By Hafidz Baharom
30 December 2014
I cannot fathom what exactly happened in Malaysia to the point retailers are asking women to take off their headscarves to get a placement. Just what happened to the point where we decided to remove the freedom of choice is a mystery to me.
In the most recent case, Malay actor and director Datuk Rosyam Nor’s daughter was denied work at Hamley’s in One Utama for wearing a headscarf. The toyshop has reacted by publicly apologising and mentioned that the person who told his daughter off was a junior staff member who has since been disciplined.
I congratulate Rosyam for his ability to force a store to apologise and raise the ire of Malays nationwide simply through a tweet.
However, his daughter is not the first one to experience such a case. Throughout cyberspace, we have even seen one woman’s inability to get a job in retail from various fashion stores simply for wearing a headscarf.
Sadly, that did not trigger the same ruckus three months before Rosyam’s daughter sought to join the Malaysian workforce in her free time.
On a global scale, women wearing headscarves denied a job have been the subjects of courts of law. In the UK, there have been cases of employers being sued for such a dismissal.
In the US, post-2008, I recall Abercrombie and Fitch being taken to court for not hiring someone wearing a headscarf. The case was due to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Of course, there was also the period of Turkish extreme secularism, which disallowed civil servants from wearing the headscarf, to the point of dismissal.
When did Malaysia become a so-called “moderate Muslim” country that even wearing a headscarf was wrong?
Before I go further, I need to highlight that this notion of disallowing a headscarf is not a liberal idea. Liberalism is about allowing the choices regardless of whom or what one believes or worship. Liberals would allow the diversity of a headscarf.
It is the conservatives who believe that their way is the best way, either religious or secular, who insist on such a stance.
In other words, there is nothing liberal about this so-called policy, just in case there are those who think to brand this act “the act of liberals in Malaysia”.
There are many things involving human resource policies and laws that need review, not just headscarves but even issues regarding the probation period. One such example of these was highlighted even in the “100 Foot Journey” by Richard C Morais.
In the book (not the movie), a French waiter given glowing reviews is hired by the protagonist in his soon-to-be 3-star Michelin restaurant. However, once the waiter serves his full six months of probation and gets hired full time, he begins slacking off.
To paraphrase the book, cleaning a candelabrum took him from 30 minutes to 1½ hours and, France being France, allows him to claim overtime for it. It reaches a point in the book where a settlement of €190,000 takes place, due to the laws of their nation.
Personally, I believe there is a need to address human resource policies in the retail and service sector fairly, not to the point of copying the French 100% but to the point of some uniformity in policy.
Of course, the basis of all the policies should be the allowing of the freedom of choice, especially in a multicultural nation such as Malaysia. It should not be out of just allowing Muslims to choose to wear a headscarf or not, but also to allow the Sikhs and Hindus to wear what they must in adherence to their own beliefs.
That being said, of course, human resource policies should also take note of discrimination in the workplace.
It is one thing to be curious and start asking one another why they choose to wear a headscarf or a turban, it is truly a different thing altogether to allow gossip-mongering among the staff questioning an individual’s decisions.
Let us be frank, it is not enough for us to just employ Malaysians without regard for their religious belief, but we must also provide a space comfortable for them to work with. This is a large issue we have in Malaysia, where people take things either too lightly and joke about something or too heavily to the point of taking offence.
In Malaysiakini’s comment section on the Hamley’s headscarf issue, one Chinese Malaysian employer remarked how there were those among his friends who made fun of Malay women wearing headscarves, calling them “Pau Tau” and lamented of employers racially profiling against Indians and Malays.
So, we must ask ourselves just how far we want to ingrain cultural sensitivity in Malaysians as a whole. In the good old days, nobody took offence. Today, we are in an era where one bad joke is akin to a match next to a powder keg.
Hafidz Baharom is a social observer who has ruffled more than a few feathers. He has written for a number of publications, and is always looking to stir up discussions on things which need to be said.