By Bianca Rajan
Here in West Kalimantan I am living and working in my first Muslim community. My time here has been shaped through my constant interpretation of cultural and religious differences. The jilbab, or head-scarf that covers a Muslim woman’s head is one of the most dynamic sources of conversation for my friends here and family back home. I have chosen to write on this topic, over other equally or more important aspects of Islam, for three reasons. The first is that the jilbab is the most immediate and noticeable physical difference between a Muslim Indonesian woman and myself. For the first two months of my grant I felt that difference every day in class at SMA Muhammadiyah (a private Islamic high school). The second is that there was a previous article written by ETAs that talked about their choice to wear the jilbab as a part of their assimilation and this is listed as one of Indonesiaful’s most popular articles, so it must be an area of interest for our two societies. The third is because I have really struggled with understanding the jilbab myself, due to having no previous exposure to Islam and the fact that I live in a city on the equator. It is HOT. The first couple months of my grant you may have heard me use the words “jilbab, long sleeves” and “torture” in the same sentence.
Most Islamic women in Pontianak choose when and where they wish to wear the jilbab. The aforementioned sentence pertains to me specifically, as I am the only un-jilbabed woman walking around my school. I often do not recognize my female students outside of school because many teen girls choose not to wear it in Pontianak. Female high school students who respond to my probing questions on why they are not wearing a jilbab outside of school never fail to answer with an abashed “I am not ready”.
I thought wearing the jilbab inside the walls of a Muhammadiyah would be a black and white scenario. If my school specifically asked me to wear it as a part of my uniform then I planned to oblige, but they never asked me to. However, on the first day one of my co-teachers mentioned I would look “more beautiful” in a jilbab. I didn’t know how to answer this statement, whether I should interpret it as a subtle suggestion or just overanalyze it in all the ways that I did. I later asked another teacher to clarify and she replied that “no, if you wish to wear it to fit in, or show respect for the culture, then wear it. But if you wear it, we want it to be your choice.”
It was my choice. This pushed me to think more critically about the purpose of the jilbab and what it represented to those around me. In Pontianak when a woman wears a jilbab it identifies her as a Muslim women, which often means a Malay women, because the Chinese and Dayak are Christian, and our population (I’ve heard, there are no online statistics) is approximately 60% Chinese and 30% Malay. The Malay are historically Muslim, but have actually only recently begun to wear the jilbab. For example, one of my colleagues told me that her mother’s generation were the first to wear it.
“Until recent decades the wearing of the headscarf… was not widespread. In Indonesia, the reformist movement promoted the wearing of the jilbab for women in the 1920s and 1930s. However, while it was a clearly recognised symbol of piety, it is only since the 1980s that it has become more accepted and popular there.”[i]
Popular is an interesting word because in Pontianak and other larger cities in Indonesia, one cannot help but notice the plethora of pinning styles and patterns that go along with the bright jilbabs, in addition to the tight jeans, matching lipstick, and stiletto heels underneath it. A Jakarta Post opinion article talks about the “jilboob”, referring to the covered head and neck accompanied with a tight breast-emphasizing shirt or dress. It discusses how modern day Indonesia may be just developing in it’s own unique evolution in female dress codes. Furthermore, it can also be seen as signifying confidence and assertiveness in a woman’s own culture and religion “some consider the phenomenon of the hijab and the niqab as being related to the rise of the politics of identity within the Muslim community as a way to fight against the influence of Western culture”[ii]. It is not only in Indonesia that Muslim women’s fashion choices are evolving as
“Muslim women in the West are also increasingly wearing the jilbab. A young student in France said, ‘I get strange looks when I wear my headscarf around town. Some have a look of pity, that says ‘poor girl, she is oppressed’”, and the editor of a leading Muslim magazine said, “Modesty is only one of many reasons why a woman wears a scarf. It can be a very political choice too.” [iii]
The question whether it is religious, cultural or political is interesting because “if you ask 10 different women why they’re wearing jilbab, you’ll get 10 different answers,”[iv] according to Jetti R. Hadi, the editor in chief of Noor, a magazine specializing in Muslim fashion. This has been my experience as well. The debate is lively, but can also stray from my original question about the jilbab at my school, Muhammadiyah, and perhaps making a political statement through dress isn’t in the minds of the young Muslim women in Pontianak.
So what about in high schools? Among scholars of Islam it seems there is much debate and various interpretations pertaining to the exact text from the Qur’an, but it is widely established that the jilbab’s function, in religious educational institutions, is for women to be close to Allah (God), because it is his demand to cover the areas considered “aurat”, which refers to the intimate parts of the human body that should be clothed. The aim is to put boys and girls as equals in the educational realm, so that a girl is seen as modest and not judged for her beauty, but her intelligence. Following this notion, at SMA Muhammadiyah 1 in Pontianak, my female students are required to wear the jilbab on campus. My co-teachers make sure it is tight and minimal hair is showing, often adjusting it for them during class in an affectionate or scolding manner. The white jilbabs, boasting the school’s emblem of Muhammadiyah Islamic organization, are a part of the uniform. Yet, unlike most Muslim schools, our female students wear pants because of motorcycle riding safety concerns. This demonstrates the adaptability and autonomy many Muslim institutions have to fit their community’s needs.
“School uniforms vary in Indonesia, some schoolgirls wearing the jilbab in combination with a long grey skirt, or just the headscarf. Others can be seen wearing jeans and jilbabs, erupting from their educational institutions and slinging a leg over the rear saddle of their boyfriend’s motorbike as they zoom off. Worn this way the jilbab combines modernity with an Indonesian Islamic identity, an Indonesian style informed by familiarity with international fashion.”[v]
The jilbab is indeed a significant part of Islam, and marks a physical difference between our societies. But I must say, that after acclimating for five months here, and beginning to wear sweaters all the time I’m starting to realize it’s not so hot to an Indonesian, and after spending five months not wearing a jilbab in a Muslim high school, it has become just a piece of fabric over my students’ heads that displays their ties to a strong religious faith and identity. Their right to wear it is as much as my right to not, and I thank SMA Muhammadiyah for giving me this opportunity to truly feel that.
[i] Sue Ingham and Wulandani Dirgantoro. “Identity, Religion, Repression, or Fashion? The Indonesian Jilbab.” BroadSheetT 25 (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.
[ii] Fachrudin, Azis Anwar. “‘Jilbab’ Phenomenon: Religious or Cultural?” The Jakarta Post. The Jakarta Post, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.
[iii] Ingham. “Identity, Religion, Repression, or Fashion.
[iv] Norimitsu Onishi. “Head Scarf Emerges as Indonesia Political Symbol.” The New York Times. The New York Times, n.d. Web.
[v] Ingham . “Identity, Religion, Repression, or Fashion.
About the author: Bianca Rajan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Pontianak, West Kalimantan (commonly known as Borneo). She graduated from Washingtion and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, with a degree in Art and International Studies. Bianca is originally from Maui, Hawai’i where she would like to note she had previously no exposure to the Muslim culture/religion, which is the motivation behind actively learning more about Islam, and writing these articles.