Go ahead, make that choice

Freedom to choose: Every individual has the right to dress as they please. Any kind of state-enforced rule is intolerable.

Every individual has the right to choose how he or she wants to dress. And we don’t need the authorities, whether secular or religious in nature, to interfere in this very personal aspect of our life. 

WE have to be consistent – if we think no one should be forced to wear a piece of clothing or head gear, then, by the same principle, we should not discriminate against anyone choosing to wear the hijab.

What people feel like wearing (or not) is really no one else’s business, providing it stays within the lines of decency and law, which we are fully accustomed to.

Malaysian women don’t need a security guard to decide if their skirt is of an “appropriate” length, before being allowed to enter a government building simply because he sees himself a moral guardian. But in most cases, these security personnel are only acting on the instructions of their employers.

More often than not, and judging from the pictures posted on social media by these subjected women, it’s obvious how heavy-handed these guards can be.

My long-time secretary, Imma, decided to wear the hijab a few years back. She wasn’t sure how I would react to it since she is familiar with my liberal outlook in life and political stand.

She is aware I dislike conventional and rigid rules, be it corporate or political. She also knows how hypocritical politicians masquerading as religious experts, or vice-versa, are not my favourite people.

And although she has been my secretary for two decades, she was still reluctant to seek my opinion on the matter, and instead, chose to seek my wife’s thoughts.

My wife, who knows me completely, assured her that I would definitely support her decision.

Basically, what my colleagues choose to wear – whether it is an unconventional dress or hijab – really isn’t my concern as the capability of an employee is measured by his or her productivity and efficiency.

If she chooses to wear the hijab, I take it as her personal right and decision. If a person says his apparel reflects his religious obligation, then we respect it, regardless of our faith or race.

My favourite aunt, a Muslim convert, and her women family members all wear the hijab. And so do many of my friends.

None of them have become terrorists, if that is the concern of international managements.

By the same token, many of my Muslim women friends and colleagues also choose not to wear it.

That does not mean they are less religious. On the contrary, they showcase the important values of God-loving people in their daily lives. In essence, no one should be forced or coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

If someone decides to colour their hair orange or go blonde, so what? It’s common knowledge that many people keep their hair black when they are greying.

Is black a politically and “religiously correct” colour compared to others? Do we pass judgment according to the colour of one’s hair?

Recently, newsfeeds picked up on how some major hotels are forbidding their Muslim staff, who take care of the front-line customer service, from wearing headscarves.

It was reported that the Malaysian Labour Centre of the Union Network International (Uni-MLC) recently claimed that hotel employees complained about Muslim staff in the hospitality and tourism industries being told to remove their headscarves.

The centre revealed this was also happening to hospitality and tourism students applying for internships.

The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) had reportedly defended its members’ policy of prohibiting their frontline staff from wearing the tudung, claiming it an international practice which should not be considered discriminatory.

In many conservative Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, men are receptionists and perhaps, this is how the hotel managements circumvent the rules.

In Kuwait, for example, many of the hotel women receptionists are foreigners, mainly Filipinos, and they do not wear the hijab. It is the same in Bahrain and Qatar, where the hijab is not a requirement.

But in Iran, many women work as receptionists and other front-line positions, and they are required to wear the hijab. Admittedly, the managements are local and there are no franchised hotel chains such as the Hilton or Le Meridien.

Still, what one decides to wear is a personal choice. If we allow these hotels to impose their rules here, then this fight for freedom of choice and expression will fall a step back.

As the Centre For A Better Tomorrow (Cenbet) president, Gan Ping Sieu rightly said, “therefore, these multinational companies imposing dress codes that are insensitive to local settings are no different to civil servants who try to impose their personal values on the public’s dress code.”

“Embracing diversity can go a long way in building the much-needed bridges in a society riven by radicalised elements.”

He added that Cenbet supports the call to rebuke the ban on headscarves because the hospitality industry should reflect the country’s diversity.

A compromise can be made, though: international hotel chains can customise their uniforms to work culturally and exhibit its corporate colours and lines, not unlike the uniforms of the cabin crew of some Arab airlines.

Ultimately, every individual has the right to dress as they please. Any kind of state-enforced rule, such as the ban on the hijab in France, is intolerable.

We don’t need the authorities, be it secular or religious, to interfere in every aspect of our lives.

In the words of the famous imam of the New York Police Department, Khalid Latif: “How we see people is not indicative of who they are, but how you see people will tell you a lot about yourself, and if you perceive somebody solely through the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, whether they have a certain accent or not – then we should ask ourselves why do we judge people this way.”

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