The right of every woman to choose what to wear
By Sahar Pirzada, Training Institute Executive, and Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, AWARE
Singapore is a multi-cultural society which values freedom of religious worship. Whether and how to worship – and how to express that worship – is not for the state to decide, or for any non-state group to press onto their neighbours. Rather, it is to be privately determined by every individual’s conscience.
Globally, there is a troubling history of state coercion in connection with the headscarf, for instance with Iran mandating it for all women and France banning it in some contexts. Non-state groups have also interfered with women’s religious freedom and rights over their own bodies. This can take seemingly opposing forms: the racists in Europe physically assaulting hijabis in public, and abusive families intimidating unwilling daughters into donning the scarf, are two sides of the same coin.
AWARE supports the right of every woman to choose what she wears. Women must enjoy equal access to work regardless of their sartorial choices. It is important that women do not face discrimination when their dress indicates their belonging to a particular religion or is associated with a particular ethnic group, especially when that ethnic group is a minority that feels marginalised. They should not have to hide their beliefs or group membership to participate in public life.
At the same time, the meaning and importance of the headscarf or any symbol of faith must be decided by every woman for herself, as a matter of individual religious conviction. A Muslim woman who does not wear a headscarf should not be attacked as less of a true member of her faith or community than one who does. Only with pluralism can religious freedom be equally enjoyed by all.
AWARE’s staff, members and volunteers include many Muslim women (including a writer of this letter). Some wear headscarves, some do not, and some have changed their minds on the issue more than once. We celebrate their right to change their minds. Whatever their decisions about their bodies and dress, they deserve respect and inclusion from all.
An edited version of this letter was published here in TODAY on 12 November 2013.
Please also read this letter published in TODAY on this issue.