Concerns over rising conservatism in Malaysia's government schools

Eight-year-old Siti Munirah Azli came home from school and told her mother that she was no longer allowed to wear a pinafore because she is a "Muslim".

Nine-year-old Maisarah Azhar was told that she would be barred from Islamic studies classes if she continued to wear a baju kurung without a hijab to school.

Both girls are attending government schools in the state of Selangor, where it is not mandatory for a Muslim to cover up.

"It's unfair to deprive a child of knowledge just because her uniform is not a teacher's 'Islamic' cup of tea. Even worse when a teacher said my daughter's going to hell for showing her aurat," said Madam Mazrita Mazli, Maisarah's mother. Aurat is the term used by Muslims for a woman's intimate parts, which include the hair on the head.

"In Islam, kids her age who have not hit puberty are not required to cover up, so is it necessary for some teachers to impose such 'rulings' at school? I'm surprised to know that it is pretty common and other parents have experienced it too," she told The Straits Times.

Such informal religious directives, parents say, have long been ingrained in Malaysia's education system but deemed as "normal" by school teachers.

Claims of rising conservatism in government public schools have risen recently, following reports of Muslim schoolgirls being physically checked to prove that they were menstruating and therefore excused from performing prayers or fasting during Ramadan.

This included teachers patting down the girls to check if they are wearing a sanitary pad, a "normal practice" said to be "rampant" at national and Islamic schools.

A male teacher identified as Razif AR Al-Marbawi defended the act on Twitter, saying he had the right to make sure that his students were telling the truth.

But he was forced to delete his Twitter account after it drew flak.

Last September, the National Union of the Teaching Profession rejected claims that public schools in the country are "too Islamic", with its president Aminuddin Awang saying that most of the programmes in such schools are geared towards "achieving an education philosophy that is balanced in all aspects, be it physical, spiritual and intellectual".

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad disagreed. He has repeatedly called for reform of Malaysia's education system, saying that there is an overemphasis on Islam in schools at the expense of the kind of education the country needed, in areas such as technology and sciences.

"It's almost as if every student is going to be an ulama (Muslim scholar)," he was quoted as saying on Feb 11 by news portal Free Malaysia Today.

In Malaysia, Muslim students in government schools are required to take up Islamic and Quranic studies as well as Tasmik (individual quran recitals).

Although the Arab language is offered as an elective subject, Muslim students are expected to take it by default.

Students have not necessarily become more religious when they grow up despite Islamic studies being allotted more hours than science and mathematics in schools, said Parent Action Group for Education chairman Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.

She added that the absence of continuous professional development evaluation of Islamic studies teachers over the past five years may have also contributed to the current state of affairs, as they were imposing their personal religious leanings on students and influencing them.

"What we are seeing is over-zealousness in conduct breaching the good practices of Islam. Ironically, it has been grossly misused and abused as an excuse to justify so-called Islamic practices," Datin Noor Azimah told ST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2021, with the headline 'Concerns over rising conservatism in Malaysia's government schools'. Subscribe