KUALA LUMPUR: Harassed and placed under investigation by religious authorities, activist Maryam Lee is a controversial figure in Malaysia.
Her crime? Speaking out about her decision to stop wearing the hijab and criticising what she sees as institutional patriarchy in Islam.
Although wearing a “tudung” is not mandatory in Malaysia, experts say the nation has become more conservative in recent years and today most Muslim women wear one.
Maryam, who was made to wear a headscarf from the age of nine, said she realised in her mid-20s that she was conforming to a social expectation rather than a religious requirement and decided to remove it.
“All my life, I had been told that (wearing the headscarf) is mandatory and if I don’t wear it, it’s sinful,” she said.“And then I found out that it actually wasn’t.”
It was a difficult personal decision but when she went public, detailing her story in her book “Unveiling Choice”, she faced a vitriolic backlash and death threats.
The religious authorities expressed concern and she was hauled in for questioning under a law against insulting Islam.
Maryam believes officials were concerned she was encouraging other women to “de-hijab”, but insists this is not the case.
‘Jail of society’s expectation’
“I’m not telling women what to think, I’m asking them to revisit certain assumptions and certain theories that have been taught to them over the years,” said the 28-year-old.
“Even without legal criminalisation, women are facing social criminalisation when they want to take (the hijab) off,” she said, adding that women like her are in a “jail of society’s expectation”.
To mark the release of her book, which she describes as a story of resistance against patriarchy in religion and wider society, she took part in a talk called “Malay Women and De-Hijabbing” which fuelled the furore against her.
Critics say the donning of the hijab was not the case a generation ago and is a result of the greater influence of increasingly vocal religious hardliners.
Maryam has been targeted by angry zealots but has also been hailed as the voice of the modern Malaysian woman by some in the social media generation keen to express their individuality as well as their faith.
‘No less of a Muslim’
“Women in this part of the world, when they take off the hijab, what happens to them? They get bullied, they get harassed,” said Maryam.
Malaysian rights group Sisters of Islam agree women without headscarves come under heavy scrutiny from family, colleagues and in public, making the decision “difficult and traumatic”.
Maryam said her choice was to step away from patriarchal instruction rather than her faith.
“I was born a Muslim, I’m still a Muslim. I’m no less of a Muslim because I removed my hijab,” she said.
Sarah, a consultant from a financial firm who gave a pseudonym to avoid upsetting her family, no longer wears the headscarf believing it to be a patriarchal expectation.
“Malay men especially at an authoritative level somehow have this mindset that Malay women need to appear in a certain manner, but it doesn’t mean that these people who are wearing tudung are any better,” she said.
Religious authorities have yet to close their investigation into Maryam, meaning the possibility of further action remains.
But she has no regrets about her decision to open up about her experience. “Society needs to be awakened,” she said.
MARYAM LEE Website: https://maryamlee.com/unveiling-choice/
Activist Maryam fights for hijab freedom
#RobertReview: 8 | 10
“Unveiling Choice”, a Book by Activist Maryam Lee, The Voice of Modern Malaysian Woman, Educates that Hijab or Tudung is Not Compulsory but Muslim Women are bullied by the ‘Jail of Society’s Expectation’.
Are 1,400 year old religious laws and practices still RELEVANT in today’s world?
Published: 10th October 2020.