Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Uniform jilbab

Published: Jul 22, 2007

The Islamic headscarf is now compulsory in many high schools

Lyn Parker

After Independence was declared in 1945, schoolgirls in Indonesia were not allowed to wear the jilbab to school. The jilbab is the Indonesian version of the Islamic veil, and is a potent symbol of Islamic identity. This uniform policy was based on the principle of religious diversity inscribed in the Constitution as part of the new nation’s unification agenda. Then, in 1990, the government allowed the wearing of the jilbab in state schools for the first time. By 2004, in some parts of Indonesia, the jilbab had become compulsory school uniform. The dramatic turnaround in jilbab-wearing reflects the Islamisation of Indonesian society, and is part of the so-called Islamic resurgence worldwide.

The province of West Sumatra is the heartland of the matrilineal and strongly Muslim Minangkabau people. School principals, in consultation with teachers, have recently made the jilbab compulsory school uniform in many senior high schools, both academic and vocational, in West Sumatra. (Students at Islamic senior high schools, under the control of the Department of Religion, and students at private Islamic schools, have long worn the jilbab.)

Reinventing tradition

Why did schools in West Sumatra decide to make the jilbab compulsory? Principals and teachers in Bukittinggi say that the decision was part of the national move towards regional autonomy and the local push to ‘return to the nagari’ (traditional Minang village). They argue that the jilbab is part of traditional Minangkabau dress, not Islamic clothing, and that its adoption goes hand-in-hand with the revival of adat (custom) and the return to the surau (traditional Islamic prayer-house).

However, many others, including community adat leaders and Islamic preachers, are happy to point out privately that jilbab-wearing is an invented tradition. Traditionally, the important items of women’s dress were the loose, modest baju kurung (long-sleeved tunic) worn over a long skirt. While in the old days Minang women sometimes draped a scarf, towel or other cloth over their heads when going out, this was not the same as the jilbab. This is not to say that adat and Islam are in conflict over this issue: invariably, teachers, parents and community leaders insist that adat and Islam are as one.

The new school uniforms for girls generally consist of the jilbab, baju kurung, and long skirt. The effect of the outfit is that the female body shape is shrouded and the body and hair contained. Schools have generally kept the basic colour scheme of the former uniform: that is, white above and grey below, with variant colour regimes on nominated days. One typical school requires grey and white on Mondays to Thursdays, white jilbab, lilac baju kurung and black skirt on Fridays and the ubiquitous brown of the Girl Guides’ uniform on Saturdays.

In West Sumatra, uniform codes are an important part of school rules. School rules are copious and detailed. Compliance with the dress codes is almost universal. Teachers and parents emphasise that the jilbab is ‘neat’ and ‘proper’. A teacher at a vocational school remarked, ‘Before, clothing was a real problem in school. Then the jilbab was made compulsory as school uniform, and the long skirt. Now, clothing is not a problem. Five years ago, we had mini skirts, lots of preman (hoodlums) — trouble! Now, it’s not a problem, everything is covered up.’

Meanings of the jilbab

But what does the jilbab mean for the young women themselves? They have to wear it to school, so for them the main question is when or if they will wear the jilbab in everyday life. Schoolgirls and young women discuss the jilbab as an Islamic headdress, not as part of Minang dress or identity. They explain it in terms of covering the aurat (nakedness). Many define the aurat as extending from the top of the hair to the hands and feet of women, and from the waist to the knees of men, but others quote the Qur’an to show that the requirement is simply for modesty of dress.

Many young women believe that the decision to take up the jilbab should come from the heart. One student at a top academic school explains why she does not wear the jilbab: ‘People who wear a jilbab should really have a strong grip on religion. They should follow Allah’s commands, avoid His prohibitions. They should have a commitment to guarding the good name of religion and the good name of the jilbab that they wear. The jilbab is not just a symbol. Now we see lots of people wearing the jilbab but their behaviour is not appropriate for someone who’s wearing a jilbab. For instance, the clothing of a jilbab-wearer should not show the form of the body.’ She says she is not ready to make such a commitment. The decision to take up the jilbab permanently is a serious one.

The jilbab imposes its own discipline. Because the jilbab restricts head movement, it constantly makes the wearer aware of her own body. It encourages girls to be more careful, more devout, more polite and respectful, and less flirtatious. Another student at the same school puts it this way: ‘If we wear the jilbab, it’s just a piece of cloth, but it’s heavy. If we wear it, we change drastically. We have to be responsible for ourselves if we wear it. The jilbab — it’s not just a symbol, it constrains us. The jilbab is not just on the outside, but in our hearts.’

Many girls talk about the jilbab as a protection from the male gaze, from unwanted male advances and from sexual harassment. One devout scholar at a religious school explains, ‘The jilbab is mainly for us girls, to protect us. In the Qur’an, it says that we should wear the jilbab in order that we are recognised as Muslims and not harassed by men — so that we are valued by the opposite sex.’ One girl, taking karate lessons in her jilbab, sees wearing the jilbab and learning karate as ways to repulse sexual attack: ‘If a girl shows her aurat and then is raped, probably she herself has done wrong: why did she encourage male lust?’

Wearing the jilbab is a way for adolescent girls to protect their good name and hence their marriageability. All Minang girls expect to get married and have children in order to continue the family line. Parents often strongly encourage their daughters tý wear the jilbab outside school. A typical teenage girl says she doesn’t ever go out at night. If she did, ‘world war three would erupt’ at home. As a young woman she is forbidden to go out at night. She has worn the jilbab since junior high on her parents’ order (suruhan), but she says she likes wearing it.


Most of my research participants publicly support the compulsory jilbab in schools, but some object in private. Most of those who object do so on religious grounds: that the commitment to take up the jilbab should be forever, and that to make the jilbab part of school uniform cheapens its religious value. School teachers say that non-Muslim students are not forced to wear the veil, but that in practice they all do because there are so few of them and they do not want to stand out. One male principal says it is not a problem: the jilbab is part of Minang clothing, not Islamic clothing, and is just part of the school uniform.

However, this ‘not-a-problem’ attitude is not always shared by non-Muslim parents. The potential of the new policy to ostracise religious minority groups was brought home to me in a discussion with a Chinese Catholic family with two children. The oldest child, a son, attended a top academic school in Bukittinggi. The parents think that their daughter should not be forced to wear the Islamic jilbab and have decided to send her to a private Christian school in Padang because of the new compulsory jilbab. They do not see the jilbab as a statement of neatness or of Minangkabau-ness: they see it as a statement of Muslim identity — and therefore of exclusion.

From an international and human rights perspective, making the jilbab compulsory for schoolgirls is a bold move. People in West Sumatra are very aware that France has legislated against allowing Muslim girls to wear the veil to school, though very few know that Singapore has done likewise. The French legislation was widely condemned, on the grounds that it was an infringement of human rights and religious freedom. Unfortunately, none of the Muslim school teachers or students I spoke to saw the parallel between human rights and religious freedom in France and human rights and religious freedom in Indonesia. None of them pointed out that students in West Sumatra have the right not to wear the jilbab. To me this is an unhappy sign for the future of religious tolerance and multiculturalism in Indonesia.

Lyn Parker (lparker@cyllene.uwa.edu.au) is a senior lecturer in Asian studies in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. She is currently researching adolescent girls in Minangkabau.

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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