Some Muslim women serving with the military in Thailand’s troubled Deep South say they plan to seek the government’s approval to allow them to wear the hijab while in uniform.
A group of female soldiers serving in non-combat roles in the country’s predominantly Muslim southern border region is planning to write to the prime minister to request a change to the military’s dress code.
They want to wear the headscarf in order to abide by Islam’s tenets as well as counter propaganda from insurgents. Such a move would also allow women serving in the military and paramilitary forces in the Deep South to blend in better with the local population, said a member of the group who asked not to be named.
Villagers have told this soldier that separatist insurgents have exploited the Thai military’s prohibition on wearing the hijab in justifying attacks because female personnel were not respecting the religious rule.
“They (insurgents) told villagers that we who work for the government sector must follow its rules and we even expose our face, despite knowing it is sinful and we may go to hell,” she told BenarNews.
“We heard them say that for quite some time, and we asked our commanders to allow us to wear hijab when going to the field, but the bosses didn’t allow [this],” she said.
Since 2004, more than 6,500 people have been killed in the separatist conflict in the Malay-speaking far southern region, which is made up of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces and parts of Songkhla province.
During visits to villages, the soldier said, residents treated her and her colleagues coldly because they did not wear the traditional headscarf donned by Muslim women.
“Villagers didn’t seem to be friendly to us because they wore hijab but we didn’t. We were different from them and this put us and villagers at odds. Our task is to make them sense mutual friendship and that they feel we are on the same side,” she added.
Out of 60,000 to 80,000 military personnel deployed in the Deep South, nine platoons, or about 360 members, are female rangers with full combat capabilities.
The solider said that she and other female Muslim personnel have banded together to draft a letter to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, which they hope to send soon.
The letter seeks his consideration to allow female Muslim personnel who perform non-combat duties such as clerical jobs and psychological operations to wear the hijab.
“We think Prime Minister General Prayuth understands the feeling of fellow soldiers, and we believe that he is aware of the obstacle we would have when villagers see us as being on the other side,” she said.
Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the forward office of Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, told BenarNews said he wasn’t aware of the local campaign by some women in the military to lobby for a change to the dress code.
“Currently, the way military personnel dress in uniform, is in line with the codes of the Ministry of Defense,” he told BenarNews by phone.
The officer-in-charge could consider the issue if a request is submitted, he said.
Hijab allowed elsewhere
In contrast, Thailand’s Ministry of Public health has been allowing its medical personnel to wear the hijab since 2000.
A police operations center in Yala last year allowed non-combat female staff to wear the Muslim headscarf.
However, Tuan Sai Ni, a local Muslim, said she wanted to apply for a job at the center but refrained from doing so because she was not allowed to wear hijab when she sat for the exam last year.
“I was not a police officer, yet on the day of exam they didn’t allow me to wear hijab. What if I became an officer? I’m afraid they may change the rules [again],” Tuan told BenarNews.