The Politics of Muslim Clothing in Indonesia

Jilbab versus Schools

This article is about the dynamics of jilbab conflicting with the social, political, and cultural issues in Indonesia. The polemics of jilbab dates back to the 1930s; a 17 year old school girl disagreed with the rule urging adult women to wear head covers in order to preserve their chastity. According to her, Java (Indonesia) is not Saudi Arabia; embracing Islam as a religion does not necessarily mean having to adopt the Arabic tradition (of wearing head covers) as well. The Islamic media then, “Bergerak” (or “On the Move”), supported her argument. (Van Dijk, 1997: 65)

In 1983, Nugroho Notosusanto launched a press release to respond to the issue of jilbab among female students at school. It states: “for those who opt to wear head covers, the government will help facilitate the moving of these students to private schools where their uniform include head covers.” (Kompas, August 6, 1983) Before this, the Minister held an exceptional meeting with the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars (or more commonly known as Majlis Ulama Islam or MUI), he explained, “a uniform ought to be identical and unvarying; otherwise, there is no point to the meaning of a uniform.”

Following the press release issued by the Chairman of MUI, K.H. E.Z. Muttaqien, responded to the question of head covers worn with school uniforms, he said: “Pedoman Pemakaian Seragam (or the Manual of School Uniform) was a rule for the headmasters to regulate school uniforms according to the educational surrounding or contexts of their respective regions. With regards to the issue of religion, the whole nation including teachers and mubalighs (Islamic preachers), would refer to the instruction of the President in front of MUI Gathering, which consists of the following four points: the right to believe in religion, master religious values, live peacefully among different religions, and perform wisely in solving religious matters. MUI along with other institutions were working on the operational pattern (bolded by the writer) of the instruction of the President.” (Kompas, March 20, 1984) Please note that the issue stated by MUI was head covers not jilbab. Jilbab is a new word at that time.

During the Working Session of Commission of the Indonesian Legislative Assembly IX DPR RI with the Minister of Religious Affairs, Munawir Sjadzali, in 1987, the Minister admitted there had not been an official decision made on the appropriate dress code for Muslim women in public and had to await a decision from the Islamic leaders on the subject. (Kompas, July 17, 1986)

The issue of jilbab at schools eventually became critical when four senior high school students from Bogor who brought a legal action to court after the headmaster forbade them from wearing head covers. (Kompas, October 6, 1988) It was triggered by a letter, sent to their respective parents, informing them of the expulsion of their children from school. The students claimed that the headmaster’s decision had left their student status unclear. Their exams, homework, and laboratory tasks had not been examined by the teachers as though they were never present at class. In fact, it was clearly noted that these students had abided by the rules stated in the Manual of School Uniform released by the government; the students had ensured that their head covers matched the school colours even though they were wearing head covers. Finally, it was reported by Legal Aid Society in Jakarta that the case came to a peaceful settlement.

A similar case happened the following year, ten female students from Senior High School 68 Jakarta went to the Legal Aid Society in Jakarta as they were prevented from attending classes; they were accused of violating the school uniform rule and should therefore be “returned to their parents.” (Kompas, January 5, 1989). It was reported that they could no longer attend classes and sit for exams at first, later the situation worsened when the students found that they were denied their school report cards and was forbidden from entering the school.

The school had suggested that the students remove their head covers during school hours, but this suggestion was rejected by the students and their parents, due to their religious beliefs. The school proposed to move the students to another school, and to issue letters stating that “they have been returned to their parents.” The letter was also supported by the Soegijo, Department Head of the Department of Education and Culture in Jakarta. He said: “I would like to convey my deepest gratitude for your effort to maintain discipline and obedience amongst the student body. Your students will be re-accepted back at school and allowed to sit for their exams if they are ready to remove your jilbab”.

During the course of this disagreement, a separate but interesting statement emerged during a book discussion about Jalaludin Rakhmat’s “Islam Alternatif’ (or “Alternative Islam”). The speaker, Dr. Ir. Fachrurozie Sjarkowi, in his article “Beated in Achievement, Jilbab-Wearers Cornered” said: “All incidents faced by those jilbab-wearers were caused by the fact that certain female students in Islamic schools appear inferior, lacking in knowledge and skills, in comparison to female students in public schools. Hence, jilbab­ wearing students are often overlooked as good role models.”

These disagreements resulted in the official declaration of The School Uniform Guide for junior and senior high schools between 1991 and 1992. “Surat Keputusan No. 100/C/Kep/D/1991” was the revision of “Surat Keputusan No. 052/C/Kep/D/1982” on the school uniform, after a series of consultations with Islamic leaders, their community, mass media, the Council of Attorney General, Minister of Information Affairs, and State Intelligence Coordinating Agency. It states that any female students, due to the personal belief, would be allowed to wear a special uniform so long as the colour and design abide by the school’s uniform specifications and with the consent of her parent or guardian.

In a previous letter, it was declared that “Due to the religious consideration and local tradition, a school would be granted the authority to design its uniform (especially for the female student population) of that school.”

The design of head covers was another matter. In the former regulation, student wearing head covers were required to tie them up like blangkon, a traditional Javanese head-dress. Their blouses were similar to a suit hanging outside the skirt, with long sleeves, and the skirts were either up to the knees”(junior-high) or ankles (senior high). In the latter regulation, female students were required to wear white head covers with their blouses -­- long sleeves up to the wrists with a buttoned pocket on the left — tucked inside their skirts. The length of skirts for both junior and senior high students were to reach the ankles.

Under this new ruling, female students in public schools now has the choice to wear (or not to wear) jilbab — whereas, for those who went to Islamic schools or colleges, they are generally required to do so. Before, there were also a number of the female students who only wore jilbab at schools or colleges. They would remove their jilbab after classes. It can be said that the new regulation has unveiled a new chapter for female Muslim believers in Indonesia.

After the fall of the New Order regime, the regulation on school uniform became more relaxed to a point where a school would have several variations on the uniform. From 2002, there was a new “dress trend” among female senior high school students in Jakarta. It was quite easy to find a female student in a pleated skirt up to her ankles, with short­sleeved blouse and loose flowing hair; others may wear knee-length skirts with the same short sleeve blouses. There were also groups of students who would wear jilbab with the usual uniform but the skirts would extend all the way to their ankles. From my interview with some of the female students, I discovered that the uniform has become a fashion trend and not a precondition for wearing jilbab. They even said that some of the teachers welcomed this trend as it made the students appear well-mannered.

Regional Autonomy and the Side Effects

Regional autonomy has enabled officials to implement strict religious rules in certain regions. The Regent of Cianjur, Warsidi Swastomo has forced the officials and officers of his Regional Government to wear “Islamic clothes” and requested for other members of society to follow suit. In this instance, “Islamic clothes” refers to jilbab for women and long shirts (similar to long tunics with round necklines) for men (Kompas, February 1, 2002) This was intended to forge the sense of spirituality among its people. The Regent believed such policy could increase the quality of human resource in his region and had been designed for Islamic believers in this region — the matter had also been discussed with non-Islamic leaders who gave their consent and agreement.

In the meantime, the Province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam formally implemented Islamic law in its region on March 15th, 2002, which coincided with the Islamic New Year of 1 Muharram 1423 Hijriah. It is a requisite for everyone in this region to cover their body and dress accordingly (to maintain their humility according the teachings of Islam). The names of stores, streets, and destination boards on buses were printed in Arabic and Latin. For those who did not dress appropriately as demanded by the Islamic law: women’s clothing was to cover the body, would be sanctioned. It was also reported in the mass media that two days prior to the practice, store-owners were busy changing their store names to Arabic and Latin while the regional officers were changing the street name, departments. In fact, there a number of them would eventually add on English translations to their signage. Long distance buses and inter-city trips were also written in both Arabic and Latin. (Kompas, March 14, 2002) Beauty salon entrepreneurs had to abide by the Islamic rule as well. Female hairdressers were not allowed to serve male customers; they had to segregated from the men.

To support the practice, the Regional Government of NAD planned to recruit 2,500 Islamic Law Police. Due to the huge budget to recruit and train, the government eventually had to fund the campaign. Polsus Syariah would fall under the control Dinas Syariat Islam, and was put in charge to maintain Islamic laws in the province such as ensuring appropriate dressing among women and men, and prohibiting adultery.

This policy would have been impossible to implement during the New Order era. Regional autonomy has provided particular regions with the opportunity to give more value to Islam, a religion which they have embraced willingly, without worry of discrimination or stigmas.

Stylish Jilbab

A number of Muslim fashion shows and competitions began during the mid 1990s. Fashion designers who focused on Muslim clothes, showed their design forecast just like other designers who would preview their autumn / winter and spring / summer collections each year. Before, Muslim fashion designs only appear in women’s magazines on special occasions like Idul Fitri, but they have come to take up a major section in the fashion editorial over the subsequent years.

Nowadays, many women do not wear jilbab with loose-fitting clothes to conceal their body contour. They tend to wear tight t-shirts or long-sleeved shirts, and fitted jeans. The phenomenon has led to the term, “stylish jilbab” or “fashionable jilbab”.

Jilbab and Muslim clothing became popular in the late 1990s. Many women would dress up in Muslim outfits in loud colours and designs at wedding receptions. To a certain extent, wearing such outfits can be a practical move as this replaces the traditional and elaborate heavy hair bun, or konde, often worn by Javanese women at such events. Besides, the outfit also allows for more movement and flexibility (as compared to the traditional sarong and kebaya). Here, we see the reasons for wearing jilbab which is borne out of pragmatism instead of religious faith.

Muslim clothes is particularly popular and ubiquitous during Ramadan. Television stations would air soap operas and programmes praising God, various quiz shows around the hours of breaking fast, and nearly all television news presenters and infotainment hosts would wear Muslim clothes.

The other contributing factor leading to the popularity of jilbab lies with the local celebrities. Among those who wear the jilbab are Inneke Koes Herawati, Yessi Gusman, and Desy Ratnasari along with older stars like Sitoresmi, Ida Royani, and Ida Leman. The last three names are also well-known fashion designers. Public figures often hold significant influence over the masses; there was a time when “kerudung Mbak Tutut” became a popular style, as it was worn by Mbak Tutut, the nickname for President Soeharto’s eldest daughter.

The popularity of Muslim clothing diminished during the Bali bombing fiasco as it was rumoured that Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) members were behind the strikes. People began to doubt those who wore Muslim clothing, looking at them with great mistrust and prejudice. Nevertheless, jilbab and other Muslim clothing remain common in Indonesia. It is necessary to note the various modes clothing worn by Muslim women in Indonesia often reveal their respective ideologies.

I find it difficult to formulate the reasons why Muslim women wear jilbab. In any case I would like to highlight the works by Angki Purbandono, a visual artist from Yogyakarta, entitled “The Fashion of Indonesian Muslim Women”. In this series, Angki interviewed and photographed five Muslim women dressed different attire: Dian (a woman in veil), Riska (a fashionable woman in jilbab), Sitoresmi (a fashion designer who often wears glamourous Muslim clothes), Atik (a woman in long jilbab), and Endah (a woman who used to be in jilbab). I would like to share some parts of the interview between Angki and the women:

The Interviews

Dian (25 years old):

In the beginning, my family did not agree with this whole wearing veil business; but since I am aware of my identity as a Muslim woman, I kept with it. So far, my family is okay with it. I never faced any difficulties wearing the veil. Well, they say its easier to wear dark colours or black, so as not to attract too much attention from the opposite sex.

The decision to wear the veil came from my belief, books, and my reading group. They were my biggest support, not my family. It’s not that that I’m easily influenced by friends; I do believe this is the way of God, and this is the way I would like to dress. My group does not belong to a particular Islamic organization. It is an open membership. You may continue to join or leave it.

In my opinion, the appropriate Muslim cloth that covers the whole body is the veil that I wear now. It does not only cover the head like what most women are wearing but it will be difficult to tell every one. I tell my close friends only.

I mingle with anyone, with or without veil. I teach in an Islamic kindergarten and it is rather exclusive. So to be sure, I take off my veil when I teach the children. When I leave the school, I put it on again. The children are used to my veil. They are not afraid of me or surprised. I face no problems or pressures from the children or the surrounding neighbourhood where I live.

Endah (23 years old):

I used to wear jilbab but I no longer do it now. My family is not a religious one, just so­-so; we fast during Ramadan, celebrate Idul Fitri, and whenever we remember, we would pray. I learned something after joining my friends mengaji group in SMP; the right way of life is according to the one written in the Holy Book. I started wearing jilbab when I was in the third grade of SMP, in 1995. After wearing jilbab and mingling with some Islamic friends, I felt as if I found an oasis, away from the unhappy family and neighbourhood interaction such as speaking rudely, gambling and drinking, and the kind. I felt comfortable in my little world: living peacefully, no distractions, moving from pengajian (reading the verse) group to others, taking care of my community, lowering my gaze, and reading Islamic books.

I was separated from my close friends when I went away to college. There, I began reading different books in the library, met a lot of people, had discussions on a wide range of subject. It is here that I began to compare my way of life to others. I asked myself “Is my world very small?” In time, I changed from my long jilbab for a shorter one; there came a time when I finally summoned the courage to ask myself about the jilbab I wore, “Why am I afraid to take it off?” Was I afraid of being mocked by others? What was the influence of jilbab on my spiritual life? I asked myself about people and their fanatic beliefs. In short, I realize ALL religions basically teach you to do good.

I want to live in peace. I want to be comfortable. I want to live a life where I am in control, where I can make conscious decisions because I am the master of my own destiny. Eventually I took off my jilbab. I wanted to be a new person.

Riska Andini (21 years old):

I wear jilbab because I’m used to it. I went through an Islamic programme for a year during senior high school. I would uneasy, uncertain without it. The jilbab reassures me, it is comforting.

My chin was pierced but it was not out of following fashion trends. I did it because my friends dared me: “Come on, we dare you to get a piercing!” they said.

I want to be well behaved as I wear jilbab, but I smoke. My parents know but I dare not smoke in front of them. Honestly, I do feel the “burden” by how others might perceive my actions, or when they look at me (smoking and the piercing) but so far I have gotten along fine, it is a tolerant community, and I do not feel so bad.

I have a steady boyfriend. I do what people commonly do on when they date. I wish my jilbab would not be a barrier for me to get along with someone I like. In my opinion, jilbab is just a piece of clothing; ya, it does look that way, so when I’m not wearing it, it looks like I’m without a piece of clothing; I’m exposed.           ·

Apart from my college activities, I’m also a part of a Brit Pop and Indie Pop club called “Common People”. We would often meet in a particular place and participate in discussions. Now, I’m working on a music magazine project with these friends. I am the only woman wearing jilbab among them.

Angki, in her series, printed each photo in the real size of human body. Then, it was patched on a piece of thin board with a leg so it could stand upright. The head of each photo was omitted to allow visitors “put on” their own heads to each figure in the installation. The record of the interview was compiled in a disc for visitors to listen to, like a footnote for a piece of writing. In this work, Angki asks: “What would you wear -­- to express your ideology and identity — if you were an Indonesian Muslim woman?”

It appears that jilbab in Indonesia is interpreted by the Muslim women. It is elastic, flexible, and is dependent on the context of each individual.

First Published: 18.07.2007 by Kakiseni

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