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We need anti-discrimination laws, not dress codes

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) stands by the right of every woman to choose how she dresses. Rather than policing women’s clothing through guidelines that restrict women’s rights and place the burden on them to conform, the government should introduce laws to stop employers from discriminating against women based on their dress and gender.

It is not the term “Shariah-compliant” that alarms us, as suggested by the honourable minister, but rather, the notion of a “dress code” or “guideline” for women–even a purportedly non-binding one–that is alarming.

In attempting to address the discrimination faced by Muslim women in certain sectors and private companies, the government is considering implementing a policy which could have the unintended consequence of ostracizing Muslim women who choose not to comply with the dress code, and in turn subject them to social pressure, harassment, and discrimination.

WAO has consistently spoken out against any attempts to restrict women’s freedom of expression through impositions on their clothing, including against an international hotel’s policy prohibiting frontline staff from donning a hijab or headscarf.

As we have previously pointed out, such a policy discriminates against Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves, as it restricts their freedom of expression and reduces their employment opportunities, while policies that make wearing a headscarf compulsory are similarly discriminatory.

The solution is not to put the onus on women and potentially subject them to further discrimination, but to hold employers accountable through anti-discrimination standards.

In January 2018, the Ministry of Human Resources proposed amendments to the Employment Act, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender and religion. The government should follow through on these amendments.

We also need a Gender Equality Act to allow women to pursue redress when they experience discrimination, and a Sexual Harassment Act to protect women from harassment based on what they wear or do not wear.

Ultimately, our resources should go towards laws that enrich women’s lives — not dress codes that restrict women’s freedom of expression.

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