Whose international practice?

THE stance taken by the tourism and culture minister in response to international hotel chains prohibiting frontline staff from wearing the hijab is to be lauded. And so is the offer by a national deputy chairperson across the political divide to challenge the legality of the ban. It shows that there is broad agreement on the move affecting those involved.

Interestingly, we are back to the case of cultural (in)sensitivity or perhaps ignorance, if the minister's interpretation is to be considered. Most surprising is that such a move has the support of the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), which cited international practices and SOP. It dismissed criticism that the prohibition was discriminatory.

How does MAH justify the move in view of what the minister allegedly described as "kurang ajar" (unschooled) especially if those involved are Malaysians. The feeble response from MAH seems to border on (mis)interpretation of the term "international" which is often a euphemism to mean "colonial". It is more about forms and externalities rather than values and substance. Already the menfolk are stuck with the uncomfortable suits and ties under the guise of international practices (never mind the heat and humidity) with the glaring exception of the bellboys and doorkeepers who have to wear outfits like baju Melayu or kurtas to reflect our culture. And that is sanctioned by the hotels and presumably MAH.

In other words, international standards are also double standards that MAH has somehow overlooked. And the SOP therefore is merely "slavish operations and procedures" to be swallowed unthinkingly. If so they are still living in the "colonial" past – at least mentally – where businesses were tools to subtly subjugate local and indigenous traditions and cultures (think East India Company) putting the "sovereignty" issue back to the centre stage. MAH should be more culturally responsible and accountable on this issue and not just profit (pun intended) from it.

I was in Canada last month when the Quebec government proposed a bill to ban the wearing of the face-veil (niqab) better known as "purdah" here. The motion was carried with less than a convincing majority (66-51) and not without heavy criticism from almost all quarters in Canada. More importantly, from women groups and not limited to the Muslim communities. None of them use the excuse of "international practices" or SOP to argue their case. In fact, the fight is more for the veils with wide protests throughout the country calling it "islamophobic", citing the rise of Islamophobia in the province of late. The ban is said to be political so as to curry votes in the run-up to provincial elections next year, at the expense of the right of choice. Some suggest that given the government's religious posturing, the crucifix that hangs in the national assembly should also be removed, since the bill was labelled as "an act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality". Further, it was a case of overkill as a study shows only about 3% of Canadians who are Muslims wear niqab in public; the number in Quebec is expected to be the same at best.

In this context, it is hoped that MAH has been thorough in weighing similar points too. Otherwise like in Quebec where some are already mounting legal challenges to overturn the decision compelling Quebec's justice minister to reportedly apologise for confusion over the new law. She clarified that the legislation was "not repressive", now that it includes those wearing large sunglasses or scarves.

What is more intriguing is that islamophobia is now regarded as a vibrant "industry" by some quarters that are benefiting from it. An American scholar, Nathan Lean, made this point in a book, The Islamophobia Industry, citing evidence that the West manufactures "hatred of Muslims". Are these the international standards and practices that MAH subscribes to? Based on research millions are poured into marketing "islamophobia" as a mainstream brand to spin bigotry and hatred.

He warned of scare tactics, revealing the motives of groups, and exposing ideologies that drive their propaganda machine. Could MAH be caught in the same web in adopting them as the industry's strategy to boost its so-called "international" image?

It is for such reasons that the public has the right to know so that they too are not caught in the web of hatred. MAH must review the SOP inter alia the understanding of "international" practices in the context of a sovereign Malaysia.

Hotels are in the business of renting out bedrooms; it is not their business to pry into closets and wardrobes and ascertain who should be wearing what! And label it "international" practice.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com