Stilettos, wedges, lipsticks and maskaras are among the newest additions to the growing pile of clothing and accessories Muslim women are not supposed to wear in public.

Just last month, the council of Kota Bharu, capital of the Kelantan state, northeast of Kuala Lumpur, issued a directive that discourages Muslim women from wearing high heels and heavy make-up, which have been described as distractions to the “Islamic way.”

Contrary to what came out in the media earlier, the directive is a mere guide without any legal force. Nonetheless the directive does not foreclose the possibility of being transformed into a law and adopted in other states. Instead, the directive indicates an increasing religious fundamentalism that sanctions women in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Governed by the Islamic opposition party, Kota Bharu earlier prohibited the donning of sheer head scarves and loose blouses. Meanwhile in states allied with the ruling administration Barisan National, couples who sit too close or hold hands in parks are prosecuted and fined.

“These incidents are symptomatic of the growing strength and influence of conservative Islam, and in a country where Islam has such a pronounced presence in public life, it's impact is felt by all, Muslim and non-Muslim, and on women especially,” asserts Sofia Lim Siu Ching, president of All Women's Action Society (AWAM), a Malaysian women's organisation providing exchange programmes and direct support for young women. “These are [also] symptomatic of a patriarchal culture that still places the burden of society's moral uplift on women and, hence, the need to control women's bodies and regulate women's dressing,” she adds.

In a statement to the Straits Times, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen, says, “Again and again and again, they are singing the same old song. It is so sad that again they are telling women what to wear and not to wear.”

Prior to the directive on high heels and make-up, the National Islamic Students Association of Malaysia expressed that school uniforms of women, particularly their white blouses are tempting, encouraging rape and other sexual abuses against women.

“Violence against women, irrespective of culture, is not related to the way women dress. Authorities need to understand the social causes and address them at the root. While much lip service is given to Malaysia's cultural melting pot, there is very little done to help the different cultural and religious groups to inter-mingle meaningfully,” Ching points out.

As a form of resistance, most Muslim women have been ignoring the directive. However, Ching laments that such resistance among ordinary civilians have not been captured in the official debates nor the media as views of moderate Muslims are usually not publicly made.

References:

Goh, Lisa. (n.d). “Islamic group's uniform comment slammed.” URL: http://www.kpwkm.gov.my/new_index.php?page=news_content&newsID=312⟨=eng&pages=1

Interview with Sofia Lim Siu Ching, president of All Women's Action Society (AWAM). (11 July 2008).

MacKinnon, Ian. (24 July 2008). “Malaysian city tells women to drop lipstick and high heels.” URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jun/24/malaysia.religion

Mohideen, Reihana. (2008). “The War on Women Belies the War on Terror” in WIA [Women in Action]. Vol No. 1, 13-16.

Straits Times. (25 June 2008). “Women's groups outraged by Kota Baru council's 'no lipstick, high-heels' directive.” URL: http://www.straitstimes.com/Latest+News/S-E+Asia/STIStory_251463.html

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