Malaysia: Why Some Women Wear a Hijab and Some Don’t

Publication Date: 
April 18, 2011
Wall Street Journal
The director, Norhayati Kaprawi, at a screening of her new documentary in February

In Malaysia, which is predominantly Muslim, some women wear the hijab, a head scarf that shows the face but covers the hair, ears and neck. And some do not. A new documentary, “Siapa Aku?” or “Who Am I?” by Norhayati Kaprawi, a young Muslim woman, explores the reasons why.

“I am passionate about women’s issues,” says Ms. Norhayati, who herself once wore the hijab but no longer does. Her first documentary, “Mencari Kartika” (“In Search of Kartika”), told the story of Kartika Shukarno, a young Malaysian Muslim woman sentenced by a religious court to six strokes of the cane and a fine for drinking beer in a hotel bar. A day before the caning was due to be carried out last April, the sentence was commuted to community service.

In her new documentary, Ms. Norhayati interviews Muslim women — young and old, urban and rural — in Malaysia, as well as religious scholars and celebrities in Kuala Lumpur and Indonesia about the hijab, also called the tudung.

The pressure to wear one is a dominant theme: “I think this conformity is the most dominating factor on why women in Malaysia wear a tudung,” Shamsul Amri Bahruddin, director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, tells Ms. Norhhayati, adding that those who don’t can expect to hear from the lady next door every day, saying “you will go to hell or your hair will be burnt in hell.” Often, he adds, the women don’t understand the Quranic verses surrounding the reason for the hijab.

Indeed, at times it seems wearing it has little to do with religion. Nik Aziz Nik Hassan, former head of the Dakwa (missionary) department at National University of Malaysia, tells Ms. Norhayati, “In the late 1960s, Nik Mohamad Salleh, the son of a Kelantanese mufti (Islamic scholar)… was really against the imposition of tudung on Malay women. However he was not against the wearing of tudung. It is up to women’s own taste and style…. He opposed the claim that women who do not wear tudung are not faithful Muslims and are un-Islamic.”

“This documentary is not aimed at discouraging Muslim women from wearing the hijab,” says Ms. Norhayati, who adds, “This issue is so big…the hijab issue has been there for years.”

The 50-minute film, which is in the local Malay language with English subtitles, presents scenes of Muslim women wearing the hijab at weddings and scenes of Muslim women dancing without the hijab, with their hair showing. There’s also one scene of Muslim men wearing the hijab — as a sales gimmick. They are hijab sellers on Kuala Lumpur’s famous Masjid Jamek street.

“I want to see the response, especially from the Muslim community,” says Ms. Norhayati. She talked to Scene about wearing the hijab and why she turned the issue into a film.

Q. Why did you do this documentary?

A. I decided to do this story because I am inspired by this trend: women taking off their hijab…. People will have an idea of what is actually going on in a Muslim woman’s life. They just see women wearing tudung and that’s it. But what happened? Why do they wear it? What are the challenges they face?

I know a lot of women wear it out of pressure. Especially in schools, they say it is compulsory.  The amount of pressure and harrassment the women go through …these voices, their voices are never highlighted. The women themselves are too afraid to talk about it in public.

The documentary also gives the history of the hijab phenomenon in Malaysia. When did the hijab become popular in Malaysia? Who popularized it? What organization popularized it? And how much of it is actually about religion?

Q.  Does Islam say it is compulsory to wear the hijab?

A. Opinions differ. Most mainstream ulemas (Muslim scholars) generally will say it is wajib (compulsory). I am highlighting [in the documentary that] there are actually differences of opinion, which I do believe  the mainstream media, especially the Malay print and TV, will never highlight. The difference [in opinion] is between the ulemas. In the 1950s, there was an ulema from the state of Kelantan, Nik Mohamad Salleh, who studied in Mecca. He was against the imposition of tudung on Muslim women…. Now the mainstream ulemas view that sort of opinion as  un-Islamic.

Q. You did not interview any ulemas in Malaysia for this documentary. Why?

A.  If anybody can tell me, “You can interview this ulema,” I will go.  I have asked around. Where are the progressive ulemas?  That is why for this documentary I had to go to Jakarta.  Of course, there are many conservatives in Indonesia as well. But at least there are moderate voices as well as well as progressive voices.  Whereas in Malaysia, where are the progressive voices?

Q. You don’t wear the hijab. Why?

A. I used to wear the hijab. I wore it when I was 14 and I took it off in my 30s. I wore it because at that time…from what I read, I said, this is what a Muslim girl or woman should do, [it was the] right thing to do…. But as the years went by, I felt something was not right, especially when I was 17 years old.  I was already wearing tudung but a friend of mine did not wear the tudung. Almost every day boys [at a co-educational school] would put notes in her table insinuating she will go to hell for exposing her hair. She felt so pressured finally she wore [one]. It left me thinking: How come boys can do whatever they like, can wear whatever they like, yet they feel this higher ground, this higher moral authority to pressure girls?

Q.  How did your family react to that?

A. They did not comment.  I don’t know if they said anything behind my back. One of my sisters wore the hijab when she was working in the civil service. She was pressured to wear it. Once home, she took it off.

Q. What conclusions can you draw from the various interviews?

A. From this documentary, one of the main things that is quite obvious is that it seems the ulemas, their accomplishment is forcing women to wear hijab through whatever ways, either through mental pressure or emotional pressure. From my interviews they have not managed to educate the Muslim women about why they should cover up. [The women] don’t even know the verse in the Koran which says you must cover up. [The ulemas] don’t emphasize education…. You wear or you go to hell. It’s like a command.