Symbol of Defiance or Symbol of Loyalty?

In Indonesia, the headscarf has gained popularity since the 1980s, but although Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, it is the political sphere that largely defines the meaning of the "hijab". Lies Marcoes-Natsir reports

In Indonesia, the headscarf has gained popularity since the 1980s, but although Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, it is the political sphere that largely defines the meaning of the "jilbab" ("hijab"). Lies Marcoes-Natsir reports

photo: Arian Fariborz
Lies Marcoes-Natsir


The issue of either wearing or not wearing the jilbab (or hijab, i.e. headscarf) has come up in all kinds of places and moments, like a spreading disease.

One striking example appeared in the Indonesian national media, when it was reported that a number of women members of the Acehnese Liberation Movement (LSM) were, allegedly, seriously molested for not wearing a jilbab when appearing in public.

Discussions concerning the jilbab date to the early 70s, and did not only take place form a purely theological viewpoint, but seriously questioned one's individual identity.

Echoes of Iran in Indonesia

In the early 80s, wearing a jilbab became even more prominent, as a more or less direct result of the successful Islamic revolution in Iran. Before that, devout women could be seen wearing quite a variety of outfits, sometimes with a strong regional influence and sometimes either with or without some sort of veil. Sometimes the veil would be a long, often darkly coloured piece of material (also known as kerudung), often worn by the female students of one of the Islamic Perguruan (Teachers College).

Wearing a jilbab slowly became quite fashionable, but now also among the students of universities. There was one particular verse from the Qur'an, An-Nur 30-32, in which the jilbab was mentioned explicitly and which was often referred to.

Fighting the powers that be with a piece of cloth

Since the dramatic developments in Iran, in the eyes of the State the jilbab had now also become a symbol of defiance, mirroring Islam's classical pattern of resistance against the establishment. Ordinary religious gatherings, like the regular Thursday-evening get-togethers, which were attended by many jilbab-wearing girl students, were sometimes frequented by the secret police. Meanwhile the discussions itself were often of a quite outspoken nature, touching on issues like a more equal distribution of power.

On the other hand, wearing a jilbab acted as a strong expression of one's identity, an individual's choice. It often happened that repressive, discriminatory measures were taken against young women. An infamous example at the time was the court case of a high school student (in Bogor) who clashed on wearing a jilbab to school with the head of their school, who told her to either choose to come to school, or to wear a jilbab…

Conflicts over wearing the jilbab also occurred on the level of families, especially among government officials and army personnel. Because although most families felt proud that a daughter would wear one, and accepted it as a sign of their piety and faithfulness, it was still, and quite strongly so, considered a symbol of defiance. It was as if the women who were wearing a jilbab expressed resistance against the influence of the State, even in those cases in which their parents were civil servants.

Suharto's government first fought, then embraced Islam

All of this was to change after the former president, Suharto, began "manipulating" the religious symbols, forms and ceremonies belonging to Islam. Critical voices were beginning to be heard, and some of the more sincere politicians and economists indicated that Suharto and his family members might be personally involved in corruption scandals.

In an attempt to overcome the problem of, on the one hand, an all too narrow political base, and, on the other, the growing criticism concerning the corruption, Suharto sought closer contact with some of the more accessible religious leaders and began adhering to various Islamic symbols.

Slowly we saw Suharto and his family members turning into what everyone was supposed to see, namely a devout Muslim family. More and more often the president's wife, Mrs. Tien was also seen as partaking in Islamic rituals and State ceremonies, such as the national celebrations of the Holy days Maulid Nabi, Isra-Mi'raj, the festivities leading up to Lebaran (the end of the fasting-month) and, ultimately, the whole family leaving for Mecca, to go on the hajj, complete with entering the holy Ka'bah.

The jilbab gaining popularity

Naturally this undertaking received massive news coverage by the national media but we could now also see how the jilbab was becoming a central point of attention, being worn by most of the female family members more and more often. And not only that: also the idea of going to Mecca, thus fulfilling the 5th pillar of Islam, became more and more generally accepted and desired. In the years to come many different kinds of financing for such an undertaking were introduced, special saving schemes were set up and it was made possible for many, many Indonesians from the lower middle classes and upwards to take on special loans and other ways of funding this pilgrim trip.

Tutut's way of wearing the scarf gripped the nation

However, it was the model and the way Tutut, the president's eldest daughter, was wearing her jilbab that became the ultimate example for the whole nation. Indonesian fashion designers as well as the garment industry geared up to both follow and steer her example and a veritable Indonesian Islamic fashion started to develop.

Some of the models and designs were very expensive indeed and affordable to the elite only, but elsewhere shops, outlets and relatively easy, do-it-yourself patterns made these designs generally available, while keen marketing strategies also played an important role in popularizing the new Muslim fashion.

The women's associations at government offices even issued guidelines for a dress code based on the Muslim fashion designs. The jilbab developed into an indispensable part of this Muslim fashion. Its use as part of one's outfit permeated, for instance, other costumes that had previously not included a veil, such as some of the regional and other traditional Indonesian costumes.

Conservative headscarf fashion unpopular

The more conservative pendant of the now very fashionable jilbab, also known as jubah, did not become popular. This had to do with the unpopularity of fundamentalist, militant and uncompromising Islam. Someone wearing a jubah would reject the authority of the State and lead an austere way of living in which the teachings of Islam were followed as closely and as purely as possible.

Besides, it was also strongly associated with the so-called Tenaga Kerja Wanita (female labourers) who are employed overseas, in one of the other Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The "jubah" was therefore regarded as something that could not be easily integrated into Indonesian society.

Islamic reduced to décor

For Suharto's active involvement in Islamic rituals and his support for certain Islamic groups resulted in an upsurge of Islamic identity. Government agencies actively facilitated the development of Islamic institutions and organizations. Islamic banks, an active Islamic press, and separate organizations have been set up, while many, many mosques and educational centres all over Indonesia have also been erected.

The more these religious endeavours became closely linked with the Suharto regime, which slowly began to show cracks and bursts, the more wary many became of this close association. Government policies were often not only not in accordance with Islamic teachings or ethics, but even contradictory to some of its ideals, such as, for instance, the establishment of a more just society with equal chances for and protection of the poor.

Those in power were mainly interested in their "image" as devout Muslims, and to them only the superficial, outward symbols of Islam mattered.

Lies Marcoes-Natsir is a program officer within the Asia Foundation and an advocate in Jakarta for women’s reproductive rights within Islam. The extract is taken from her essay "National politics and the theological debate concerning the role of women in Indonesia".

© Lies Marcoes-Natsir / 2004

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