KUALA LUMPUR, June 24 — The increasingly frequent imposition of conservative dress codes at government agencies here suggests that religious conservatism could supplant Malaysia’s secular administration and drive the country towards theocratic rule as seen in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While media coverage of incidents at the Road Transport Department (RTD), the Selangor state secretariat and the Sg Buloh public hospital have elicited criticism of the agencies by the English-speaking audience, the reverse is true in Malay.
On social media, Malay-speaking users have instead targeted the women barred from entry over their attire, which include knee-length skirts, dresses and, in one instance, shorts.
“My view is that if these unhealthy developments are not checked by the government, our secular state and our secular Federal Constitution are at risk,” Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin told Malay Mail Online yesterday.
“If we don’t take action now to arrest this trend, we may end up like those two countries,” the former Sessions Court judge added, referring to the Islamic states of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
She pointed out that laws passed by Parliament in Iran, for example, require the approval of the Guardian Council comprising the Ayatollahs or supreme religious leaders.
Saudi Arabia is also widely viewed as the archetype of religious conservatism, where dress codes play a fundamental role in society and law there.
This was epitomised in a 2002 incident in which 15 schoolgirls in Mecca were barred by religious police from leaving a burning building because they had not worn the headscarves required of Muslims. All 15 died.
“Is that what we want for Malaysia?” Noor Farida asked, noting that Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department has held up the Domestic Violence Bill for almost two years to look at purportedly anti-Islamic elements before it was finally passed into law in 1994.
“Are our politicians prepared to give up their power to unelected religious officers if we become an Islamic state and Shariah law replaces the Federal Constitution as the supreme law of the land?” said Noor Farida.
Noor Farida is part of the so-called G25, a group of former Malay high-ranking civil servants that is pressing Putrajaya to assert the supremacy of the Federal Constitution over Islamic state laws in the country.
She said the dress codes at public institutions appeared to indicate a “pervasive” religious conservatism among many Malay-Muslims, especially if their criticisms were directed towards the women who broke the dress codes.
“Yes, there seems to be a divide in our society between the conservative Muslims and the liberal Muslims and non-Muslims. In my view, part of the reason for the growing conservatism is the way Islam is taught in schools, mosques, religious gatherings and the media,” she said.
Noor Farida also noted that a “considerable” number of Muslims appeared to support Islamist party PAS’s push for the implementation of hudud here.
“These (religious) teachers are teaching them a very conservative and narrow brand of Islam and overlooks the main message. The emphasis seems to be on punishment and moral policing. Women are the main victims as they have been portrayed as the temptress out to entice men from the path of virtue with their uncovered heads and sexy dressing!” said the former civil servant.
Noor Farida urged civil society and the “silent majority” to speak up, while pressing the government to change the religious curriculum at schools to teach a more progressive brand of Islam and to review staffing at religious departments.
“The present staff have to be exposed to progressive Islamic teachings and encouraged to engage in rational, informed discourse on Islam with progressive Islamic scholars at both the local and international levels, instead of keeping a closed mind,” she said.
A woman recently complained on Facebook about being barred from entering the Sungai Buloh Hospital because she was dressed in shorts, saying she was forced to borrow a patient’s towel to cover her legs.
The Sunday incident follows two other similar recent happenings, with two women being told at the Selangor state secretariat to wear sarongs over their knee-length dresses and another woman being forced to don a sarong too over her skirt at an RTD office.