Challenging the Arabisation Narrative: A Preliminary Study of Singaporean Niqabis

Malaysian celebrity Neelofa sent the Malay online sphere in a flurry on 15 October 2020 with the announcement that she had adopted the niqab (face veil). Following her announcement was an Instagram post in which she modelled for luxury jewellery brand Swarovski in her new garb. One would have good reason to wonder how the more alarmist, security-centric proponents of the Arabisation narrative would react to this. After all, according to their accounts, ‘Arabised’ Muslims – which includes women who don the niqab – tend towards Salafism/Wahhabism, ultra-conservatism, exclusivism, and at worst, violent extremism. How does this portrayal square up to the image of a publicly visible business mogul and fashionista who presumably poses no threat to social cohesion?

The purpose of this essay is to criticise certain fundamental assumptions embedded in the more security-centric accounts of the Arabisation narrative using the case-study of the adoption of the niqab among local Muslim women. It begins with a brief description of this conception of ‘Arabisation’. This will then be put in conversation with some findings from a brief study conducted in 2020 on Singaporean niqabis, which included three interviews (with Siti, Hawa and Hamidah) and a survey of 51 respondents.

‘Arabisation’, as it has been used in the Malay Archipelago, generally refers to the phenomenon of local Muslims adopting Arab cultural forms, primarily in terms of language and dress. For the former, this includes Muslims adopting Arabic phrases such as solat (prayer) in place of sembahyang, and hijab (headscarf) instead  of tudung. For the latter, it includes Muslim men wearing shoulder-to-ankle robes and keeping long beards, and Muslim women adopting the niqab. Alarmist and security-centric accounts that began appearing after the 9/11 attacks, however, go many steps further. These cultural shifts began to be seen as merely the outward forms of something much more insidious and dangerous to social cohesion: the shifts in attitudes of local Muslims towards increasing religious conservatism, exclusivism, and even extremism. These inner and outer aspects have frequently been touted as inextricable aspects of one ‘Arabisation’ phenomenon that is primarily the cause of foreign Salafi/Wahhabi ‘Middle Eastern’ influences – mainly from the Gulf and particularly Saudi Arabia. Besides the troubling implication that ‘Arabised’ Muslims can fall into exclusivism, and later on, radicalisation and violence, it also implies that they ape Arab culture because they lack cultural confidence – implying that they are naïve recipients of these foreign ‘Arab influences’ and therefore lack agency in their religious and cultural decision making.

Among a slew of others, Baladas Ghoshal purported that the adoption of the niqab among non-Arab Muslim women is a good – probably the clearest – example of their ‘Arabisation’. However, a quick look at the first, or at least the most infamous, instance of the niqab being widely adopted in this region, found in the Malaysian-grown al-Arqam movement of the 1970s and 80s, reveals the flimsy foundations of this claim. Hawa, who adopted the niqab in 2001, mentioned that she was influenced in part by the teachings of this movement. This throws a spanner in the workings of the Arabisation narrative in two ways. First, it was a movement of local Muslims that drew inspiration from local Sufis and mystics and their own interpretations of Islamic tradition – not from Middle Eastern influences. Second, their interpretation of Islam would have undoubtedly been denounced as blasphemous by Salafis/Wahhabis; even large segments of mainstream Muslims held ambivalent views towards the movement’s mystical and messianic teachings. This case presents a historical precedence to show that the adoption of the niqab by local Muslim women may stem not from influences in the Middle East, but rather from their home-grown engagement with Islamic tradition.

One may contend that this movement was an anomaly and that the current trend of donning the niqab has nothing to do with the movement. Admittedly, most other research respondents began wearing the niqab around less than ten years ago on average and have little or nothing to do with the movement, which reflects a new trend among local Muslim women. Even so, our research findings reveal that the narrative misses the mark with some of its assumptions. For example, Sufi-inclined respondents far outnumber Salafi-inclined ones. As with the al-Arqam case, this reveals the spuriousness of the assumption that Salafi/Wahhabi influences, based in Saudi Arabia, are central to ‘Arabisation’.

The narrative also glosses over the deliberation niqabis took to learn about the niqab before adopting it, instead painting them as unthinking receivers of foreign influences. Many took several years of research, discussion and testing before eventually adopting it committedly. This may have involved weighing between different schools of thought; Hamidah, who later on gravitated towards Salafism, revealed that the initial influence of Sufi-inclined niqabis was crucial to her adoption of the niqab. Moreover, local niqabis have shown that they considered their local context in their deliberations. This can be observed in their pragmatism with wearing the niqab in Singapore: Siti mentioned being willing to remove it for identification purposes; Hamidah mentioned that she takes it off at her workplace in the pharmacy; and Hawa mentioned being willing to drop the niqab in the case the government bans it, because “it is not obligatory”.

Respondents’ motivations for wearing the niqab bear striking resemblance to those for adopting the hijab during the Islamic revival of the 70s and 80s. The latter has been studied extensively. These studies included far-reaching analyses of the forces of modernisation, secularisation, globalisation and even Westernisation, which they found to be inextricable and indeed pivotal in explaining these religious-cultural shifts. Such studies provide a much richer account of what has contributed to shifts in Muslim praxis than what one finds in the Arabisation discourse that seem to place sole significance on influences stemming in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East more broadly.

However, what is distinct in this recent trend is the perception that the hijab has lost the utility it used to provide earlier generations. Siti mentioned that the niqab “forces you into a pious-comportment in a way the hijab used to but doesn’t anymore”. Hamidah recalled being cat-called despite wearing the hijab and loose clothing – this became a pivotal factor for her move to the niqab. This is not to say that the hijab has lost all utility in providing a means for Muslim women to exercise their piety; indeed, it still continues to have this function for many Muslim women. What is being suggested instead is that for this small minority of Muslim women, the hijab was no longer enough. Indeed, more recent studies on the hijab suggest that apart from pious motivations that took primary precedence during the revival, identity and social pressure find increasing prominence. This is missing from the accounts of the niqabis, most of whom, at the beginning of their adoption of the niqab, did not know of anyone among their friends and family who had done so and even did so against their preferences – much like Muslim women’s adoption of the hijab during the Islamic revival.

The Arabisation narrative also misses the cultural creativity local Muslims employ in how they wear their niqab. Siti stated,

“Islam tells you what your awrah (private parts according to Islam) is . How you cover it is up to you. Take the Japanese. Their kimonos cover their awrah. Then just wear tudung, that’s it!”

 The Shariah lays out requirements to be met by the believer, but how she fulfils them is up to her own creativity. This cultural creativity in adhering to Shariah requirements, Siti continues, can be seen among local Muslim women:

“The slip-on tudung local Muslims wear is very specifically Asian. The same with their jubahs, flowers, and sequins. I can tell when I look at a group of women, who is Arab and who is Asian.”

The same applies to the niqab:

“The Arab niqab is very different from mine. Especially the half niqab; it is very Asian. You’ll not find it in other parts of the Islamic world.”

Moreover, it misses the point that dressing is only one aspect of culture. Hawa mentioned that, despite wearing the niqab and the disapproval it attracts,

“I still go to Malay weddings, like the kompang, and let my children join silat because I still behave like a Malay – I’m not imitating Arabs.”

Cultural nuances such as these are often glossed over in the Arabisation discourse.

The troubling insinuation of the Arabisation narrative is that these cultural changes are linked to increasing exclusivism and even the rise of violent extremism. One would expect, then, that ‘Arabised’ Muslim women would have objectionable, or at least ambivalent, attitudes towards interactions with non-Muslims. Findings of the study seem to suggest otherwise. When asked to rate the extent to which wearing the niqab has affected their interactions with non-Muslims, 52% of survey respondents stated that wearing the niqab made no difference. 13% said it has made it easier because, for example, it provides a good conversation starter. 30% said it has made it slightly difficult because they have been subjected to rude stares and verbal abuses. Only 4% said it makes it very difficult. Some stated that, due to their introversion, wearing the niqab had not changed the nature of those interactions significantly.

Of crucial significance to this topic is the numerous informant responses about the importance of tolerance and good manners as necessary ingredients for effective social cohesion. Hawa, for example, said, “You do you, and we do us. What Islam teaches us, basically. We respect each other.”

Similarly, Siti said,

“Social cohesion is a matter of character and personality. You can dress normally or in a way that bares your skin but if you’re not friendly, then isn’t that worse?”

Survey respondents gave similar statements; a self-declared Salafi respondent wrote, “The way we speak to others speaks louder than the face veil.” These accounts imply that the way they have chosen to dress says little about their attitudes towards their interactions with non-Muslim others.

Siti and Hawa mentioned from their personal experiences that they never had a problem interacting with non-Muslims. They often find themselves in amicable conversations with taxi drivers about the niqab.

Siti, in her capacity as a religious teacher, went a step further in promoting interreligious understanding:

“Right now, I teach a class on Islam for converts and others who are interested in Islam. They saw me in niqab during our first meeting and until now they still want to continue the classes.”

 She also mentioned that she was invited as a speaker to a round-table discussion on the hijab organised by the National Library – which she attended in the niqab. Wearing the niqab, therefore, does not prevent them from interacting amicably with wider society. Rather, not only tolerance, but the understanding of differences – and interacting well with others despite those differences – are, at least for the research participants, integral for durable social cohesion.

It was not the purpose of this essay to argue that the term ‘Arabisation’ has no function in the studies of shifts in local Muslim praxis. Instead, its aim was to challenge the alarmist security-centric assumptions found in the Arabisation discourse. It sought to do this by showing that Muslim niqabis were not necessarily influenced by Middle Eastern influences; rather, as the case of al-Arqam and the data from the study showed, niqabis were capable of mining their religious tradition to arrive at their own context-informed decisions that suit their purposes. It has also shown that many of these niqabis do not incline to Salafi/ Wahhabi interpretations; many, if not most, are Sufi-inclined. Lastly, it suggested that there is no clear correlation between the adoption of the niqab, supposedly due to being ‘Arabised’, and exclusivism. Moving forward, studies of local Muslim religiosity should try harder and move away from simplistic narratives that could well be more damaging than productive. ⬛


Fadhil Yunus Alsagoff graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Global Studies specialising in Religion and Ethnicity. He worked as a research assistant at the Middle East Institute (NUS) for two years and is currently in Cairo pursuing further studies.

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