Indonesian students parade marking the Islamic new year in Banda Aceh on September 11, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

JAKARTA – On the day Human Rights Watch Indonesia (HRW) produced an exhaustive study on abusive school dress codes, a Jakarta newspaper published a front-page picture of a Sulawesi mother taking three girls to school on her motorcycle. She wasn’t wearing a jilbab. They were.

It seemed to highlight the fact that despite a new government regulation giving students the freedom not to wear the Islamic head covering at the more than 300,0000 state schools, it will take a lot more than that to end gender discrimination in both the classroom and government offices.

Over the past two decades, as HRW noted, women and girls in Indonesia have faced unprecedented legal and social demands to wear Islamic attire as part of insidious efforts to impose the trappings of Sharia law across large parts of the country.

Unlike the kerudung, a veil that still shows the hair, the jilbab is meant to cover the hair, neck and ears. But more women are now also wearing the Arab-style abaya, a long robe often combined with a face veil known as the niqab that shows only the eyes.

Already under judicial review in the Constitutional Court, it isn’t clear how the new regulation will affect some of the 421 Sharia-based bylaws that discriminate against women and minorities, including Christian students who in some cases have been forced to wear the jilbab.

Indonesia’s highest court ruled four years ago that under the 2004 Local Administration Law, the Home Affairs Ministry can’t revoke regional ordinances, about 60 of which specifically impose mandatory school dress codes.

But because the central government retains control over religion, along with foreign affairs, monetary policy, justice, defense and also state institutions, the new regulation does, in theory at least, appear to take precedence over local bylaws.

Students attend face-to-face learning trials with health protocols implemented at Cibinong 2 High School in Bogor, West Java province, Indonesia on March 17, 2021. Photo: AFP/Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency

Peer pressure

According to legal experts, the Education Ministry has the power to withhold state funding to errant schools and to formally request district chiefs or, failing that, provincial governors, to otherwise sanction principals who refuse to comply with the decree.

Still, peer pressure in the workplace and at home from family members is likely to remain the most pervasive influence over whether women and girls are compelled to conform with socially-restrictive dictates, turning what should be a choice into an obligation.

Interfaith activist Ifa Hanifah Misbach, a member of a blue-blood Islamic family, calls herself a “survivor” from 36 years of intimidation for refusing to be seen in Muslim dress. “I’m a sinner because I didn’t cover my whole body,” says Hanifah, a clinical psychologist.

Fellow activist Alissa Wahid, daughter of the late former president and fervent pluralist Abdurrachman Wahid, says the mandatory wearing of the jilbab is just the starting point for other forms of discrimination and the loss of self-determination for women across the board. 

“My hope is with the younger generation who are better educated,” says Wahid, who is often criticized for wearing the loose-fitting kerudung favored by her 73-year-old mother, herself the frequent target of Islamic zealots. “They have a deeper sense of citizenship.”

Muslims may make up 88% of Indonesia’s population, but the majority often act like the minority with more conservative interpretations of Islam driving a rising tide of intolerance that President Joko Widodo’s government is now trying to stem.

According to the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Center, 75% of Muslim women and children in Indonesia wear the jilbab, a vast increase from 20 years ago, although it is difficult to determine how many are doing so under legal, social or familial pressure.

A woman is whipped in public in Banda Aceh in Indonesia’s staunchly conservative Aceh province as punishment for being too close to the opposite sex. Photo: AFP

Research has shown that in 32 local administrations, rules require the jilbab to be worn in state schools, the civil service and in public places, including the heavily Muslim-populated provinces of West Sumatra, Bengkulu and South Kalimantan.

The government regulation was introduced last February after the parents of a non-Muslim student in West Sumatra objected to their daughter being forced to wear the jilbab, known in Arab culture as the hijab, or face expulsion from her school.

Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a member of the moderate Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and one of the four Cabinet members to sign the decree, said the case was a tip of the iceberg in 20 of the country’s 34 provinces.

Located just south of Aceh, the only region permitted to practice Sharia law, historically-devout West Sumatra was the second province to enforce mandatory religious dress in 2014, following a decree issued by Education minister Mohammad Nuh.

Nuh, a French-schooled academic, did not respond to a request for comment, but the Human Rights Watch report suggested that because the decree was ambiguously worded it was widely interpreted as making the jilbab part of the school uniform.

In a 2019 interview, Nuh pointed out that he did not use the word “mandatory,” adding: “Any Muslim girl, any schoolgirl basically, from primary to high school, could choose to wear a jilbab or not. She should not face any sanction. It should be a free choice.”

Interestingly, West Sumatra is the home of Nuh’s deputy, Cornell-educated Fasli Jalal, who recently came out in opposition to the latest regulation, and Mohamad Sayuti Datuak, a lecturer at Padang’s Bung Hatta University who filed the challenge in the Constitutional Court.

Jalal, 67, is a board member of the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation,  chaired by youthful Education Minister Nadiem Anwar Makarim, and Sayuti, 61, is a Golkar Party politician and also head of a local institute dedicated to safeguarding Minangkabau (Padang) customs and traditions.

A teacher gives scarves to student volunteers who took part in an education campaign about the covid-19 coronavirus at an elementary school in Banda Aceh on February 3, 2021. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

Forced to leave

In a province anomalously known for its matriarchal society, and where the culture is considered to be directly linked to religious precepts, Muslims make up 97.4% of the 5.5 million population, the second-highest concentration after Aceh.

In many cases, schools and teachers across Indonesia do not explicitly insist on students wearing the jilbab, but drawing on in-depth interviews with nearly 150 girls, parents, officials and activists, the report notes that they tend to give unsolicited advice or bully those who don’t.

Led by senior researcher Andreas Harsono, the interviews revealed that some girls who chose not to wear the jilbab had been forced to leave their schools, while female civil servants had either lost their jobs or resigned to escape constant pressure from bosses and fellow workers to comply.

“The jilbab is seen as a symbol of female piety and high morality,” Dahlia Madinah, a member of the National Commission on Violence Against Women told HRW. “Indonesia has a growing number of mandatory jilbab areas, but they obviously don’t correspond to piety and morality.”

She may well have been referring to the way almost every Indonesian woman charged with corruption, for example, invariably appears in court wearing a jilbab and modest Islamic clothing in an effort to convince the judges of their piety – and therefore their innocence. 

“The government’s compulsion or acquiescence to pressure women and girls to wear a jilbab is an assault on their basic rights to freedom of religion, expression and privacy,” HRW said. “The threat of being denied an education or job is a highly effective way of persuading a woman or a girl to wear a jilbab, at considerable psychological cost.”