “free-haired”; we do not wear the headscarf. And because we don’t wear the headscarf, we have no authority to talk about moderation.

I did not dwell on nor engage in these criticisms to save my own sanity, but I get a sense that some of these criticisms come from a deep-rooted sentiment of Islamic patriarchy inculcated into the hearts and minds of these people which prevents them from seeing beyond the physical.

Even if the things that we have publicly said for the campaign have nothing to do with religion, because of who we are, we cannot escape from being framed from a religious point of view (to recap, I said something about discourse, Marina on political divide while Zainah spoke on democracy).

Our views would have been better accepted, I presume, if we were adorned in headscarves. Our views were not at all challenging; most of us were simply stating the obvious. But, to be entitled to and respected for moderate views, one must first “fit the look”.

In Malaysia, the headscarf is the signifier for morality and good values. I remember a comic strip shared on my Facebook timeline which shows a group of sexy women (“sexy” in that their outfits showed the curve of their bodies, albeit fully covered) in headscarves badmouthing a woman, who was dressed modestly but “free-haired” as she walked past them.

This cartoon strip represents a small but alarming view that unless a woman is completely covered from head to toe, she is a “bad woman”. This view is also represented in our local dramas, where urban women (who are always depicted as obnoxious gold diggers) are pitted against the wanita solehah (religious woman). The urban woman represents the bad, good-for-messing-around type, while the kampung girl represents a good, can-marry-one type.

Even my “free-haired” peers in high school quickly donned the headscarf after marriage. It’s as if to say now that they are married, becoming someone’s wife and someone’s mother, they have to portray themselves as “good women”. What better way to signify this turn and pronounce it publicly than to wear the hijab.

For me, the recent outrage caused by the girls at the K-pop concert was predominantly because they were wearing headscarves. If they were any other Malay girl, I doubt they would attract such vitriol from the public.

Because they were wearing headscarves, they shouldn’t have acted in such a way publicly – never mind the fact that many headscarf-clad girls go out on dates with their boyfriends and act similarly in public. It’s a free country, so even if they attract looks, they are safe from being trash-talked on social media.

And because it was captured on camera and widely distributed for all to see, they were easy targets. They were the bullseye for the Malay dengki.

There is no English equivalent for dengki, apart from that it brings out the worst in people. (The closest meaning could be envy or spite, but not quite.)

In Malaysia, the choice to wear the headscarf is not a personal one. At least, not anymore. It is political.

You are making a public statement to stand for all things good, hence confining yourself within a narrow, unforgiving frame. You cannot escape this frame.

This frame is attached with various expectations and judgments. And because of this simple frame – a mere piece of cloth – you are no longer permitted to act like any other teenage girl charmed by her favourite pop star.

  • Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society(ies).

  • Tags / Keywords: Tapestry, columnist, hijab

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    More than just a hijab

    8 February 2015

    By wearing the headscarf, does one end up confining herself within an unforgiving frame?


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