Hijabs for sale at Jakarta's famous Tanah Abang textile market. (Reuters Photo/Beawiharta)

The Politics of Hijab in Indonesia


MAY 08, 2018

Jakarta. What comes to your mind when you hear the word hijab, or the headscarf? In the current political climate, more than a few would say oppression of women or religious fanaticism. But what about liberation or rebellion against the system? It may sound strange, but throughout history, the hijab has meant all of those things for Indonesian women.

During Suharto’s repressive New Order dictatorship for example, many style choices deemed as symbols of rebellion, such as long hair for boys and yes, the hijab, were banned.

This was a sign, as Gadjah Mada University researcher Achmad Munjid had pointed out, that Islam in the New Order was reduced to the performance of rituals.

Activist Aquino Hayunta, during a recent discussion on hijab hosted by the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group (JFDG) and Koalisi Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Art Coalition), said many Indonesian Muslim women started donning the hijab in the early 1980s inspired by the Iranian Revolution.

At the same time, Islamic groups were seen as a serious threat for the government since many of them refused to comply to the state ideology Pancasila – a subversive move if ever there was one.

During the 1980s, violent clashes between the state and Islamic groups rose in numbers, some of them leading to massacres of Muslims – in Tanjung Priok in 1984 and Talangsari in Lampung in 1989.

According to an article by Petrik Matanasi in online magazine Tirto, thousands of women in the Talangsari massacre were dragged by their hijabs and publicly accused of being the wives of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members.

Hijab's Out of Schools

Aquino said in high schools back then, students who donned the hijab often had to face the wrath of their teachers.

"If you wear hijab because of Allah, then I can’t forbid you. But if you wear it for a political cause, then the school will come down hard on you," a teacher at Jakarta’s SMAN 68 High School said once, Aquino recalled.

Indonesia's Education and Culture Ministry (Kemendikbud) rolled out a regulation in 1982 prohibiting hijab in schools, arguing it was not part of official state school uniforms.

Aquino said high school students in Jakarta, Bandung (West Java), Tangerang (Banten), Bekasi (West Java), Semarang (Central Java), Surabaya (East Java) and Kendari (Southeast Sulawesi) were expelled for wearing the headscarf.

The activist recalled a vicious rumor had even gone round the country that some hijabs were spiked with a secret toxin that would harm its wearers.

But in the early 1990s, when the dictator Suharto decided he needed to start courting the massive political power of Indonesian Muslims, the wind started to change for hijabers in Indonesia.

A new regulation was released in 1991 that finally allowed school students to wear religious accessories, including the hijab.

But, the government's stamp of approval on the hijab, as Muslim feminist activist Lies Marcoes said during the same discussion with Aquino, was a double-edged sword.

Instead of empowering hijabers, the New Order government had co-opted them. Hijab was turned into just another accessory, no longer a potent symbol of rebellion against the state.

New Tool of Oppression

After Suharto's New Order was gone, hijab became a tool for oppression against women.

According to Aquino's research, since Reformasi in 1998, 443 sharia-based regulations (Perda Syariah) have been issued by local governments, many of which prescribed the donning of hijab for Muslim women.

Michael Buehler, a professor from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) said in his book, "The Politics of Shari’a Law: Islamic Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia," that declining electoral support for Islamic political parties in the late 1990s and early 2000s had forced politicians to seek support from Islamic groups.

Indonesian politicians from all persuasions were more than willing to issue sharia laws to court support from those groups.

In an interview with BBC Indonesia, Buehler said many politicians who impose sharia laws are not necessarily Muslims or believe in Islamic laws, but are definitely opportunistic.

The sharia laws often make hijab mandatory for Muslim women, especially in schools and government offices.

According to an unpublished research by feminist group KAPAL Perempuan Institute, a sharia-influenced school regulation issued in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara, forces female Muslim students to don modestwear – including the hijab – and non-Muslim female students to wear long-sleeve shirts.

The problem was, many students in Mataram, a poor part of the country, can't afford to buy an extra set of modestwear for their school uniforms.

A junior high school student interviewed for the study said her parents only make Rp 200,000 ($14) a month while a set of modestwear uniform costs a princely Rp 125,000.

Last year, a non-Muslim student was forced to drop out of another junior high school in Banyuwangi, East Java, because the school made hijab mandatory for all female students.

And in January this year, Aceh Besar District Head Mawardi Ali signed an executive order making it mandatory for airline stewardesses to don the hijab while in Aceh.

If they refuse, they will be forced to wear hijab and sarong provided by local authorities.

There has been resistance against this trend of forcing women to wear the headscarf.

As reported by Republika, some schools in Hindu-dominated Bali banned the hijab in 2014.

In March this year, Yogyakarta’s Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University (UIN) issued a ban on the niqab (face veil) supposedly to stop the spread of radical Islam on campus ground.

The ban was revoked after strident criticism from both Islamic groups – including the conservative Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) – and feminists.

Lies said the ban was unfair and might encourage Islamophobia.

Radicalized people should be brought to court, and that only after they are suspected of committing crimes, she said.

South Kalimantan’s Lambung Mangkurat University also issued a similar niqab ban in 2015.

The Politics of Hijab

Aquino said political trends always have a great sway on how the hijab is seen in Indonesia.

At the moment, the increasingly conservative political climate has meant that social media is awash with local accounts urging Muslim women to don the hijab.

Insulting memes comparing "hijabis" and "non-hijabis" abound, one likening the women to wrapped and unwrapped candies.

Among hijabis themselves, there is often heated argument over which headscarf style is the most Islamic.

In recent years, "syar'i" hijab, a loose-wearing, longer hijab that covers almost the entire upper body, has been considered the most proper of all headscarves.

Lies said controversial laws forcing Muslim women to wear the hijab can be prevented by declaring the headscarf as a "mubah" accessory.

Mubah in Islamic law means "permitted" or "neutral."

Lies said if hijab is categorized as mubah, Muslim women will be free to decide for themselves whether or not to wear it.