Why Pinoys are shunning short sleeves in Brunei

By Paola Belle Ebora

Posted at May 08 2014 02:44 PM | Updated as of May 09 2014 09:47 PM

General view of the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei in this March 13, 2014 file picture. Photo by Ahim Rani, Reuters

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Amid the sweltering heat, Filipinos in Brunei Darussalam are shunning short-sleeved clothing in favor of more conservative designs.

The reason? The first phase of the Islamic criminal law or Sharia law was implemented in Brunei this month.

According to Section 197 of the Sharia Penal Code Order, wearing indecent clothing or committing an act of indecent behavior in a public place that “tarnishes the image of Islam, corrupts moral standards, causes negative influence or upsets eyewitnesses” is an offense that can subject offenders to a fine not exceeding 2,000 Brunei dollars (around P70,731) and imprisonment for a term not longer than six months or both.

Members of the Filipino community are now making conscious efforts to watch their demeanor as the newly-implemented Sharia law calls for moral decency in all aspects — starting from their clothing. There are 30,000 Filipinos in Brunei, making them the biggest non-Muslim expatriate community.

Dina Gomez, a Filipina resident, said she has respected and obeyed Islamic law since she married her husband, a Bruneian.

"I’m used to it particularly when it comes to the dress code. The only thing now that I don’t dare to wear is a sleeveless top when going to the market and malls. So now when I shop, I go to the long-sleeved section,” Gomez said with a laugh.

The Sharia law doesn't specify in black and white what is “indecent,” and with Filipinos not wanting to risk potential violation of the code, many like Katherine Recto are exercising extra caution in their actions.

Recto, an employee at a fast food chain in Seria, wears a "tudong" (headscarf) at her work place. Having stayed in Brunei for eight years now, she has fully adapted in the country, speaking Bahasa Melayu and even decided to convert to Islam.

Although she has yet to convert her religion, Recto said she wears the black veil that covers her hair, ears, and neck not only because it is mandated by her company but also to “be safe.”

While wearing a tudong is not required for all women in Brunei, it is worn as standard dress code for work places, school, and when attending formal occasions. It is not mandatory for non-Muslims to don the garb but they are at least expected to dress conservatively now as required by the stringent law.

“Mahirap na po kasi ‘di ba, hindi po natin alam baka po ‘di pwede sa Sharia law,” Recto said.

What is Sharia law?

Brunei Darussalam is the first South East Asian country to adopt the Sharia law, which is implemented alongside its civil penal code. The adoption of the Islamic law is in celebration of the country’s 30th year of independence from British control, representing “part of the great history” of the nation.

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, approved the law in October 2013 and proceeded with its enforcement in three phases beginning May this year.

The first phase of the implementation, which will last for six months starting this month, includes all offenses under Part IV Chapter IV (General Offences) of the Sharia Penal Code Order and are punishable only by fine or imprisonment.

Aside from indecent behavior, the first phase of the law—which applies both to Muslims and non-Muslims—includes offenses such as disrespect of the month of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and impregnating a Muslim female out of wedlock. Muslims, on the other hand, can be penalized for not performing the Friday prayer, among others.

The second phase slated a year after will allow the amputation of limbs for theft and robbery, whipping for violations such as drinking alcohol, and stoning for offenders guilty of adultery, rape, and sodomy.

The final phase, which will take place another year after the second phase, will fully implement the law including offenses punishable by death.

The Sharia law is applicable to the Brunei population of approximately 415,000, with more than 20 percent being non-Muslims. This includes 30,000 Filipinos, a majority of whom have come to the oil-rich kingdom for employment.

Philippine Ambassador to Brunei Nestor Ochoa reminded Filipinos to respect the laws of their host country.

"Like other expatriates living in Brunei Darussalam, Filipinos recognize the need to respect the laws of the host country even as they also expect their basic rights and freedoms to be respected. Filipinos accept the implementation of the Sharia Penal Code Order as part and parcel of living and working in Brunei, just like any other local laws," he said in an e-mail interview.

Ochoa noted some Filipinos were “initially concerned over the potential infractions resulting from their lack of familiarity with Islamic religious mores in general and the new law in particular.”

The Philippine Embassy in Brunei held a briefing on the implementation of the Sharia Penal Code Order last February 27. Embassy officials addressed the Filipino community's queries and concerns regarding the Islamic law.

"Filipinos come here mainly to work and visit family and friends, not with a premeditated intention to break the law… In our view, well-informed Filipino workers are empowered Filipino workers, able to make intelligent decisions for themselves, their families, and the people around them. We have therefore encouraged our nationals in Brunei to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Sharia Penal Code Order and do their best to abide by the law,” Ochoa said.