Hijabi nurses in S'pore who still choose healthcare profession share their views on tudung policy

They tell us about how, in their own way, they think they have managed to fulfil both religious and professional duties.

Syahindah Ishak | Jane Zhang | March 20, 2021, 02:27 PM

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PERSPECTIVE: In Singapore, Muslim women who work as nurses are not allowed to wear the tudung/hijab as part of their work uniform.

This issue has been highly debated for years, and recently resurfaced in this year's Committee of Supply (COS) debates.

Mothership speaks with five nurses/nursing students who wear the tudung to hear their views on this issue.

Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Farah, 25, was a student when she first discovered that she wouldn't be able to wear the tudung as a nurse.

Can't wear tudung due to infection control purposes

She was told by her lecturers that nurses couldn't wear the tudung due to infection control purposes, and said she was convinced by the reason.

Sarah, a 21-year-old nursing student who has had several attachments to various hospitals, was told the same thing: "Before I even joined nursing, I knew that we can’t wear the tudung because of infection control purposes, which I totally understand."

Although both women viewed infection control as a justifiable reason, they still had questions.

Farah, who has been a nurse for five years now, told us:

"Over the years, I realised that doctors, therapists could wear the hijab and they were in close contact with patients too. So why are nurses not able to don the hijab while at work?"

Other reasons why wearing a tudung isn't allowed

Some political leaders have cited justifications for the tudung policy.

In 2013, then Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said that wearing the tudung would be "very problematic" in some professions that require a uniform.

He added that this issue will take time to resolve, and that the government will find practical solutions in the years to come.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also weighed in on this issue, saying that the government must "maintain overall social harmony".

He explained that every community pressing for its own concerns must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it.

Most recently, current Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli explained in Parliament that Singapore's uniform policy in the public service "cannot be tilted towards any particular religious belief".

He said that allowing tudung would introduce a "very visible" religious marker that identifies the wearer as a Muslim.

This has significant implications, said Masagos, as the government does not want patients to express preferences over being served by a Muslim or non-Muslim nurse.

Most nurses felt it will not affect relationship with patients

Would wearing a tudung really affect the patient-nurse relationship?

"We do not really know the reaction we get from patients until we actually do it someday," Farah acknowledged.

The nurses recognised that wearing the tudung could trigger discrimination from patients, but they don't believe that that's a sufficient reason for the tudung policy.

Sarah further added:

"Some patients might be racist or biased. But still, that doesn’t mean we should not wear the tudung for them. They have to change their mindset, we don’t have to change for them."

Based on their experiences, a number of the nurses that we spoke with also shared how they have never felt that their religion would affect the relationship.

21-year-old Maria, who had recently graduated and will begin working as a full-time staff nurse in April, said that a majority of patients have nothing against Muslim nurses.

In fact, based on conversations with past patients, Maria said that they knew what her religion is even without her donning the tudung, and they were fine with it.

Maria added that she has served food that contained pork in it to a patient, and that the patient felt bad for having her serve him.

"But this is my job and I will continue serving them regardless of their race or religion," she said.

Tudung policy affects each hijabi nurse differently

The tudung means something different to each individual and the experience of not being able to wear it at work affects each Muslim woman differently.

For Azlin, 25, not wearing her tudung makes her feel like part of her identity is missing.

"It’ll always be an odd feeling because I’m just so used to wearing the tudung in my everyday life. But over the years, it will still feel like a void whenever I am at work but I will try to pacify myself by telling myself that I’m helping people."

31-year-old Izzah explained that wearing the tudung is a "symbol of closeness to God, my Creator".

Because Izzah is a nurse in the operating theatre (OT), she doesn't wear the nurse uniform on a daily basis. Instead, she and other OT nurses wear scrub suits, which include a surgical hat.

"So, in a way, to console myself, technically we are still covered. Like, our hair is still covered. And we are not really exposed as much as our friends who are wearing uniforms," she explained.

She only changes into her scrubs after she reaches work, so she is able to wear her tudung to and from work.

However, a few times a year, when there are official ceremonies or awards ceremonies that the nurses attend, Izzah has to wear the nurse's uniform.

Izzah said that while for other nurses may look forward to these ceremonies, for her, having to put on the nurse uniform is "a bit dreadful", because it means that she is unable to cover her hair.

So, as a way to make herself feel better, Izzah opts to wear the pants suit version of the nurse's uniform rather than the knee-length dress.

Sarah, who only began wearing the tudung recently, emphasised the importance of the tudung as something that a person chooses to wear because she is comfortable wearing it, and not something that is forced upon her.

She said that for her, not wearing it in the healthcare setting "doesn’t really bother [her] and it’s not that important".

Some have left the industry because of the tudung

Several nurses spoke about friends or family members who opted not to enter or continue in the nursing field due to the tudung policy.

This dilemma was acknowledged by Masagos in Parliament when he said he empathises with Muslim women who may find it challenging to choose or remain in professions that may not allow them to fulfil both religious and professional duties at the same time.

Izzah, who has been working as a nurse for 10 years, said that she has friends who eventually chose to quit their jobs as nurses due to the tudung policy.

Farah also said that her mother had applied for an admin position at a hospital, but was told that she would need to remove her tudung for the job.

Farah's mother didn't take up the job eventually as she was uncomfortable with the idea of removing her tudung.

Maria told us that she herself considered switching career paths because of the tudung, but found it challenging to forego her passion for nursing.

"Some of my hijabi friends also quit halfway during their studies because of the tudung issue. But I continued because I love nursing too much. It’s my passion."

Hopes for policy to evolve eventually

"In Singapore, we have people of different races and we ought to accept their differences," Sarah said, saying that the policy is "a bit ridiculous" to her.

Her thinking is: We live in a multi-racial and multi-religious country, so why should people be uncomfortable with women who wear a tudung?

Azlin, who is in her fourth year of being a nurse, also shared how she has had many patients of various ethnicities and religions who have expressed empathy for nurses who are not able to don the tudung during work.

"They share the exact sentiments as I do and simply do not understand the logic behind this policy."

Some of the nurses also highlighted examples from other countries that allow the tudung in frontline professions.

Maria hopes that one day, Singapore will be more "open-minded" like countries such as New Zealand, where public servants are allowed to wear the tudung.

Izzah also spoke of an invention of a disposable tudung worn in the operating room, ideated by a hijabi junior doctor in the UK.

Uniform changes over the years

While Izzah also thinks that the tudung policy should change, Izzah noted that progress has been made over the past decade.

When Izzah was a student, nurses were only allowed to wear knee-length nurse dresses, with either skin-coloured stockings or no stockings at all underneath.

By the time Izzah was taking her advanced diploma in 2012, nurses were given an option to wear pant suits instead of the dress, based on their level of comfort.

"I think that is sort of a progress, in a sense, towards inclusivity," she said.

In her view, these are examples that show how discussions 'behind closed doors' actually do reap results.

Nursing as a noble job

Most of the women we spoke to agreed that they would definitely wear it at work if it was permitted, except for Farah, who was a bit torn:

"It's a both yes and no answer. Yes because I would love to represent my religion. It gives me a meaning just like how Christians wear their rosaries and Sikhs wear their turban.

And no because it has been a norm for way too long... Hence, it is going to be a strange situation to be in."

For those who voiced out discomfort with not wearing the tudung at work, they instead found comfort in their faith towards God.

Azlin said that when she first became a nurse, her parents had checked with her whether she was comfortable with not wearing a tudung.

"But they also reassured me that I was doing a noble job and that I’m helping people. Since the tudung is a form of piety to the greater good, they also reassured me that God will understand."

For Maria, she began wearing the tudung while studying for her nursing diploma and felt "a bit uncomfortable" when she had to take it off during practical lessons or her clinical attachment.

However, she too believes that God will understand her compromise.

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Top photo via Getty Images. Some quotes were edited for clarity and grammar.