Malaysia: Headscarves and Muslim identity

Common Ground News Service
Headscarves can elicit many questions. Shazeera Ahmad Zawawi, a 27-year-old female Malaysian Muslim, fields them all the time.
“Gee”, as Shazeera is known to her friends, is a human rights activist from Malaysia, a country which is racing with enthusiasm toward upholding Islamic law.
When attending a human rights conference in Canada, Gee received many looks and questions, "How does your headscarf fit with your human rights activities?"

Those who were asking such a question were clearly surprised to see headscarves at a human rights event. Gee was asked her opinion on human rights issues, including homosexuality, polygamy and women’s rights. There was the suggestion in these questions that her preference to wear headscarves goes against homosexuality, supports polygamy and ignores women’s rights. However, Gee had an answer to their question: “Yes, I am a Muslim, but I’m a human being first.” Gee sees others first as a human being with all of their rights, before their other identities, such as Muslim or Christian.

Perhaps those who were asking this question did not know that Gee was part of a “living” Islam as opposed to a staticone. This living Islam is a religion which comes from her heart in her daily life, a religion which can easily live with diversity, and a religion that prefers to engage in dialogue with the other existing religions. In her own words, “I live in an Islam that does not judge wrong or right.”

From the beginning, Gee has grown up in an atmosphere that is comfortable with opposition. Haji Mahmud, her grandfather, was involved in Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya or Malayan Melayu National Party, a “leftist movement” in the era of colonialism, which combined the spirit of Islam, nationalism and socialism. Gee likewise, when she was waiting for her university entrance examination, preferred to volunteer as an English teacher for children at a program owned by the Parti Islam se-Malaysia or Malaysian Islam Party, the most persevering opposition party in Malaysia.

That opposition’s lively, open-minded debate about Islam is what actually brought Gee to join the PMI, Persatuan Mahasiswa Islam or Islamic Student Association, when she was a student at the University of Malaya.

However, PMI was not the right place for Gee, who was inspired by an open living Islam, as alive as life itself. In PMI, Gee often received reprimands from senior members about her headscarves. The fabric which covered her head was considered not enough to express her “Islamic dress” based on Islamic law. Gee was pressured to wear larger, longer black headscarves which covered all of her head, shoulders and chest. She refused, while the senior members insisted. They argued. Gee was adamant that she felt comfortable with her own headscarves and did not want to change the style.

Gee wanted to show that what was “Islamic” was not the desire to subjugate the “other” or “what is different” to homogeneity, but the act of opening up and accepting diversity as a rich mosaic of Islam. Furthermore, as a human being she also believed that there are many religions which should co-exist in the world, alongside Islam. That was why Gee also refused to join PMI’s demonstration to oppose a music concert on campus. This concert was not a Western style rock concert but one of Indian music. Gee realised those who protested the concert were predominantly afraid that they would lose the “Islamic nature” of the campus.

Now, Gee prefers to work on human rights advocacy for the indigenous people of Malaysia. She is a human being who wants to do something for humanity, not only as a Muslim who helps in the name of her religion. When Gee listens to the story of how the government stole the land of Malaysia’s indigenous population and then stood by to watch its children go hungry and its traditions get lost, she is thought of as a human being and everyone forgets about her headscarf.

Perhaps gradually they begin to realise that Gee lives an open-minded and living Islam, which appreciates human beings with their diversity of race, culture, skin colour and religion. By understanding and appreciating this diversity, we hope more and more people will realise that despite our unique identities, we are all human beings.

At the end of April 2006, at an office in Kuala Lumpur, Gee was busy with her humanitarian work. But if you listened carefully, from the loudspeaker of her computer, you could hear rock music fill her room. Gee was playing In the Walls, a rock song from Stellarstarr, a music group from Brooklyn, New York. At the left of her desk, you could see a used rock concert ticket, a souvenir from a rock festival in Bangkok, Thailand. These things serve as a reminder that “Yes, I’m a Muslim, but I’m a human being first.”

by Mujtaba Hamdi, former editor-in-chief of Syir’ah magazine, Jakarta, and participant of the South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Journalism Fellowship 2006. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 05 September 2006,