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Muslim girls suspended for headscarves

Seven-year-old Nurul
Seven-year old Nurul is led away from school for wearing her headscarf  

SINGAPORE -- Two Malaysian Muslim girls in Singapore have been suspended from their primary schools for wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf.

The Malay Muslim headscarf, known as the tudung, is not part of the girls' school uniform and wearing it in school is against government policy.

City state administrators argue that even for devout Malaysian Muslims, wearing the headscarf is not essential until a girl reaches puberty.

Allowing the headscarves in school would highlight the students' religious differences and thus damage racial unity, the government argues.

But some parents want their daughters to start wearing it from a young age.

Nearly all of Singapore's 450,000 Malays are Muslim, making Islam the second-largest religion after Buddhism, according to Reuters.

But since racial and religious riots wracked Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, a cornerstone of government policy has been to avoid tension along these lines.

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Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah Mohamad Kassim arrived to school defying a Monday deadline to comply with the headscarf ban, Reuters news agency reported.

Clutching the hands of family members, the girls had little idea of the storm surrounding them or the broader impact of their moves as the city state stresses moderation and unity after the recent detention of 13 suspected Muslim militants.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement the girls "have been suspended from school and are not allowed to attend classes unless they are in the prescribed school uniform."

Seven-year-old Nurul was suspended by her school almost immediately as her father complained of being painted into a corner.

"What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway," Mohamad Nasser told Reuters reporters. "My daughter's education is as important as my faith, my religion."

Six-year-old Siti spent about two hours in class before her father fetched her on news of the suspension.

Both girls started their first year of school last month.

A third girl, Khairah Faroukh, who began wearing a headscarf two weeks into the school year, has until February 11 to comply with the dress code or face suspension, the ministry said.

Another Muslim family has taken their tudung-wearing daughter out of school to be educated at home.

Muslim leaders have emphasized the moderate nature of their community since the September 11 attacks on the United States, anti-U.S. anger in Muslim behemoth Indonesia and the arrests of several suspects in December for plotting a bombing campaign.


Nurul and her mother
Nurul started school last month  

But the government is walking a tightrope, Bilveer Singh, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told Reuters.

"They have to keep all the racial groups in balance while giving in to things which do not harm the national whole," Singh said.

There is no hint the headscarf issue will become explosive but it caps a series of grievances that include the exclusion of Muslim men from sensitive areas of the military and concern over Malays lagging behind the Chinese economically.

Abdul Aziz Shamsudin, Malaysia's deputy education minister, was told to keep his nose out of Singapore's business after he called on the government to reconsider its headscarf stance.

"Their worry is if you allow the minority a small leeway, the majority is going to come banging on your door," Singh said.

"Then you're going to have a problem with your neighbors and all the notions of Singapore being a Chinese state become real."

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the courts were best placed to deal with the tudung issue but voiced hopes Singaporeans would instead focus on the retooling of the recession-hit economy.




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