May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

No longer a choice

Since the fall of Suharto, there’s been a serious shift in Indonesian society concerning the jilbab (Islamic headscarf). In the past, most Indonesians considered Islamic dress a matter of private interpretation. But since reformasi local governments and Islamic institutions have begun to force women to cover, while at the national level the proposed anti-pornography laws place restrictions on women’s dress and emphasise control of the female body as a tool for social reform. Supporters of these new regulations argue that this is a necessary step for addressing what they see as ‘moral crises’ of Indonesian society, claiming that jilbab-wearing women will create a more moral and stable community. This increasing public emphasis on female bodies means that women are losing their right to choose if or when they will wear the veil. What was a personal choice has become a political battleground.

The jilbab and local politics

Much has been achieved since 1998 through democratic reform, but the outcomes have not all been positive. The decentralisation of political power under regional autonomy has allowed local and provincial governments to bring in regulations that force women to veil. In Aceh, for example, female dress has been among the most strictly enforced regulations since the introduction of syariah (Islamic law) in 2001. Syariah police, army officers, local Islamic and student groups have all played a part in ensuring that Acehnese women abide by the new dress codes. Women have been arrested, charged — and even had their hair cut off — for being caught in public without the veil.

Governments in West Sumatra, West Java, Banten and South Sulawesi have followed in the steps of Aceh with the introduction of by-laws enforcing the jilbab, supported by local Islamic groups and political leaders. The city of Padang has introduced Islamic by-laws that require high school students to learn how to read the Qur’an; force city employees to contribute part of their salary as zakat (alms); and require female students in state schools and civil servants — regardless of their religious persuasion — to wear the jilbab. In South Sulawesi, too, a number of city governments have adopted syariah-influenced regulations that make the jilbab compulsory and require women to be ‘modest’ in their dress. In Makassar, for example, the local government has insisted that schoolgirls’ skirts fall below the knee. The situation is similar in Cianjur, West Java, where the local government has requested that female civil servants wear the jilbab, and put up signs along roadsides that read, ‘The civilised woman is one who wears the headscarf.’ The local government in Tangerang has not only introduced Islamic clothing regulations for government employees as a means of promoting piety, honesty and morality, but also a controversial anti-prostitution law. A woman can now be arrested on the grounds that her appearance arouses suspicion that she is a prostitute. According to media reports, some women in Tangerang are now opting to wear the jilbab to avoid being accused and detained on charges of prostitution.

In all these cases, veiling and covering the female body is being presented as a means of social control that can somehow create a more moral society and rid the community of maksiat (social ills). Supporters of these changes link veiling to programs of regional social and economic development, which they argue can only succeed in an orderly community that upholds Islamic morals. In these districts, women’s ability to choose when or if they wear the jilbab has been usurped.

Once banned, now imposed

Battles over veiling don’t end with these local government initiatives. Campuses — both Muslim and non-Muslim — are also part of this trend.

Islamic universities have begun enforcing Muslim dress for female students while on campus. Proponents of tighter regulations argue that veiling displays a strong religious public image and improves the moral quality of the student community. There has been little public debate about these rules because they are occurring within Islamic institutions and are based on Islamic principles. But discussions at one Islamic university in Yogyakarta reveal that many female students and staff are uncomfortable about being forced to veil.

Until 2001 a student’s decision regarding the jilbab was hers alone to make at Universitas Islam Indonesia (UII), the oldest private university in Indonesia. But since then, UII has introduced regulations that enforce Muslim dress for female students and staff, regardless of religious affiliation. These rules caused a stir amongst staff when they were originally introduced. According to one lecturer, staff opinion was almost equally divided, and only those who supported the rules would actually enforce them. Female students generally wore a head-covering, but many wore a small scarf that left their hair and neck exposed. To make matters worse, in the eyes of the university administration and student activists, many girls still wore tight clothing that revealed the shape of their body and exposed skin around their hips.

In response, further dress regulations were introduced. These regulations don’t just mandate the wearing of Muslim clothing, they provide precise definitions of what form that Muslim clothing must take. Since March 2005, female students have been required to wear one of four standard types of clothing. These four options are displayed on posters throughout the university, complete with pictures and a detailed description of the new standards. Students whose clothes do not meet these specific standards can be punished either with a written warning or exclusion from class. The pressure for UII girls to dress more modestly is stronger than it has ever been, with mentoring programs for new students that emphasise the jilbab, public seminars about women’s clothing and even disapproving cartoons and articles in the student press about girls who wear ‘sexy’ clothes or headscarves. According to one student — who used to wear formal, fitted pants with shirts that often revealed her fore-arms, and small-heeled sandals to university — it’s hard to withstand. Now she wears looser clothes with a long veil on campus, and feels uncomfortable and embarrassed if her arms and ankles are not covered.

There has been no formal debate or opposition towards the new rules amongst staff or students since these regulations were introduced. According to the Deputy Head of UII and the Executive Student Office, no students have complained about the regulations because they understand that the dress codes are a Muslim obligation. But other staff members say that many within the university don’t agree that they or the students, particularly non-Muslims, should be forced to wear Islamic clothing.

Students also privately question the rules. Those who don’t wear the jilbab off-campus feel that the policy betrays the true spirit of Islam. They say that a woman should only wear a jilbab when she’s ready because it should reflect the character of the wearer. There are also students who wear the veil both on and off campus, who are opposed to the new regulations. As one student put it, a woman has a choice to wear or not wear the jilbab because the way a person wants to follow their religion is a basic human right.

The jilbab is not just an issue in Islamic university campuses — it is also highly politicised within other universities. According to students from Atmajaya, a Catholic university in Yogyakarta, there is an unwritten — but universally recognised — rule banning jilbab from the campus. One student spoke of a girl who wore the veil to class and was told by staff to remove it. So while Islamic universities increasingly force students to veil rules. Those who don’t wear the jilbab off-campus feel that the policy betrays the true spirit of Islam. They say that a woman should only wear a jilbab when she’s ready because it should reflect the character of the wearer. There are also students who wear the veil both on and off campus, who are opposed to the new regulations. As one student put it, a woman has a choice to wear or not wear the jilbab because the way a person wants to follow their religion is a basic hu, this Catholic university moves to the other extreme. At Universitas Gajah Mada (UGM), a state university, expectations about the veil vary between faculties. UGM students spoke about how some faculties, such as Pharmacy and Biology, are considered ‘very religious’ and the majority of their students wear the jilbab. Women who don’t veil within these faculties are usually assumed to be non-Muslim, or they are expected to begin veiling soon. Although there are no no choice at all — they must cover their bodies and veil or risk punishment. Even where there are no legally enforceable rules, there is growing pressure for women to dress modestly and wear the jilbab.

Control of the female body and the promotion of personal morals have become part of a mainstream political approach for addressing Indonesia’s complex social and economic problems. The veil is a powerful symbol of Muslim identity and moral control so enforcing the jilbab is an easy way for institutions to show their adherence to Islamic principles and commitment to moral reform. In contemporary Indonesia Islamic values and practices play a growing role in social and political life, a trend which many see as inevitable in a democratic majority Muslim nation. But what are these values and who has the right to interpret and impose them on the greater population? Forcing women, particularly non-Muslim women, to veil and cover their bodies threatens to violate the human rights which so many Indonesians fought for in the reformasi campaign of 1998, and is eroding Indonesia’s reputation as a bastion of Islamic tolerance and democracy.

Eve Warburton ( completed an honours thesis at the University of Sydney on the politics of veiling. For more on veiling, see the articles by Suraiya Kamaruzzaman in Inside Indonesia No. 79, July–September 2004 and by Lyn Parker in No. 83, July–September 2005.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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