Indonesian Females Increasingly Oppressed by the Hijab

Human Rights Watch study details steady erosion of women’s freedom

From Indonesia’s relatively freewheeling days of moderate religious influence, girls and women are coming under increasingly strict imported Arab social and legal demands, forced to cover up and hide under stifling Islamic dress, according to an exhaustive 117-page report by the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch.

The report, titled ‘I Wanted to Run Away: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia,” was made public today, March 18, at a Jakarta press conference. It focuses on the growing influence of Islam on girls and how pressures have inexorably increased. A 2019 report by the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Centre found that 75 percent of Muslim women in Indonesia, or approximately 80 million women and girls, now are forced into wearing the hijab, called the jilbab locally. Most of the almost 300,000 public schools, particularly in the 24 predominantly Muslim provinces, require Muslim girls to wear the jilbab beginning in primary school.

The HRW report calls pressure on women and girls to wear a jilbab “an assault on their basic rights to freedom of religion, expression, and privacy. And for many, it is part of a broader attack on gender equality and the ability of women and girls to exercise a range of rights, such as to obtain an education, a livelihood, and social benefits. The threat of being denied an education or job is a highly effective way of persuading a woman or girl to wear a jilbab, at considerable psychological cost.”

While Islamic fervor in many Muslim nations has been growing for decades going back to 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini awakened the world, for Indonesia the real pressure began when the national government acceded to pressure to allow Shariah law in the conservative province of Aceh. The country’s official philosophy of Pancasila, which stresses tolerance, has steadily been eroded ever since.

In 2014, the government issued a regulation on school dress that has been widely interpreted to require female Muslim students to wear the jilbab as part of their school uniform. And, in Indonesia, unsettlingly the requirement to cover up extends to Christian and other girls whose religion requires no such thing as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

Even today, national law supposedly makes wearing the jilbab a matter of choice. But in practice community pressure makes it mandatory. Although religion formally remains the domain of the national government and has not been decentralized, a plethora of religiously inspired discriminatory regulations and ordinances aimed at women have been passed around the country, often in the name of public order.

“Many provincial and local governments in Indonesia have adopted several hundred Sharia-inspired regulations, many of which are targeted at women and girls, including their dress,” according to the report. As it points out, the Indonesian term “jilbab,” which literally means “partition” in Arabic, is widely used to refer to a cloth that covers a woman’s head, neck, and chest. Hijab, which means “cover” in Arabic, is typically a cloth that covers the hair, ears, and neck but sometimes also covers the chest. Many Muslim women and girls also wear long-sleeve shirts and long dresses.

The effect on women and girls has been stifling. Women, girls, and family members from around Indonesia described to Human Rights Watch the impact of discriminatory dress regulations in these and other spheres, from evening curfews to riding on motorcycles. In a tragic case in 2020, 10 Girl Scouts were swept into a river and drowned because their head-to-toe clothing dragged them down.

A Yogjakarta woman told HRW researchers her daughter was able to handle the situation in the first year, but in the second the pressure from an Islamic homeroom teacher became unbearable. “When he saw me, her teacher said, ‘Oh, I'm just following the school rules here.’ ‘Can I see the rulebook?’ I asked him. He then gave it to us. We went home and studied it. That is when I found out that although it doesn't say female students have to wear jilbab, from the way they phrase it, it suggests that if a female student is Muslim, she must wear jilbab. That is what's implied.”

The jilbab rules also affect female civil servants in Indonesia, the report notes. A lecturer at a public university in Jakarta who asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that she was under pressure to wear a jilbab despite the absence of any campus regulation. She pointed to a huge billboard reminding all female visitors on campus to wear “Islamic attire.” She said it embodies attitudes she faced every day that made her uncomfortable, adding that the university only mandates “decent clothing” in its regulations. The constant pressures finally prompted her to resign in March 2020. She took a new job at a private university where she says she is not judged for teaching without a jilbab.

It wasn’t always this way. Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and his successor, Suharto, saw a conservative interpretation of what was termed “Islamic Sharia” as a threat to the country’s guiding ideology of Pancasila, which established multi-culturalism as a foundation stone of the country’s political system. 

While other parts of the country have no legal authority to impose Sharia, the Aceh law and subsequent agreements had the unintended consequence of emboldening religious conservatives. In 2001, three regencies in West Java and West Sumatra began requiring the jilbab in schools. Other regencies, mostly on Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi islands, began to issue similar ordinances, making female teachers and students wear a jilbab.

As part of a larger decentralization effort, parliament in 1999 passed a regional autonomy law, amended in 2004, empowering provincial and local governments to regulate the education and civil service sectors. Some Islamic political parties and Muslim politicians, who came from “nationalist parties,” seized the opportunity to impose Sharia regulations and ordinances in various provinces and localities.

While Sharia-inspired regulation of female dress in other domains remains limited to the provincial or local level, schools are now the subject of a de facto national policy.  In addition, the national scouting program, or Pramuka, includes a specific uniform for “female Muslims” that requires the jilbab, a long skirt or long pants, and a long-sleeve shirt.

In practice, however, the 2014 regulation has been understood in many regencies and provinces as requiring a headscarf for all Muslim girls. In areas that have adopted this approach, a girl from a Muslim family who wished to be exempted from wearing the ‘Muslim girl’ uniform would have to tell school authorities that she is not a Muslim, “something girls from Muslim families are very unlikely to do – nearly all consider themselves Muslim even if they do not want to wear a jilbab.’

After Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected president in 2014, hopes were raised among women’s rights advocates when the new home affairs minister, Tjahjo Kumolo, promised that he would review discriminatory regulations in the country. Meeting with leaders of religious minority groups in November 2014, Kumolo told them, “Indonesia is not a country based on any one religion. It is a country that is founded on the 1945 Constitution, which recognizes and protects all faiths.”

Pressed on jilbab regulations, the Home Affairs Ministry identified 139 ordinances that violate the rights of women and promised to look for ways to revoke them. This has not happened. While President Jokowi announced in June 2015 that his administration had scrapped 3,143 of 3,266 problematic local ordinances and bylaws because they contradicted higher regulations, promoted intolerance, or deterred investment, the main purpose was to invalidate local ordinances that hampered foreign investment.

None of the jilbab or other Sharia-inspired ordinances were revoked. Following an attack by an Islamist couple on the chief security minister, Wiranto, in October 2019, the religious affairs minister, Fachrul Razi, suggested banning women civil servants from wearing niqabs at work. Facing public criticism from conservatives, Razi later apologized and stopped pursuing the ban. However, the next month Razi and the newly appointed minister of education, Nadiem Makarim, signed a joint decree with other ministers to ban civil servants from using their social media accounts “to propagate hate.”


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