By Atiqah Aznur
I am a woman who chooses not to wear the tudung (hijab).
In Malaysia, the tudung is a familiar sight and is often seen as a symbol of Muslim-Malay identity.
So without the tudung, I often feel like a fish out of water in public. Macam rusa masuk kampung.
Recently, someone I was meeting for the first time at a workshop asked me, “Do you feel pressured to wear the hijab?”
I used to feel suffocated by the pressure to wear it. I felt like I was being forced to conform to someone else’s idea of what I should be.
With age, I have come to embrace my individuality and feel confident in my values.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a regular pledge or periodic auto-donation to Aliran
- Become an Aliran member
When I was in my late teens in the 2010s, my peers introduced me to the term “free hair”. It was often used to refer to women’s hair that is not covered by a tudung or other head covering.
I find this term insulting because it objectifies women and reduces them to their hair. My hair and body are not “free”, neither are they commodities.
This objectifying of women can make those who choose not to wear the hijab feel like they are part of an ‘out group’ and a threat to the ‘in group’. It can lead to a cycle of marginalisation and diminished agency in public participation.
Once while I was walking to my car, exhausted and dishevelled after a long day of cycling a motorcyclist rode past me and muttered, “Aurat” (intimate parts of the body that should be covered, according to Islam).
I felt my stomach drop. The remark made me feel judged and shamed for simply being a woman. But I walked on, trying to ignore the words that hung over me.
In my family, the choice of wearing the hijab is personal. The women in my family only wear it when they are ready, which I feel is a more constructive mindset than having it forced upon a young woman immediately after puberty.
I find it disheartening when young girls are pressured into wearing the hijab before they have reached an age when they can make sound decisions about their bodies.
When I was younger, I tried to conform by wearing the tudung to school, but I felt stifled and uncomfortable. The humid weather made it even more unbearable.
Another participant at the workshop told me: “My father is a Muslim convert and he was against me wearing the hijab, but my mother insisted. I now wear it out of my personal choice, but I wished I was given the liberty to choose when I was younger too.”
We can foster a supportive environment where girls are comfortable being themselves by allowing them to choose their clothes, within reason. By respecting their choices, we affirm their value as individuals. Even so, we can still provide guidance on safety and appropriate dressing in public spaces.
Across the nation, there are concerns about the enforcement of dress codes in secular schools that require female students to cover their hair.
In 1992 the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that no female student should be forced to wear the tudung to school.
Today, students are being subjected to pressure by teachers and classmates to put it on or else face mockery and mental torment. The consequences of breaching social norms can be oppressive, including denied access to classes and even expulsion.
A thought-provoking documentary by Norhayati Kaprawi, Aku Siapa? showcased an up-close and personal viewpoint. This 2011 film explores the underlying reasons women in Malaysia wear the headscarf, the challenges they encounter, and the ways in which it capacitates or constrains them.
The film showed that the hijab is a symbol of religious faith, a way for women to express their identity and devotion to God. Others regard it as a garment to protect themselves from unwanted attention and sexual harassment.
I would recommend the film to anyone interested in understanding the complex relationship between religion, gender and identity.
Discrimination against women in Malaysia does not just end with clothes but extends towards all kinds of symbols, too.
During the Women’s March early this year, I held a placard with the gender equality symbol ⚥, which is a combination of the male and female symbols. Netizens circulated photos and videos of me with the placard in cyberspace.
I experienced online harassment and ridicule (also termed as online gender-based violence) from some family members and acquaintances.
Gender equality is a fundamental human right that ensures women’s health and wellbeing and is fundamental to achieving UN sustainable development goals by 2030.
It is only when we recognise the inherent worth of all people that we would naturally treat others with respect, regardless of their clothing or gender.
Malaysia has a long history of social progress, and I remain hopeful we can steer this nation to a place where diversity is recognised as a strength, where fair opportunities to learn and contribute are upheld, and where inclusive behaviour towards different beliefs and traditions are expected and accepted.
Atiqah Aznur is a postgraduate student in gender studies at the University of Malaya. She is a freelance copywriter with a focus on corporate governance and women’s empowerment.
She wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop, “Writing for Change” organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran