Wearing an Islamic headscarf, or a hijab, is a personal choice for millions of Indonesian Muslim women. For many it is a representation of faith and a way to practice modesty.
But increasingly, the hijab is also becoming an icon of individual expression and in many cases a fashion statement that is testament to the number of Islamic designers and exhibitions currently making waves in the industry.
For Muhammad Assad exploring the hijab, its symbolism and the modern-day women it adorns has become an extensive project in which he has profiled 99 of the country’s leading women who choose to wear the headdress.
Aged just 25, Assad, who heads an investment corporation and chairs a youth training group, launched his fifth book “99 Hijab Stories” at Jakarta’s Kinokuniya bookstore on Wednesday.
The avid blogger, who was educated at the Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, has previously written books about his time living in the Arab state.
“99 Hijab Stories” is a compilation of stories from 99 Indonesian Muslim women on the reasons they wear a hijab. Seventy of the women are public figures, including actress Inneke Koesherawati, fashion designer Dian Pelangi, social activist Fahira Idris, singer Dewi Sandra and comedian Cici Tegal. Assad also included inspiring figures in the book, such as businesswoman Dewi Motik and politician Yenny Wahid.
“These are 99 women who are in their own process becoming a better person by wearing the hijab,” he said.
To compile these stories, Assad interviewed the women. He took 18 months to collect the material, which was inspired by the “99 Names of Allah.”
“Ninety-nine [people] are a lot, but it sounds like a good number,” he said. “I had to take a three-month break during the write because it was exhausting.”
He was inspired to write “99 Hijab Stories” after he was invited to speak at a gathering of the Hijabers Community. Assad said he had not seen a compilation of stories about why women wear hijab, because they were usually stories told by individuals.
Before the launch, Assad said the book drew controversy on social media because not all the women in the book wear a syar’i hijab, or full hijab. Some women, including Nafsiah Dahlan Iskan, Nurhayati Ali Assegaf, Arimbi and Yenny Wahid, still show parts of their head and hair.
Assad said he did not want to exclude them as he wanted his book to erase the dichotomy between “a proper hijab” and “not so proper,” which is a common topic for discussion among Muslim people.
“We still have to respect these women, because it is a matter of interpretation,” he said.
Assad said the book also aims to show that it is not just older people who identify with the hijab. He wanted to capture a wide variety of women who wear the hijab in their own distinctive style. By doing so, Assad hopes the book can encourage more women to start wearing the hijab.
“The young people usually want to express themselves through clothing, so I want to show them that you can wear a hijab and still look nice,” he said.
Assad, who was an undergraduate at Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi Petronas, also noted that the way the hijab was worn in the neighboring country was different.
“They usually wear a full hijab, but with T-shirts and jeans,” he said.
Having lived in a few Islamic-majority countries, Assad said the stylish hijab, which is usually colorful and often accessorized with twisted shawls, is a cultural phenomenon that is very Indonesian. This country’s creative approach to the hijab could be viewed as a national asset, Assad suggested.
Last year, Industry Ministry director general Euis Saedah has said the ministry is hoping to turn Indonesia into an Islamic fashion capital by 2020.
It comes as Islamic fashion starts to gain traction in Indonesia, particularly in the capital. At this year’s Jakarta Fashion Week, Dian Pelangi was praised for displaying daring designs for Muslim women. The FX Mall in Central Jakarta is holding a special section for Muslim fashion.
The Indonesia Islamic Fashion Fair is yet another example of the popularity of Islamic fashion.
The event last month was opened by Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa, whose wife Okke Hatta Rajasa also appears in “99 Hijab Stories.” Okke is head of Cita Tenun Indonesia, an association of women who share a passion about the country’s traditional tenun textile.
To kill the myths surrounding the difficulty of wearing the hijab, Assad identifies early in his book 10 common reasons for women refusing to wear the garment. The main reason is a claim that they are not ready, followed by wanting to “hijab their hearts” first.
Apart from these personal reasons, some also don’t wear hijab because of the hot weather and difficulty in getting a job.
Catik Yustina Mart, a guest at the book launch and also a Twitter user, began wearing the hijab a year ago.
“I work in the hospitality industry, a hotel to be exact, and they will not accept a woman with a hijab,” she said.
When she started wearing it, her colleagues said she was merely following the trend and would give it up within a few days. It has now been a year, and Catik said she does not want to go back.
“I came to the book launch because I wanted to seek inspiring stories to keep me wearing the hijab,” she said. “I hope Assad can build his own hotel someday so there won’t be discrimination against women wearing the hijab.”
Other than famous people, “99 Hijab Stories” also received more than 1,000 submissions from Assad’s Twitter followers of which he selected 25 for his book.
One of his favorite online submissions was by Lily Damayanti, a TransJakarta bus driver who began wearing the hijab after her mother passed away in 2007. Soon after that, she got a job at TransJakarta and often works night shifts. The hijab became her shield to avoid unwanted attention.
Twitter: @99HijabStories Siti Gretiani, left, editorial manager of Gramedia Pustaka Utama, with Muhammad Assad, author of ‘99 Hijab Stories.’ JG Photo/Lisa Siregar 99 Hijab Stories
Available at Gramedia bookstoresfor Rp 99,000 ($10)560 pages