Women who work at fast-food outlets, supermarkets and stores in the Malaysian state of Kelantan will soon be required to wear long sleeves while serving customers.
Officials there this week announced a new statewide regulation that will take effect in January and will require female employees at such commercial establishments to cover themselves up in the workplace more than they already are.
In predominantly Islamic and religiously conservative Kelantan, all Muslim women are required to cover the entire body when appearing in public – except for the face and hands up to the wrists.
The custom conforms with awrah, an Islamic practice that governs how people cover their bodily parts while appearing in public. Men are required to abide by the practice, too, but the dress code is different for them. While out in public, men in Kelantan must always cover themselves at least from the navel down to the knees, according to the code.
Until now, most employees at fast-food restaurants and markets have worn short-sleeved shirts in the workplace but, starting next year, those establishments statewide will be required to dress their female workers in uniforms with long-sleeved tops.
But some women who live in the state, where members of both sexes queue up in separate lines at markets and where public benches are segregated by gender, and who would be most affected by the new regulation, don’t seem to mind it too much.
The new regulation is a good move for business owners because it is important to receive God’s blessings in running businesses since “covering awrah (bodily parts) is compulsory in Islam,” Ernie Abd Manan, a woman who works as a trader in state capital Kota Bharu, told BenarNews.
Hasnah, a trader from Wakaf Che Yeh, said she agreed with the regulation but hoped the authorities would not be too strict about it and consider employees’ comfort in doing their jobs.
“Employees should be allowed to wear a short-sleeved uniform with the option of wearing hand-socks or jackets. Covering awrah is good especially when it comes to cleanliness if they [employees] are preparing food,” Hasnah told BenarNews.
Local businessmen say they will also abide by the regulation, though they don’t necessarily welcome the rule that could drive up their operating costs.
"We have to support it because we are Muslims. We may not like it but God has said it, so we have to support it,” said Ahmad Nazri Che Omar, chairman of the Siti Khadijah Market Association of Bumiputera Traders.
“We cannot say no because this is the law of God,” he told BenarNews.
‘A method of education’
Abdul Fattah Mahmood, chairman of Kelantan’s Local Government, Housing, Youth and Sports Committee, announced the new regulation during an Eid gathering in the state on Monday.
“A majority [of women] has chosen to cover their bodies by themselves. What we have announced is to prove the dynamism of Islam,” he told BenarNews.“We are confident that with the new uniform, more will follow. This is also a method of education,” Abdul Fattah added.
The new regulation appears to build upon a policy implemented nearly two years ago by local authorities, who instituted fines of 500 ringgit (U.S. $126) on women traders and female workers at stores who were caught not covering their hair or wearing tight-fitting outfits.
Non-Muslim female workers in Kelantan will not be required to follow the new regulation.
“The ruling is a must for Muslim women workers, but non-Muslims are encouraged to wear proper clothes. I would like to thank the non-Muslim community in the state for their support of the state government’s policy,” the New Straits Times newspaper quoted Abdul Fattah as saying.
Helping to ‘elevate’ women: PAS
Kelantan, whose population of 1.68 million people is 97 percent Muslim, is a state that is almost synonymous with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has controlled the state government for 43 years and has been in power there non-interrupted since 1990.
Kelantan is the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states and three federal territories ruled by the faith-based party.
The regulation that will take effect in January 2017 will be enforced under local bylaws by which local councils issue annual permits to businesses.
The new rule will “preserve the dignity and self-esteem” of Muslim women, according to PAS information chief Nasruddin Hassan Tantawi.
“The issue here is the awrah. Islam requires a Muslim woman to cover herself, so the ruling by the Kelantan state government is actually helping to elevate the status of the Muslim women.
“Most importantly, at the same time, it gives a clearer picture that Islam does not hinder the freedom of earning a living, working and socializing among women as long it is within the limits such as covering the awrah. Actually it gives more safety to women themselves,” he told BenarNews.