Religious Headgear in the Workplace: A Lack of Acceptance or Professionalism?

The recent incident regarding Tangs department store and its dress code guidelines has sparked a public furore. A part-time promoter at a pop-up booth in Tangs was reportedly informed to remove her hijab, a religious head covering scarf, as part of the grooming standard to maintain professionalism. In the Islamic religion, the hijab is worn by women to protect their modesty and privacy, especially from unrelated males.

The business owner, Ms Chin, was selling handmade leather bags in a pop-up booth in the department store and had hired Ms Nurin Jazlina Mahbob as the part-time promoter. On her first day at work, Ms Nurin was told by Tangs staff to remove her hijab to be allowed to continue working on the premises. This incident has escalated with Ms Chin deciding to end her lease early with Tangs, despite having weeks left on her contract, while investigations are being made by Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep).

As per the guidelines handed to the tenants of Tangs, the ā€œgrooming standardā€ had stipulated wearing black polo T-shirt and long black pants while religious headgear and accessories were not allowed. Ms Chin was appalled at the rationale for the removal of hijab which Tangs had cited was for ā€˜professionalism-sakeā€™. This lack of tact and sensitivity touching on race and religion has ignited a public outrage with many coming forth with their opinions.Ā Ā 

The Senior Minister of State for Manpower, Mr Zaqy Mohamad urged employers to review their workplace policies. ā€œReligious attire should generally be allowed at workplaces, unless employers have uniform, or dress code requirements which are suited to the nature of their work, or for operational and safety reasons.ā€ Moreover, Ms Nadia Samdin, the MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, stated that discriminatory hiring practices – including those against age, gender, ethnicity or religion – do not have a place in Singapore.Ā 

ā€œDiscrimination of any form has no place at all in our society and, most certainly, not at the workplace.ā€ The President Halimah Yacob had also heavily accentuated her views in a Facebook post, adding on that ā€œpeople should be assessed solely on their merits and their ability to do a job and nothing elseā€.

While the above statements made by various political officeholders are valid and reasonable, this progressive belief does not seem to resonate with a few employers. In 2016, a similar incident had occurred when Ms Sharifah Begum was told that she could not wear a hijab for work during an interview for the role of administrative assistant at a preschool operator. Meanwhile, in 2014, Isetan was under a negative spotlight when a sales assistant was allegedly told by the managers to end her shift early and leave their premise for wearing a hijab. Although, since then, Isetan has adopted a new guideline for female Muslim staff to don the hijab during work.Ā 

Ultimately, Tangs has since removed such restrictions and will allow the hijab to be worn at work, releasing a statement, ā€œAs a Singaporean company with a diverse, and multi-racial workforce, we must respect cultural and religious practices and requirements on all accounts. We have made an immediate change to ensure a policy that uniformly respects all our employees and our brand partners.ā€Ā 

Both the business owner and staff, Ms Chin and Ms Nurin respectively, are heartened to receive the support of the community, especially the strong voices of the Members of Parliament and Mdm Halimah. Ms Nurin added that she is excited that there is a [positive] change happening, hoping that nobody should experience what she had gone through.Ā 

As quoted from Ms Chin, who is highly commended for standing by her staff, ā€œI am hoping to bring to the attention of all workplaces [especially] the frontline that there should be no reason or logic for this kind of discrimination, and they really need to review their skewed practices if they are practising it.ā€

On a darker note, although Tafep has stated that religious wear should be allowed in the workplace unless specific dress code guidelines are stated, employers may use the latter to enforce on the removal of religious wear. While many have expressed shock and disbelief at this incident, especially in a well-known establishments such as Tangs, a number has shown support that it is fair for companies to have their own dress code guidelines.Ā 

In Singapore, the embrace of multiracialism and meritocracy is strongly advocated in all ages and all walks of life. However, the discriminatory practice illustrated in this post may serve to be the tip of an iceberg as racial and cultural differences are deep-rooted in the minds of many. Despite Singaporeā€™s continuous efforts on racial and religious harmony, racism is a profound issue where most have experienced discrimination at one point in life. It seems that more work needs to be done to encourage acceptance in this day and age.




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