DECEMBER 1 — Imagine if a man walked into the immigration department, naked, to renew his passport, due to his religious beliefs that required him to shun all property, including clothes.
Or if he wanted to work as a hotel receptionist, while demanding that his employer respect his religious beliefs to be “sky-clad.”
If we were to use the religious discrimination argument that both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) lawmakers use to justify condemning the hijab ban in certain hotels involving frontline staff (while ironically refusing to enact anti-discrimination legislation, then that man’s religious beliefs must similarly be upheld and he should be allowed to greet customers completely nude.
The belief in monastic nudity and avoidance of property ownership belongs to Digambara, one of the two main sects of Jainism.
So while prohibiting certain workers from donning headscarves may amount to religious discrimination, I would argue that we need to properly examine whether corporations or private bodies, like sports organisations, should be obligated to uphold all individual personal beliefs (be they religious, social or political) all the time.
Why are companies or other organisations automatically expected to accommodate various religious beliefs, like prayer times on Friday or not working during the Sabbath (Sunday), when it is fine to suppress expression of other personal beliefs (for example, avoiding public praise of your company’s rivals)?
When you decide to work for a company, you agree to abide by its rules and regulations, including things like work schedules, dress codes and any other job requirements.
I remember an incident when I was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed reporter, full of passion for human rights (still am), and I had described a woman as a “chairperson” in my report. My boss immediately called and scolded me, telling me to stick to the house style of “chairman” as the company was not a “feminist” organisation.
My personal beliefs may have been suppressed, but I don’t think it was an unreasonable restriction or amounted to gender discrimination.
It is not fair to your employer and colleagues if you, for example, demand to be off duty every Sunday morning to go to church if your job requires the occasional weekend work. There is no reason why a religious believer should be prioritised above workers who have other needs, such as parents with young children or even an unmarried woman who wants to go for art class (single people always get the short end of the stick).
Diverse workplaces, of course, can help manage the balance between individual workers and the company, where staff of other faiths can cover each other during the time they take off to fulfil their personal religious obligations or to celebrate major religious festivals.
But this is not always possible, especially in an increasingly segregated society like Malaysia. And even in diverse offices, emergencies sometimes happen too. Certain industries like manufacturing require work 24/7.
Corporations and organisations should also have some leeway in deciding just how much they want to accommodate individual beliefs in their uniforms or dress codes.
What if an employee wants to wear as little clothing as possible because she believes that the human body is God’s perfect creation and should not be hidden, while her Muslim colleague wants to cover her hair?
What if a third employee refuses to don the company’s uniform because he is unsure of the source of the material and doesn’t want to wear cotton picked by slave labour? Or a fourth protests against wearing his company’s green uniform because green is an unlucky colour for 2018, according to feng shui?
A workplace should not necessarily be forced to accommodate these various beliefs, especially one that emphasises image and physical appearance like in the hospitality, retail or service industries. Skirt lengths and other facets of a work dress code should be entirely up to the employer.
Religious adherents should sometimes be willing to put aside certain beliefs, especially those that deal with rituals and outer appearance, to avoid inconveniencing their colleagues, employers, and other members of society who do not share their opinions.
There are no hard and fast rules. It is obvious discrimination if a company immediately rejects CVs or refuses to promote those of a certain race, religion, age, physical appearance etc. But when it comes to issues like dress code and work habits, there needs to be a certain give-and-take.
It would help if people felt less entitled to their religious beliefs and quit expecting the whole world to revolve around them.
The government similarly has the right to impose any dress code on civil servants as their employer, including long skirt lengths if it so wishes. But no dress codes should be imposed on any users of public services because the government is merely a custodian of such services that are funded by taxpayers across race and religion.
If companies have the right to impose any dress code on their employees, then what about “sexist” work dress codes, such as mandatory high heels and make-up for women?
Arguably, high heels should not be part of a work dress code because they pose a health hazard. Requiring lots of make-up for female employees can also be considered gender discrimination if they are not given an extra allowance for cosmetics.
The line between balancing a worker’s personal preferences and company rules is a fine one.
In an ideal world, we would just wear PJs to work and worked whenever and wherever we felt like it. But we live in a capitalist system that doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.
So while corporations should safeguard their employees’ work life balance and protect workers’ rights, individuals should not make excessive demands either. A feminist, for example, should not apply for work at Hooters but refuse to wear the breastaurant’s revealing uniform.
A person who abstains from alcohol should not work for a restaurant and refuse to serve alcoholic beverages; the same goes for a vegetarian who works in a burger outlet.
While the world becomes more aware of individual rights, perhaps it is also good to take a step back and to focus on more crucial battles like wage inequality, rather than whether one should be able to put a piece of cloth over one’s head.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.