From religion to public health: focus on purpose and trust

“Mom, why do you wear a tudung?” my 7.5-year-old asked as we sat on a Melbourne city tram.

I replied absently, “Because God wants me to.”

“Do all girls have to wear tudung?” he asks, eyeing the blond head lady across the aisle.

“Not if they don’t want to, ” I replied quickly, feeling self-conscious. “I wear a tudung because I want to.” He nods and accepts this answer.

He then asks me, “Mom, does everyone need to wear a mask?”

“Yes, they do on public transport, ” I reply from behind a mask.

“Then why isn’t anyone else wearing a mask, ” he asks loudly.

Do all girls have to wear tudung or hijab? Does everyone have to wear a mask?

Once upon a time, it was not a compulsion for women to wear the hijab as part of Islamic practice. Once upon a time, it was not necessary for everyone to wear a mask for public health. Today, we take these norms for granted, and it is easy to ask and judge, why is someone not practicing it?

Of course, a 7.5-year-old - even a thoughtful one - sees the world in black and white. There are right things and wrong things, there are good guys and bad guys. He knows it is not always that simple, but he thinks most of the time it is.

In contrast, what I have realized now as an adult, is that it is never simply black and white.

There is always context, modifiers, qualifiers, circumstances, and exceptions to the rule. My son recently had to learn an important exception to the rule of fasting in Ramadan. He has been fasting alternate days with me, but I knew there would be a time when I would not be able to fast as Muslims who are on their menses, traveling, or ill are excused from fasting.

I considered pretending to fast so that he would not question it. Then I remembered the days as a teenager when we were told to eat behind doors when we couldn’t fast or our brothers would get upset, and in retrospect I believe such religious fragility would not serve anyone.

I told my son that one day I would not be able to fast because it is my time of the month, but since he has been fasting alternate days could he please try to fast anyway? He said, “No, I only want to fast when you fast.” I had to remind him why he was fasting, not for me, but for God and to help make him stronger and a better person. Despite some resistance, he eventually agreed that he would still fast.

Like in religion and in public health, both requiring individual commitment as well as community solidarity, asking “why?” is of the utmost importance.

Why do we pray? To feel closer to God, to be thankful for the things we have. We do not pray because we fear the judgment of others, but at times we pray together when we want to feel solidarity in our shared commitment to God. If we pray because we fear judgment or punishment from fellow humans, the purpose of prayer is lost.

Why do we wear a mask? To protect ourselves and those in our company from whatever germs we may knowingly or unknowingly be expelling each time we breathe, speak or cough. We do not wear a mask to avoid penalty, but sometimes a compassionate reminder from the authorities can help prevent complacency. If we wear a mask only to avoid a penalty, then we won’t wear it when we don’t think anyone is watching, even when the risk of spreading or catching Covid-19 is still there – especially when we are in private enclosed spaces. Or worse maybe if we do not trust the authorities, we will only openly defy these reminders out of feelings of suspicion or anger.

The wealth of evidence on the importance of community engagement, empathetic communication and trust in times of crisis like Covid-19, and for long-term practices such as childhood vaccinations, hand hygiene, and smoking cessation is clear. Yet, we often fall into the trap of prescriptions and punishments as the main mechanism to elicit individual commitment.

But only relying on carrots and sticks means at some point we run out of carrots and sticks, or the carrot is neither attractive enough nor the stick painful enough. The best driver is internal motivation to keep going and to do what one believes is right for them.

As a Muslim woman, a mother, a biomedical and public health researcher, a teacher and a forever-student, it gives me pride to celebrate the best of my religion and the best of science and education. But it disheartens me that despite the fact that we have vaccines and the pandemic appeared to be heading to an end, complacency (from all levels of leadership and society) has brought Malaysia back to a critical juncture in Covid-19 control. We know that the worst can still happen, and the tragic toll of death and disease in Brazil and India is a tragedy that we cannot allow to happen in Malaysia.

It disheartens me to know that the abuses of young girls in our schools, the so-called period spot-checks enforced to ensure female Muslim students are not lying about their periods to avoid praying at school are still happening.

Many of my closest friends experienced it when we were students and learning how it affected them then and even today as we are mothers ourselves makes the act ever more appalling.

It was wrong then for anyone to feel they had a right to abuse and violate a young girl’s privacy out of some misguided sense of duty to uphold the religion, and it is wrong today.

Children observe and internalise quickly, and the lessons they learn at home and at school, however brief, shapes their adult worldview for decades to come. When we reduce the beautiful acts that religion teaches us to practice like prayer and fasting to acts enforceable by human hands, then we not only obliterate its purpose at that point in time, but we may perversely drive people away from experiencing its true beauty forevermore.

Similarly, the community at large will constantly weigh the balance of risks and benefits of every public health action—if we are not convinced that the sacrifices we make are taking us closer to a pre-Covid-19 quality of life, then it becomes harder to gain acceptance for future calls of action against future public health crises.

At the heart of all that we do is an underlying sense of trust. As his mother, my son trusts that what I say is always true. As students, we trusted that our teachers knew best. As a community, we would like to trust that our leaders know what they are doing. That trust has to go both ways. I must trust that telling my son the truth would empower him to still do the right thing. Our teachers must feel they are entrusted as custodians to knowledge and growth, and learn to trust and respect their students. Our leaders must demonstrate that they are trustworthy through measured, unbiased and well-communicated policies.

This vast world faithfully turns in various shades of grey. But if we understand why, we are better equipped at navigating ourselves even through the murkiest waters.

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Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah is senior lecturer in Medical Microbiology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and an affiliate of Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia. She is active in science communication and infectious disease biomedical research. She was the first female Asian champion of FameLab, the world’s longest running science communication competition, in 2018. The writer’s views are her own.


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