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More Indonesian women view full face veils as vital

New York Times - March 25, 2020

Temboro (East Java) – Only the rider's eyes were visible from behind her black face veil. With a bow in her left hand and an arrow in her right, she cantered her horse towards a target, aimed quickly and let fly. The arrow struck home with a resounding pop.

The rider, Ms Idhanur, who like many Indonesians uses one name, is a 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school in East Java. She says firing arrows from horseback while wearing her niqab – a more conservative face veil where the only opening is a slit for the eyes – improves her chances of going to heaven.

Many also say the full veil offers protection from prying eyes and harassment by men in a country where unwanted sexual advances are common.

Ms Idhanur, who teaches at the Al Fatah Islamic Boarding School of Temboro, part of the revivalist Tablighi Jamaat movement, has an answer for Indonesians who fear that the conservative Islamic dress is a troubling step towards extremism and the marginalisation of women.

"Even though we are wearing a niqab like this, it doesn't mean that we become weak Muslim women," Ms Idhanur said, after dismounting. "We can become strong Muslim women by participating in archery and horseback riding."

Indonesia, a democracy that has the world's largest Muslim population, is officially secular and has long been known for tolerance. But in the 22 years since the dictator Suharto was ousted, the country has turned increasingly towards a more conservative Islam.

Conservative clerics, such as Indonesia's Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin, have gained a more prominent role in public life. And local governments have enacted more than 600 measures imposing elements of Syariah, or Islamic law, including requiring women to wear hijabs – a catchall for headscarves – to hide their hair.

A small minority of Muslims have also embraced extremist views and some have carried out deadly bombings, including the 2018 Surabaya church attack that killed a dozen bystanders. One suicide bomber was a woman, prompting many Indonesians to be wary of women who wear niqabs.

Concern that the niqab is associated with terrorism prompted Indonesia's Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi, a former army general, to call for a ban on employees and visitors wearing the full veils in government buildings.

He fears that some government workers are being attracted to extremist thought and sees the niqab as a sign of radicalisation. His regulation has yet to be adopted. A 2018 ban on niqabs at a university in Central Java lasted only a week before opposition compelled the university to rescind it.

Strong Muslim women

Ms Idhanur, who is part of a growing, peaceful movement of Muslim women who believe they can receive rewards from God through Islamic activities such as wearing a niqab and practising sports Prophet Muhammad is thought to have enjoyed.

But Ms Sidney Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in South-east Asia, said it was important to distinguish between radical Islamists who pose a threat and followers of conservative Islamic groups who promote a traditional Islamic lifestyle, such as the proselytising Tablighi Jamaat sect.

"Because of their dress, they are often confused with extremists," said Ms Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. "But they are against violence. It's a great example of a movement where dress can be totally misleading."

Unlike at the male-dominated Al Fatah school, where women and girls as young as five are required to wear the niqab, thousands of mainly urban, middle-class women in the country have made that choice for themselves.

Leading the way is Ms Indadari Mindrayanti, a clothing designer, who founded the Niqab Squad four years ago to promote wearing the veil. It now has nearly 6,000 members with chapters across Indonesia and in Malaysia and Taiwan.

"We really want to go to heaven, and so we sacrifice," Ms Indadari explained at a Niqab Squad equestrian and archery event near Jakarta. "Part of our sacrifice is not showing our beauty and covering our body in an Islamic way," she said.

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/more-indonesian-women-view-full-face-veils-as-vital