Tudung industry in Malaysia: Cashing in on conservative Islam

Women spotted on April 30, 2015, camping outside the Fareeda Bangi store to buy the new designs of tudung that will be launched on May 1, 2015. — Pix by Choo Choy May
Women spotted on April 30, 2015, camping outside the Fareeda Bangi store to buy the new designs of tudung that will be launched on May 1, 2015. — Pix by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 — Homemaker Siti Noraini Mohd Kamarulzaman camped outside a Fareeda store — a popular brand of tudungs — for three days to buy their latest designs for RM120 a piece, which she would then resell for RM400.

Almost triple the original price

As Fareeda sells only 30 to 40 pieces per colour or print, stocks are limited but demand is high, and those queuing for days to buy the headscarves are able to sell them later on Facebook for two or three times higher, which can net them a cool income of RM5,000 a month.

“During Hari Raya, I can make more than RM10,000,” Siti Noraini, 24, told Malay Mail Online recently while camping outside the Fareeda store in Bangi for the May 1 launch of the brand’s new designs.

Workers making headscarves in Fareeda's Bangi store on April 30, 2015.
Workers making headscarves in Fareeda's Bangi store on April 30, 2015.

The boom in the tudung (also known by its Arabic name, hijab) industry is one of the side benefits of an increasingly conservative brand of Islam practised in Malaysia that frowns on Muslim women who do not cover their heads.

An estimated five million Muslim women, up to 90 per cent of whom probably wear tudungs, coupled with the rebranding of the headscarf as a fashion item, have driven business growth and spurred the creation of hundreds of tudung brands.

Three tudung companies told Malay Mail Online that business is growing, with one of them making profit in just one year since it was set up.

RM30 million revenue

Fareeda managing director Aminuddin Basirron speaks to Malay Mail Online in an interview at Bangi on April 30, 2015.
Fareeda managing director Aminuddin Basirron speaks to Malay Mail Online in an interview at Bangi on April 30, 2015.

Fareeda managing director Aminuddin Basirron said the company’s revenue in 2013 reached RM30 million and there are now seven outlets throughout the Klang Valley, Penang and Kelantan since his wife, Faridah Zakaria, founded Fareeda in 2006.

“At that time, the scarf fashion industry was still small with only a few brands,” Aminuddin told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“Now, there is a lot of competition — a few hundred brands outside. But I believe we’re still Number One and can still maintain our position in the market,” he added.

With local celebrities like TV host/actress/model Neelofa who started her own tudung line after donning the headscarf, Aminuddin said such personalities “see the good potential of this business.”

Other local celebrities like actresses Rozita Che Wan and Emma Maembong also recently started covering their heads, while ex-Playboy Bunny Felixia Yeap started modelling headscarves since she converted to Islam.

A woman models a Fareeda tudung in the Bangi store on April 30, 2015.
A woman models a Fareeda tudung in the Bangi store on April 30, 2015.

Fareeda mostly sells “instant” headscarves now that enable the wearer to put it on in a minute, ready to go, without needing to assemble the tudung or to fiddle around with pins, said Aminuddin.

The businessman said there are some four to five million Muslim women aged between 25 and 50 years as of 2010, estimating that about 80 to 90 per cent of them wear the tudung and that between two and three million Muslim women in that age group are middle-income earners.

Fareeda’s retail prices range from RM80 to RM250 for adults and from RM60 to RM250 for children aged between five and 12 years. Customised headscarves can cost upwards of RM200.

“We want to promote a modern and trendy scarf. Those living in the urban areas especially like stylish scarves,” said Aminuddin, adding that leopard prints are very popular now.

‘Fashionable’ tudungs for hijabsters

Naelofar Hijab founder Neelofa speaks to Malay Mail Online in an interview at Kuala Lumpur on April 29, 2015.
Naelofar Hijab founder Neelofa speaks to Malay Mail Online in an interview at Kuala Lumpur on April 29, 2015.

Neelofa, whose full name is Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, said her line of headscarves called Naelofar Hijab is fashionable and easy to wear, with most of the tudungs being instant or semi-instant.

“Before this, people feel that whenever you wear the tudung, you’ll look like a ‘makcik’ (auntie); you can’t play around with style,” Neelofa told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“I want to make it look simple… you can still be fashionable and wear the tudung,” added the 26-year-old celebrity who has 1.3 million followers on photo-sharing site Instagram.

Rashida Rafar from the company’s corporate communications department said business has grown “tremendously” since the start of the company last September, noting that all hijab brands have fast turnover of products.

“Hijab is like food; they want to have all colours,” Rashida added.

“That’s your crowning glory. People buy two or three hijabs per week on average,” she said, adding that Naelofar — which retails from RM50 to RM90 — attracts hijabsters, or hipsters who wear the hijab.

dUCk satin silk scarves. — Pix courtesy of dUCk
dUCk satin silk scarves. — Pix courtesy of dUCk

Vivy Yusof — who founded tudung brand dUCk last year and together with her husband, started the FashionValet online shopping site in 2010 — said she created dUCk to specialise in unique, plain quality scarves after she started wearing the tudung.

“Wearing a headscarf is also a lifestyle and I wanted to show that even modern city girls can wear headscarves and still go about their daily lives with careers and girlfriends and families to juggle. And still look fabulous!” Vivy told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

“I also felt it was a duty for me to show the world that headscarf-wearers aren’t just timid women being chained to oppression, a stereotype that some people might have of Muslim women,” the 27-year-old blogger added.

dUCk, which retails at RM120 and RM160 and targets the mid-to high-end market, sells classic rectangular and square headscarves, not instant tudung, that can be worn as regular scarves too. The brand also features through illustrations the life of a character called “D”, a 20-something trendy woman who runs her own business.

“She has a career, she has her girlfriends, she has her family, she has her ups and downs. She is like any other woman out there, the only difference is she has a dUCk on her,” said Vivy.

dUCk Kuala Lumpur scarf.
dUCk Kuala Lumpur scarf.

dUCk general manager Kho Min-Jee said business is already profitable since the launch of the company about a year ago in May 2014.

“Our Instagram followers have already reached an astounding 64,000 in a year, and our customers include those from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Europe and even the US,” Kho told Malay Mail Online.

Vivy said she has observed more and more Muslim women in Malaysia putting on the tudung, a phenomenon she attributed to increased knowledge about Islam, a faith that she said was not “oppressive” but “beautiful.”

“I don’t think Islam is becoming more conservative in Malaysia, but I think it’s simply because more of us are getting educated about Islam,” said the young fashion entrepreneur.

“If we tell our children YOU MUST WEAR IT OR YOU’LL GO TO HELL, there is only fear you are instilling in them.

dUCk mixed crepe scarves.
dUCk mixed crepe scarves.

“All I can say is I would love to teach my daughter the beauty of the religion first, and the headscarf will come naturally. If you are just harping on the headscarf issue but not looking at the big picture of Islam as a beautiful religion in totality, you will never be able to understand or accept why you have to cover up,” Vivy added.

‘Aren’t you afraid of sinning?’

Civil servant Intan (not her real name), 31, has been wearing the tudung since she was 12, saying that her family and friends will make all sorts of remarks if she doesn’t cover her head.

“They’ll say ‘Don’t you pray? Aren’t you afraid of sinning? You look more beautiful with a tudung. It’s a shame to stop wearing the tudung when you used to look beautiful wearing it. You’re already married; aren’t you afraid that your husband will bear your sins instead?’” Intan, who requested anonymity, told Malay Mail Online.

The boarding school she attended as a teenager made it compulsory for girls to don the tudung, but Intan chose to continue wearing it in college as well.

“Now I wear it by choice as it gives me more advantages in my daily life,” said Intan. “‘Good’ girl image makes people trust me more, makes me more approachable. It’s a more culturally accepted ‘Malay’ culture.”

Azlina Azamuddin, a 36-year-old lawyer, said she started wearing the tudung last June and expressed guilt for not covering her head before then.

“This is because it is stated in the holy Quran that it shall be a great sin for Muslim women if their hair is seen by guys who are not their ‘mahram’ (father, brothers and husband),” Azlina told Malay Mail Online.

“Though there is no force in wearing it, but for me, I feel religiously obliged to cover my hair to be a better Muslim and to be accepted by the Great Creator,” she added.

Dr Alicia Izharuddin, a 33-year-old lecturer in a public university, however, said she does not wear the tudung because she refuses to conform.

“I think it is inconvenient and it was never a symbol of an identity (Malay Muslim) to which I felt I belonged,” Alicia said.

“There is a lot of pressure for Malays to conform, think alike, to belong together. The tudung is part of that,” she added.

PAS early leaders’ wives didn’t wear tudung

Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Hassan, former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) lecturer in history and dakwah, said Muslim women in Malaysia started donning the tudung in the 1970s.

“This increased in the 1980s, it went up some more in the 1990s and after the year 2000, we see that the number of Muslim women wearing the tudung has risen significantly until it’s as if it’s a part of the ‘akidah’ (faith) now,” Nik Abdul Aziz told Malay Mail Online in a phone interview.

“It’s now a sensitive matter among the Muslims in Malaysia where if you do not wear the tudung, it’s considered wrong,” he added, estimating that more than 70 per cent of Muslim women in Malaysia wear the headscarf.

Nik Abdul Aziz said religious bureaucracy in Malaysia is now controlled by conservatives who have disallowed debate of opposing views since the 1970s.

“In the 1960s, there were already views from the ulama in Kelantan who said the headscarf is not ‘wajib’ (compulsory). So there was a dialogue and discussion on whether it was ‘wajib’. But now, we can’t have such discussions even though clerics have had different opinions on the issue. This is not a healthy development,” he said.

Nik Abdul Aziz pointed out that the wives of former PAS president Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy and former deputy president Prof Zulkifli Muhammad during the 1950s and 1960s did not wear the tudung.

Other Kelantan ulama in the 1960s like Haji Nik Mahmud Wan Musa, Ustaz Zainuddin Idris and Haji Nik Muhammad Salleh Wan Musa, who was one of the Islamic teachers of the late PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, similarly did not see the headscarf as compulsory in Islam.

“What the Islamic ulama should do is to have a closed-door discussion on the matter,” said Nik Abdul Aziz.

Tudung used to control women?

Women’s rights activist Norhayati Kaprawi, who had made a documentary titled Aku Siapa (Who Am I?) about why women wear the tudung, said she found that some Muslim women in both villages and cities in Malaysia were ostracised for not covering their heads.

“In their attempt to portray an Islamic image, they want to control what women wear,” Norhayati told Malay Mail Online.

“But why shouldn’t the symbol of islam be good governance, no corruption, very efficient government machineries, and many other good values? Why should the image of islam be hinged on what women wear? Is it because it is the easiest thing the religious people know how to do? That is to control women?” the film-maker added.

She said the Iranian Revolution in 1979 started the popularisation of the tudung in Malaysia where women were first invited to wear it, but Muslim girls and women here were subsequently forced or pressured from the 1990s onwards to cover their heads, especially in boarding schools.

“Even school kids are taught that they will go to hell if they don’t wear tudung. Not only that — [they’re told] their parents will also go to hell because they’re not wearing it,” Norhayati said.

“In Malaysia, the issue here is about coercion — forcing women and young girls to wear hijab,” the activist added.

Big business

A customer tries on a hijab at the Naelofar Taman Tun Dr Ismail store on April 29, 2015.
A customer tries on a hijab at the Naelofar Taman Tun Dr Ismail store on April 29, 2015.

Well, however one looks at it — why women wear tudungs and whether they feel compelled to do so — one thing is certain: it’s big money.

More and more Muslim women wear the tudung now and they do not just want a black headscarf worn all year round.

They want colour, patterns, different types of materials. And the many tudung companies out there are listening.

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