Ana Salva – Last July, the debate over the wearing of the hijab again caused a stir in Indonesia, when a 16-year-old Muslim student was allegedly forced to wear it by teachers at a public school in the city of Yogyakarta on Java Island.
The young woman, who is Muslim and does not wear the hijab in her daily life as a personal choice, felt coerced by the school. She was particularly distressed when a guidance teacher forced her into wearing a hijab in front of other students.
This caused her anxiety and led her to cry in her bathroom, where she was locked up for almost an hour. The director of the school, and the teachers involved, have been suspended from their duties while authorities investigate what happened. Meanwhile the student accepted the option of being transferred to another school.
In recent years, several cases of teachers forcing female students to wear the hijab (the veil used to cover the head, neck, and chest by some Muslim women in Indonesia) have made headlines.
Indonesia, a country of 280 million people of whom 88 percent are Muslim, has witnessed a growing religious conservatism in recent years. The movement has spread to different facets of society and is having an impact on women's everyday life.
As Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director for the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), explained in an email, the shift toward mandatory hijab wearing "was gradual through the use of local decrees." But it really stems from the province of Aceh, a semi-autonomous Indonesian province on the northwest tip of Sumatra Island, gaining the right to implement Shariah, or Islamic law, in 1999.
Shortly thereafter, in 2002, the Aceh government passed a local regulation mandating Islamic dress codes, which for women included the jilbab (a long, loose outer garment, which is worn by both men and women). Following that move, Pearson said, "several provinces and regencies in places like West Sumatra and West Java started to adopt their own by-laws mandating the jilbab in certain public buildings, universities, and schools."
In 2014, the student uniform regulation was released and while it did not make the hijab obligatory, it was interpreted that way by a number of public schools. Most of the state schools in Indonesia's Muslim-majority provinces, at least 24 provinces, chose the hijab, long-sleeve shirt, and long skirt as uniforms for their female students, according to Pearson.
In February 2021, the complaint of the father of a high school student rejecting school regulations that required all girls to wear the hijab at a center in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, spread on social media. The young woman is of Chinese descent and practices Christianity.
Minister of Education Nadiem Makarim, Minister of Internal Affairs Tito Karnavian, and Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, had to take action: they signed a decree allowing any student or teacher to choose whether or not to wear the hijab at school.
However, this decree was canceled three months later by the Supreme Court, following a petition by the local group Lembaga Kerapatan Adat Alam Minangkabau, a quasi-state institution that has lobbied for Shariah to be implemented in West Sumatra.
Pearson explained that this group advocates for many Shariah-inspired ordinances in West Sumatra, including the mandatory hijab as well as laws to prohibit same-sex relations. "The decree was overturned largely on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that education is a matter for regional, not central government. Unfortunately, they won," she said.
An inter-ministerial team is now reviewing dozens of mandatory hijab rules and regulations and their impacts on schoolgirls and female civil servants. They will report their findings to Vice President Ma'ruf Amin," explained Pearson.
A report published in 2021 by Human Rights Watch showed that in recent decades, the number of national and regional laws that seek to regulate the uniforms of Muslim girls and women in the educational system has grown.
Women have not always faced this much pressure over their attire. As Jakarta Islamic State University professor Saiful Mujani shared on his Facebook page: "Muslim student clothing like this in Indonesia was a common symptom before the 80s. Many parties claim that wearing the hijab and even the veil is an obligation that is ordered in the Qur'an. Was it before the 80s that the verses related to the hijab and the veil did not enter Indonesia?"
"What is most likely is that a new interpretation of these verses appeared in the 80s after the Iranian revolution or later because of the influence of Arab fashion that is getting stronger in the country. Whatever the reason, whether the veil is obligatory is a matter of mere human interpretation... and all of them are open to error," explained the professor.
"Therefore, there should be no public institutions such as government offices, public schools or madrasas, state universities, and even state Islamic universities, which require the veil," he added.
The HRW report documented the widespread harassment of girls and women who do not wear the hijab and the deep psychological distress that this harassment can cause. In at least 24 of the country's 34 provinces, girls who did not comply were forced to drop out of school or withdrew under pressure, while some civil servants, including teachers, doctors, school principals, and university professors, lost their jobs or felt compelled to resign, according to the research.
In recent years, pressure has increased on women to wear the hijab, said James Chin, a professor of Asia Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia and an expert on governance issues in Southeast Asia.
The pressure is less harsh in large cities, such as the capital Jakarta or on Bali island, home to the majority of the Indonesian Hindu community. "Generally, in semi-urban and rural areas, the people are getting more conservative. The country's leadership plays an important role because people look at the press – how their leaders are dressing, or if the wife of a minister is wearing a hijab or not," said Chin.
In his opinion, if a poll were done, "most Indonesians would say that wearing or not wearing the hijab is more of a personal matter than anything else, unless you are going to ask the religious sphere, where they think differently."
The central government has no legal authority to revoke local laws, such as Aceh's dress code, but in the other provinces, government regulations authorize the Ministry of the Interior to override local executive orders that contradict national laws and the constitution, said HRW, which is asking for urgent action.
The problem is not only that the pressures are increasing on women to wear the jilbab in Indonesia. It is also that this pressure in turn "paves the way for further restrictions on women," concluded Pearson.
[Ana Salva is a freelance journalist.]