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The power of standing up and being there for others: my tudung story

The story of how normal, everyday people supported me against discrimination

Disclaimer: This story happened half a decade ago (2015). However, no real names or identifying details will be given. This story aims to empathize, relate and share the steps I personally took to reconcile the discrimination.

My tudung or my job? Making a decision on the first day of my hospital attachment

It was the morning of my first hospital attachment. My schoolmates and I gathered excitedly for orientation at the lobby. We’d applied successfully through our school for it. 

There were 6 of us undergraduate pharmacy students for an 8 week learning journey. The briefing went smoothly. We were suitably attired in professional wear and brought the needed learning materials. A friendly staff showed us an introduction slideshow. We were told our designations or schedule. But near the end of this briefing, the same friendly staff member motioned me over. 

When the rest were dismissed, I stayed in the room with her. 

Like me, she was Malay-Muslim and donned a headscarf. She seemed a bit hesitant. When she eventually conveyed the matter to me, she was apologetic. I was confused, then silent. 

“Dear, do you know that pharmacists here are not allowed to wear the tudung (headscarf)? When we received your applications, there were no required photos so we didn’t know you wore one. 

But to proceed with the attachment, you can’t wear it.” 

After some thinking, I said that I wouldn’t remove the headscarf. It was my personal choice as part of my faith. I asked if wearing the tudung would affect my duties. She replied that she wasn’t sure. It was part of the hospital policy for pharmacists. And addressing her awkwardness conveying the matter, she said the rule didn’t apply to her as an admin staff.

I was given some time to think it over. The options were:

  1. To remove the tudung and continue my attachment, or; 
  2. To inform my school and request for an attachment location that permits wearing it. 

I was conflicted because I’d chosen this hospital because of my interest in the hospital’s specialization. It was an experience I was keen to acquire. It served a community I wanted to empathize with and serve. 

At the same time, my choice to wear the headscarf was important to me. I spoke to my family & some school seniors.

When we next met to discuss the matter again, I honestly shared my considerations. I was keen to serve. It was important for me to wear my headscarf. I didn’t see how it would affect it. 

Eventually, we spoke to the 2 chief preceptors (aka supervisors for pharmacists) that would manage our attachment this time. They shared my values and accepted my decision. 

These senior pharmacists: a female foreigner and a Chinese male; arranged our attachment schedule. They shared that the Head of Department (HOD) might want to speak to me about my headscarf, but that was later. 

For now, I was able to continue my learning journey.

Learning & serving my patients regardless of what I wore

Sometime later, a morning meeting was scheduled with the HOD. I nervously came to work. We’d had a few weeks of work attachment by now. I’d worn my headscarf through it without problems. One of the chief preceptors was going to accompany me to the meeting. 

When I arrived at work though, I received a message from the preceptor. She said the meeting was cancelled because the HOD had something to attend to. 

Later that day, when I met my preceptor, she shared that we weren’t going to initiate a meeting again. Just in case, my chief preceptors were going to rearrange my schedule so I didn’t cross paths with the HOD e.g. no rounds to the pediatric ward where she would be. 

She was the only one particular about the policy, they said. But my chief preceptors believed in my right to dress according to my faith, that it didn’t affect our work and that they would ensure a good attachment for me.

I completed my 8 weeks’ attachment, with those slight schedule changes. But I daresay in comparison with my peers, I didn’t learn any less. 

I never saw the HOD and moved smoothly throughout the hospital. There were no comments from any other staff, much less patients. The patients who identified with my religion were extra happy to see me. 

Because my chief preceptors took a stand for me, I could learn from the attachment and more. I treasured watching how my preceptors gave their all for the patients’ benefit. By meeting the patients regularly, I empathize with them. I became an advocate for the work and the ailment. 

So how do we take a stand in the workplace? 

What are our rights? What do we consider discrimination?

Here are three of my own tips/reflections for reconciling this experience:

1. Know your internal dialogue and priorities.

When things happen around you, there will be many voices. There will be noise.

When this incident happened, there was the staff’s conveyance of the policy, my preceptors’ considerations, my family’s conviction of the right thing to do and my senior schoolmates’ experiences. One of the voices is yours

If you feel strongly for something, weigh the options then stand up for it. Your personal clarity is something no one can take away from you. This is so that it doesn’t get defined by anyone else. It helps you navigate the world.

2. Provide support against the discrimination taking place around you.

Throughout my attachment, I had a friend who ate with me at lunch breaks. We sat through the lessons and assignments together. It may not have directly been against the discrimination, but she made me feel accepted. 

I enjoyed the attachment more with her, even with the shadow overhead that I could be found out by the HOD. If I didn’t have that friend, the experience would have been much harder. 

Every positive interaction with others also helped it much more. Looking back, this reminded me not to underestimate the value of walking with another person through their experience.

3. Recognise your power/position and use it to help each other.

To this day, I highly regard the preceptors that shielded me from that discrimination. 

They did not have to be of the same faith, race or gender to uphold my rights. Yet, they shared my values and ensured my opportunity to learn just like any other. They could’ve chosen not to take the risk and enforce the policy without believing in it. 

But they understood their position and their shared value, and used it to help me. 

We all have the ability to influence, a position, a power or a privilege we can use to help others. What’s a position for if not to create more good? To protect and enable others? There’s a lot more for us to lose than to gain, by upholding discrimination.

But the problem continues. If you’re facing this, I am here for you.

Unfortunately, when I returned post-graduation to apply for a full-time job there, I was interviewed by the HOD that my preceptors protected me from. She was confused. She asked me if I would remove the headscarf. I shared that I did my attachment with it, and so I wouldn’t for my job. I didn’t get a call-back after. 

Eventually, I left the profession. This was not the defining factor. But it did deter temporarily. And perhaps for others, it would deter them even more. 

Ultimately, do we stand for a community, a society that discriminates? And if we’re not standing for one that doesn’t, discrimination could be what we’re standing for.

As an individual, the solution shouldn’t be on us entirely. I’m sure reading this, you’d have your own stories. You’re not alone. I hope you know that you are worthy. And that if you’ve felt discriminated against, you have the right to feel sad, upset and angry. 

Please share/write to us/comment if you’d like, on our social media pages. I’ve chosen to move on, but would speak for others if they needed. I knew how it felt. I’d never want it to be so for anyone.

Have you or someone you know been discriminated against because of the tudung? Write to me on your stories or the lessons you learnt along the way. 

I’d really like to listen to you. 
Email me at or through DM on Instagram or Facebook

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