After living in Indonesia for almost four months I have become fascinated by the cultural and religious implications of the head covering called hijab or jilbab (in Indonesia). The more I learn the more confused I get about it.
Before coming to Indonesia I had this faint idea that if I were to work in a Madrassa and if I were the only female not wearing a jilbab, I’d probably wear one to fit in. However, about two days into training our training manager explained that if you wear one in school, you are expected to wear one in the community. He also explained that not wearing one from the beginning is much less of an issue compared to changing your mind later and taking it off. In addition, this year one of the requirements for schools to be considered for placement of a Peace Corps volunteer is that they must not require a female volunteer to wear a jilbab. So that was settled. When I found out I would be working in an Islamic high school (which is no different than a public high school here except that there are a few extra religion classes—Christians are allowed to attend too, though it’s uncommon), I knew I’d be the only one without the head covering.
So how do women decide if they will wear one? Who wears them? Who does not? What are the rules?? It turns out there don’t seem to be many rules (except that you must wear one in a Mosque). In Batu I never saw my host mother wear one until about halfway through my time there. Then one day I saw her wearing one coming home from a meeting. From that point on she wore them to weddings, funerals, town meetings and even the zoo. But sometimes she did not wear one if we went out shopping, if we were hosting people at our house or at any time she was at home. I’m not sure exactly what went into her decision to start wearing one more often, but I do know from a conversation we had that she was getting pressure to wear one as the village head’s wife. I think most women don’t wear them at home. Our current host mother never wears one at home, but she always puts one on when we leave the house.
To make things even more confusing, several weeks ago I went to the museum and grave of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. In the photos from the 1940s-1960 there were hardly any women wearing jilbabs. If they were, it was more often only a light head coving with the hair showing more like a Spanish mantilla. Then I was visiting my counterpart’s grandmother last week, and she started showing me her photo album. She was a sewing teacher, and all of her students from the 1950’s were dressed Mad Men-style, with knee-length sleeveless dresses and uncovered heads. I started wondering why this was the case and when Islamic clothing became more prevalent.
After a bit of research I found out that after the fall of Indonesia’s second President Suharto (who served for 31 years) in 1998 women started wearing jilbabs with much more frequency. Before this, it turns out, many public schools and government buildings actually banned them. Suharto’s government was rather authoritarian and in the post-Suharto era, freedom of speech, expression and religion flourished, and along with it the right to wear the jilbab. As a side note, along with this freedom also came Islamist extremism and the formation of groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, who were responsible for the the 2002 Bali bombings—but that’s not what this post is about.
What I find interesting here is that to the outside average Western eye, seeing many women with their head covered may seem like the result of an authoritarian Islamic government. But in reality in most places in Indonesia, the jilbab is a sign of religious freedom under a democratic government that recognizes the rights of six different religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism). Some countries in Europe have bans on head coverings (but mostly on face-covering veils) in public or at schools and universities. In my opinion it doesn’t seem right to ban anyone from wearing a religious head covering—and that won’t happen in the United States because it would be against our constitution. As Americans we really have an incredible amount of freedom (but again that’s a post for another day).
I also read that the rise in sales of jilbabs can be attributed to fashion as much as anything else. One article I read stated that just because you see a woman in a jilbab, you should not assume she is a good Muslim! I can get the fashion thing. After seeing them every day, I stop seeing the head covering and I start appreciating the creative and more fashionable ways they are tied by the younger generation, or how they complement an outfit. However, at the same time, you hardly ever see women on television wearing them. On the news, talk shows, commercials, or Indonesia’s version of Idol, the women are dressed very Western and showing plenty of skin.
So on some levels, the psychology of the jilbab is still confusing. I can say though that they are very common where we are living now, as it’s a more religious area, and less common in some other areas of Indonesia (even in other villages). We went to visit a friend’s village last week (only 20 kilometers away) and there were women walking around in miniskirts and tank tops!
All of this brings me to this past Friday. Will and I were asked to teach an English lesson at a mosque during Ramadan, and we were reminded that we would need to be dressed appropriately, meaning I would need to cover my head and Will would need to wear a sarung and Muslim hat. You’d think that the prospect of Will having to wear a skirt would be the more stressful of the two, but he couldn’t wait to get that thing on!
I went with one of my counterpart’s to the local market to buy a scarf. As you can imagine, the sight of an American lady trying on scarfs in the market drew a crowd of boisterous women taking pictures, and touching me (okay, kind of groping me) and asking lots of questions. It was exhausting! I got a simple lightweight black scarf, and decided that instead of wearing it the way most Indonesians wear it, I’d just tie it under my chin like the typical American diplomat/Italian movie star in a convertible. My counterpart told me that just tying it under your chin was completely acceptable.
So anyway, Will and I donned our gear, and had a successful English lesson at the mosque for about 40 kids. Some of the people there put some pictures up on Facebook of our lesson (we have separate accounts as teachers here). An Indonesian commented on the album asking if we were Muslim. Another Indonesian replied that we weren’t, but we were there to discuss our cultural similarities and teach English, and that “tolerance is beautiful, yeah?” They agreed that it was. I think so too.