Many years ago, when Zulfa Nadia first began wearing the Islamic headscarf to school, her new attire drew curiosity and wonder from her peers.
“There were some compliments from my friends -- [they] asked: ‘Why do you wear hijab?’” Nadia said. “And I was the first girl at that school to wear the hijab.”
Times have changed.
Nowadays, women wearing jilbabs are a common sight throughout Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world. And Nadia, now 20 and studying geography at the University of Indonesia (UI), said many of her classmates also wear the veil.
In fact, the jilbab — Indonesia’s term for the hijab — has become increasingly popular among Muslim women across the country since the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Azyumardi Azra, a professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta. “The term hijab,” he explained, tends to be associated with middle-class Muslim women, while “jilbab” is a more general term.
He believes the jilbab’s rising popularity started with a growing attachment to Islam among Indonesians, which started around that time.
“I think it has a lot to do with the global revival of religion, not only Islam, but other religions as well,” he said. “It began with the revival of Christianity and Protestantism in the United States, since the time of President Reagan.”
Amid growing concerns about the Islamic State movement in the Middle East, some may wonder whether the popularity of the veil in Indonesia indicates mounting religious extremism. But according to Azyumardi, the jilbab’s increasing popularity has little to do with its wearer's political identity.
“If you look at the elections in Indonesia since the first election in post-Suharto era, [which] was in 1999, … Islamic-based political parties have fared very poorly,” he said. “So there is no political implication or political ramification of the increased use of jilbabs among Muslim women.”
Rather, he said, this trend is a result of social pressure — which he predicts will continue to attract more Muslim women to the jilbab.
“Probably the women who do not cover their hair sooner or later feel obligated to wear jilbab, or hijab,” he said.
To each, their own
Although ideas about religious duty are usually the starting point for women who decide to don the jilbab, various other factors encourage them to continue wearing one — including, like Azyumardi said, social pressure, but also school policy and fashion considerations.
“For me it’s a matter of comfort,” Nadia said. “But comfort comes second, because first is the obligation that comes from Islam. From that obligation, I feel comfort and there is peace in my heart ... And I feel secure.”
Rini Mardiani, 33, also said wearing the jilbab makes her feel good. After having used the jilbab only for special religious occasions first, she began wearing one daily about 15 years ago, and was the first in her family to do so.
“Since I started using the hijab, I didn’t feel that it prevented me from doing anything, like swimming, or outdoor activities, or interact with males,” Rini said. “I didn’t feel any inhibitions, or any limitations ... That’s why I feel happy to continue using the hijab until now.”
She described a time when she went to a swimming pool while wearing her veil in New Zealand, and was pleased to find that people did not look at her differently for it. Moreover, they commended her for not letting her jilbab interfere with her hobbies and interests.
While Rini is glad that jilbabs have become increasingly popular these days — meaning more accessibility and styles to choose from — she mentioned that there’s a certain expectation society has of women who wear one, and it isn’t always positive.
“When people wear the hijab, [others] assume -- or they hope -- that they have a better attitude…[but] wearing the hijab and being a good [person] are two things,” she said.
Nadia voiced a similar sentiment about women who may not wear a jilbab as frequently as others.
“We cannot judge you, [seeing you as a] good person for wearing the hijab or as not good because you take it off,” she said, “It’s their own decision.”
A matter of style
The growing popularity of Islamic dress has been a boon for the jilbab fashion industry, which has developed significantly in recent years. Older jilbab retailers such as Zoya (founded in 2005) are joined by newer ones, like the Jakarta Hijab Store (founded last year) to meet a growing demand for the traditional headscarf in an assortment of styles and colors.
Especially now, with so many women wearing a jilbab in Indonesia, the headscarf is no longer one-size-fits-all article — which is where the benefits of jilbab fashion come into play. Whereas jilbabs were pretty homogeneous about 15 years ago, according to Rini, the variety now allows people to choose a style that suits them.
There are generally three different types of jilbabs, according to Azyumardi.
The first is simple and modest -- and the most practical type. It is worn by an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of jilbab-wearing women in Indonesia.
The second is what he calls the “ideological jilbab,” which is longer, looser, and comes in muted colors like black, brown, or white. This style is typically associated with certain ideologies, like that of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a hard-line Islamic movement that aims to establish, through non-violent means, a caliphate ruled by Shariah law, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamic political party. Azyumardi estimates that about 10 percent of women who wear jilbabs in Indonesia use this style.
The remaining portion of women who wear jilbabs in Indonesia use what he calls a “fashionable hijab,” one that is seen on fashion runways and in glossy magazines. These cost significantly more than the modest jilbabs.
Inggrid Namirazswara, who works as an assistant legal manager, started her own jilbab business on the side a year ago, calling it “blueberryapricot.”
She says the longer, looser style is becoming more popular and personally believes this type of veil, to which she refers as the “syari hijab,” is the proper way for Muslim women to cover their bodies.
“The trend is moving to syari hijab, and that’s a good thing,” she said in an e-mail exchange. “My next project will be to apply my style in the syari hijab, not just because it’s a trend but also try to become a better human being.”
Another jilbab-aficionado, 32-year-old Rizkan Karima, said she was grateful that people nowadays have easy access to a wide variety of veils. And at the end of the day, she said, to wear or not wear a jilbab in a certain way should be a personal choice.
“I think it’s personal, so whatever you do, do it for your God,” she said. "It’s your choice.”