Girls wearing scarves turned away at schools

February 5, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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EDUCATION officials yesterday (Feb 4) carried out their threat to bar two Muslim girls from state school for wearing Islamic headscarves.

The decision came after a month-long standoff as the girls’ families resisted repeated efforts by the authorities to persuade them to abandon the controversial attire.

Nurul Nasihah Mohamad Nasser and Siti Frawizah Mohamad Kassim were told they could return to their primary schools if they did not wear the tudung to class.

The scarves are allowed to be worn to and from school but have to be taken off during lessons.

One of the fathers, Mohamad Nasser, said: “What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway . . . My daughter’s education is as important as my faith, my religion.” His daughter is seven.

Civil disobedience in any form is extremely rare in Singapore and the parents’ actions have ignited an intense debate about how moves to promote social harmony should be balanced against religious freedoms.

Mr Nasser said he and his daughter were ushered into the principal’s office as they arrived at the school and told about the suspension.

“When I told her that it might be her last day she felt bad, she was crying. She was feeling very sad,” he said.

“The principal hugged my daughter and told us she could still return on condition that we complied with the rules. She said she will not erase my daughter’s name from the rolls.”

Mr Nasser was adamant his daughter would not comply with the government rule “at the expense of my religion”.

But he said he would allow her to remove the headgear if the government gave written assurance she would be allowed to resume wearing it as soon as she reached puberty or went to secondary school. Otherwise he would have to enrol her in a Muslim religious school, Mr Nasser said.

A third girl who had also tested the no-scarf rule, Siti Amirah Amir, was removed from her primary school by her parents last Friday. They said they would educate her at home, before sending her to a religious school.

A fourth girl, Khairah Fourkh, who started wearing the tudung in her second week of term, has been given until Monday to obey the dress code or face indefinite suspension.

Officials say wearing the tudung curbs their efforts to foster inter-religious understanding among the young.

At the weekend, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made clear he supported the dress rules, saying the girls would be suspended unless they conformed.

He advised the parents to test the legality of the ban in court.

It remains unclear how much support the parents have for their unusual defiance of the government, either within the minority Muslim community or in the population at large.

About three quarters of Singapore’s 3.2 million citizens are ethnic Chinese, while 15 per cent are Malay-Muslims and 10 per cent are Indians.

Singapore’s main ethnic communities have generally co-existed peacefully since independence in 1965, with the Government placing a high priority on promoting racial harmony.

One ethnic-Chinese Singapore mother said she backed the schools’ policy, fearing that distinctions between the races would become more pronounced if authorities did not draw the line at the tudung.

“Singapore has so many races. You have to have some rules. Can you imagine if all the Muslims looked one way and the Chinese looked another. It would grow and grow,” said the mother. But one small opposition party latched on to the issue. The Singapore Democratic Party said: “Such a myopic and insensitive ruling will only lead to greater resentment among those being coerced, resulting in an even more polarised society.”

The showdown has also triggered a war of words between Singapore ministers and their counterparts in neighbouring Muslim-majority Malay