So, what is really behind the veil?

FEB 5 — On February 1, 2014, theatre director Normah Nordin, the actor Sofia Jane and I had a reunion of sorts. Twenty years ago, Dramalab, a now defunct theatre company that mooted groundbreaking work, produced a couple of monologues written by young writers. Pia Zain and Zahim Albakri were the producers.

One of the monologues was mine, titled, Penganggur Terhormat. Kak Normah directed it, and Sofia was the protagonist.  The monologue was based on a good friend of mine, Shahrina Shueb, who could not find work after graduation, because she wore the tudung.

I still remember the day when an official from the Kementerian Kebudayaan and JAKIM, came by to vet our monologues and found Penganggur Terhormat ”too Western”, “liberal” and not that realistic as nobody in his or her right mind would refuse a hijabbed woman employment.

Kak Normah fought tooth and nail so the monologue could be staged. I think Sofia was in the sound room, or somewhere, while I was sitting on a bench and figuring out how to tell my parents that I may end up in jail because the authorities thought we were Muslim recalcitrants.

Orang Melayu macam korang yang memurtadkan ugama kita!” Kak Normah bellowed at the officials.

Sah-lah saya masuk jail malam ni, I groaned.

The monologue was staged and Utusan Malaysia reviewed it.  The reviewer was Professor Norfaridah Manaf who was attached to UIAM, and to this day, we are friends.

It was only the day after our reunion, February 2, 2014, that I found out that our reunion was also World Hijab Day. How the Universe works!

The hijab, tudung, selendang, is no longer a contentious issue in Malaysia. When Muslim women began covering themselves in the 1980s, they were mostly a minority. Many who did had been influenced by the Iranian Revolution and rise of Islamism that they were exposed to in the US and Europe. Some were influenced by the cult Al Arqam. 

In the early to mid-1990s, more and more women took to the  veil, and there were many discussions dedicated to the hijab: why were more Malay women taking to it? Raging discussions flared in the papers. I wrote one small piece for the New Straits Times then about it. The women who covered were considered by many as intellectual inferiors and “kampung.”

Today, the hijab is a non-issue and not an alien concept to Malaysians. It is accepted by almost all Malaysians, and I have written enough about the topic. You read them: pole-dancing hijjabis to Chanel-toting ones. Once in a while, you’ll get the odd story of a young woman being turned away from a job because she wears the hijab. It’s no longer about religion; it’s about discrimination and ignorant arrogance. The hijabistas are here to stay. End of discussion.

The same cannot be said about other countries, however. Singapore clamped down on the World Hijab Day this week, and the Facebook page was shuttered down. The ambassador of the campaign, Seri Fatmawati Hambali, wrote, “While we tried to relay the positive messages of the WHD, the authorities responded with suspicion and threats.”

“We were pressured by the authorities when we attempted to seek a friendly ‘public view’ and conduct ‘ground research’ in early December for our WHDS promo video. Similarly, our attempts to organise a meeting with our wonderful supporters to update them and to discuss our plans for the short film resulted in intense scrutiny.

“Some of our members received threats that being involved may jeopardise their livelihood and affect their families. Facing pressure and threats, they decided to leave the committee. It left only a handful of us to continue the project.

“WHDS was meant to be a celebration. But the authorities’ response made it impossible for the celebration to take place.”

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The veil must be looked at from a different aspect too. Could the hijab/veil also be something that is not physical and symbolic of a faith?

A Sufi friend wrote as her Facebook status, ”I entertain the idea that the veil [inherent aptitudes, ego] simply enshrines its stratagems at manipulating their hosts — the human being, by corrupting and eventually degrading it to a bestial state manipulating the minds by creating limitations, and attachments in the conditioning instead of liberating, heightening it with the light of intelligence in totally becoming forward-thinking attractors [physics] in the liquid universe.”

The more pressing issue about the hijab would be this: the veiling of our intellect, minds and hearts. And this is worrisome. Islam in Malaysia is driven not just by a religious agenda (what it really is, is up in the air), but by class and power. Much as the NEP has helped the Malays, it has also encouraged a close-mindedness and, in many instances, malice.  Our tanking education system does not help us either.

This is the veil we must worry about. This hijab of the mind and heart may make or break this country.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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