This Unlikely Country Has Hotels Banning Muslim Staff from Wearing Headscarves

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque © Metamorfa Studio / Flickr
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque © Metamorfa Studio / Flickr
Photo of Mark Zumi
16 November 2017

In a revelation that has startled the nation as well as worldwide critics, it has been revealed that Muslim women working in the Malaysian hotel industry will be prohibited from wearing their headscarves during work hours.

The headscarf issue

The Malaysian Labour Centre of the Union Network International (Uni-MLC) recently alleged that several frontline workers in international hotel branches had complained about discrimination against Muslim workers.

Staff complained that they were told to remove their headscarves during working hours. This ban was not limited to full-time staff, as the centre said this was also happening to hospitality and tourism students applying for internships.

Islam in Malaysia

This has been an unwelcome surprise to many Malaysians, as Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country and is a key player in the halal tourism industry.

Islamic rights in Malaysia are not normally challenged, especially as Islam is the official religion of the country. The hotel headscarf ban contradicts the general narrative that Malaysia promotes tolerance between cultures and maintains respect for freedom of religion.

This issue has triggered a public outcry, and the accusation that the ban is insensitive towards the cultural and religious needs of Malaysian people.

Kuala Lumpur has been named as a top destination for Muslim travellers | © Jorge Láscar/ Flickr

The response and backlash

The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) has defended the policy, saying that it is in accordance with international practices. In an interview with The Malaysian Insight, MAH president, Cheah Swee Hee, stated that this practice has been in place for a long time, and that it is not discriminatory as hotel companies had international policies and standard operating procedures to follow.

This statement has come under immense scrutiny, drawing ire from Malaysian communities who are disturbed by what is perceived to be an open display of discrimination in the work place.

Both the ban and the MAH president’s comment have sparked debate, as critics point out their troubling nature.

The International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (Wafiq) regards the hijab ban as discriminatory and unnecessary, questioning the need for such restrictions in Malaysia, where Muslims comprise the majority of citizens. In a Facebook post, prominent Malaysian lawyer Azhar Harun shared similar sentiments, and added that this ban smacks of Islamophobia.

Gan Ping Sheu, co-president of the Centre for a Better Tomorrow, also weighed in on the matter. In a statement to the press, he stated that he believes having such a rule in place for a long time did not justify it, and further argued that the issue should be considered in the wider context of a Malaysia that celebrates diversity.

Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, deputy Tourism and Culture Minister, urged that the relevant parties, including the government, must review the policy. She cited that the issue should not arise as Malaysia has given its people freedom to practice their religion, especially as Islam is the official religion of the constitution.

The president of MAH’s Penang chapter, Khoo Boo Lim, quickly responded to allegations and reassured that within the state of Penang, Muslim women were not barred from wearing the headscarf. He additionally stressed that he shared concerns that Muslim women should be allowed to wear the headscarf, and should be judged strictly on their performance.

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