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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 16:25 GMT
Mufti puts school over scarves
Seven-year-old Nurul Nasihah (R)
Nurul Nasihah (R) has been suspended from school
Singapore's top Islamic figures have urged the parents of four girls to send them to school in a growing row over a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves.

Education is more important [than tudung]

Mufti Syed Isa Semait
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday that education is more important than wearing the "tudung" - the Singaporean name for the headscarf.

Muis President, Maarof Salleh, said he had consulted Singapore's highest Islamic authority, Mufti Syed Isa Semait.

Reports say the families of two of the girls, both suspended from school on Monday for wearing headscarves, have rejected the plea.

A third Muslim girl failed to turn up for school on Monday, and a fourth was given until next Monday to comply with the rules.

International criticism

The row has widened with groups in several neighbouring countries criticising the Singaporean government policy of imposing strict uniform codes, which it says helps to maintain racial harmony.

Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong
PM Goh Chok Tong says he is trying to promote racial harmony
Brunei's only legal political party, the National Solidarity Party (PPKB) said on Wednesday that religious dress did not promote social unrest.

"Religious attires do not contribute to social disharmony and disunity and the wearing of headscarves definitely does not contribute to social disintegration," PPKB President Mohd Hatta Zainal Abidin said in a statement.

Headscarves are compulsory for Brunei's Muslim schoolgirls but not for non-Muslims. Islam is Brunei's official religion.

In Malaysia, several political parties have made similar comments. The spiritual leader of the main Muslim opposition party PAS, said the policy threatened to erode freedom of religion in Singapore.

But Singapore's Mufti said on Tuesday: " The no-tudung rule lasts only for a few hours when the pupils are in school. Education is more important."

Race relations

Correspondents say the sensitive issue is testing community cohesion in Singapore, where race relations have come to the fore since the arrests in December of more than a dozen alleged militants suspected of having links with al-Qaeda.

Racial and religious riots broke out in Singapore in the 1950s and '60s. Since then, government policy has focused on avoiding racial and religious tensions between the ethnic Chinese majority and the Malay Muslim minority.

The government says its schools should provide a common space for pupils of all races, religions and backgrounds to mix freely.

For devout Malay Muslims, who make up about 15% of Singapore's population, the tudung is obligatory once girls reach puberty. But some parents insist their daughters wear them from an earlier age.

The headscarf ban does not apply outside schools or to Singapore's private religious schools. The suspended girls' parents say all the private schools are full.

Scarf ban
Should Singapore allow religious dress in schools?
See also:

04 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Singapore schoolgirls defy headscarf ban
12 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Hunt continues for Singapore militants
04 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Malaysia holds 'militant Muslims'
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