Smoking in a headscarf

Not too long ago, a friend of mine posted a photo of a woman wearing a headscarf and holding a cigarette in her hand. There was a minor ruckus on her profile about this picture. Why does this image shake up some of our worlds?

Because in Singaporean society Muslim women who wear the headscarf have been constructed to be examples of virtuous, moral, proper women. If you wear a headscarf, you’d better behave in these certain ways –

  1. No smoking in public (cigarettes at least, but smoking shisha/hookah/Arab water pipe is mysteriously tolerated),
  2. No kissing in public (even if married!),
  3. No unruly behaviour like shouting or fighting, and
  4. No close contact with men in public.

Otherwise, you’re going to be pointed out as a bad example of a Muslim woman. Interestingly, holding hands is still kind of acceptable, as is wearing trousers (not the same case in other Muslim communities).

In our context, the headscarf is a visible sign of morality. You can’t tell if someone believes in God, or prays, or fasts, but you can see a headscarf. The wearer is assumed to be a morally-upright person who has to follow certain rules of (Islamic) behaviour, and therefore also assumed to be discipline-able by any member of the public.

No one has any qualms about telling off a woman with a headscarf if she’s seen to be ‘violating’ any of the above rules. Many older and young women and men, have no qualms about policing young women who are not ‘properly’ dressed.

However, women without a headscarf can do any of the above things without nary a public comment because her morality is invisible (Or you can argue that her ‘immorality’ is visible, haha.). Being under constant surveillance can be annoying at best, and exhausting at worst. Is it really a surprise then that some women choose to appear in some situations with a headscarf, and some without?

Sadly, there are no equivalent markers for men in our Muslim community. In some other societies, perhaps a beard plays the same trick, albeit to a lesser extent (and a beard doesn’t entail an entire dress code). Baju kurung? No one wears that anymore except to the mosque or during Ramadan or Eid. Long sleeves and long pants? Come on man, Singapore is too hot and humid. But why do young men wearing (tight) T-shirts get picked on far less?

Because of the invisible morality of young Muslim men, they can get away with a lot of things. For example, wearing a T-shirt that says “Playboy” on it. The contrast is even starker when you know that they are probably good, practising Muslim men, who have ‘proper’ social relations with young Muslim women.

Heck, the best contrast is to see them in the company of ‘properly-dressed’ young Muslim women at Islamic events. Young men are free to go everywhere in their T-shirts and no one is going to say, Hey dude, your T-shirt is a bit too tight, eh? But you can hear, Eh your hair is sticking out! Or, You should wear a top that covers your butt, or, You look so beautiful in an abaya!

There will be people who say that if a woman really wore the headscarf for God, all this would not matter. But my focus is not on the reasons for wearing it. My focus here is on the headscarf as a visible signifier of morality and its implications for the daily lives of young women.

I can’t change the way people think, but I think awareness of why we think the way we think is the first step.



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