Hijab in Indonesia – the history and controversies

A mother teaches her daughter by reading Alquran inside a mosque in Indonesia. www.shutterstock.com

Hijab in Indonesia – the history and controversies

The hijab, a veil worn by Muslim women to cover their heads, has become more popular in Indonesia in the last two decades. History records that the hijab-wearing culture in Indonesia goes back to the 17th century. However, despite many Indonesian women wearing it, controversies surround the hijab.

A principal in Riau province triggered a backlash for suggesting all female students wear a hijab even though they were not all Muslims. Meanwhile, the public was furious when a female athlete from Aceh was disqualified for wearing a hijab in the judo ring at the 2018 Asian Para Games.

This article aims to analyse how hijab-wearing culture in Indonesia has changed and why it remains a source of controversy.

Growing Muslim fashion business

There has been no data on the number of women who wear a hijab in Indonesia. But one survey in 2014 found that 63.58% of 626 respondents said they wore a hijab. Only 4.31% of them would definitely not wear it.

The upward trend in hijab wearing has been good for the fashion business. A hijab market in Bandung, West Java, quintupled its revenue from Rp 3 billion (US$212,169) in 2012 to Rp 15 billion in 2018.

It’s been good for the export-oriented fashion industry in Indonesia too. In 2014, the value of Indonesia’s exports of Muslim wear reached US$7.18 billion, making the country the third-biggest exporter after Bangladesh and Turkey.

By 2020, Indonesia is projected to become a global centre for Muslim fashions.

Different styles of hijab:

From my observation, there are three types of hijab styles:

  1. Simple veils. These come in various colours and models. This model is worn by up to 70% of Indonesian women who wear headscarves.

  2. Conservative veils. These are large, covering the upper body, and come in plain colours like white, black and brown. Some people call it a shariah veil, or a veil that follows Muslim values. It is worn by 10% of Muslim women wearing hijab.

  3. Fashionable veils. These come in different colours and styles. Urban and middle-class women usually wear this hijab style. Their prices are higher, ranging from Rp 50,000 to millions of rupiah.

The latest trend is hijab has become a lifestyle. Many celebrities have started wearing hijab and become the promoters of hijab fashion.

One of them is fashion designer Dian Pelangi. She and 30 other “celeb grams” established the Hijaber community (HC) in 2010 in Jakarta. HC has opened many branches in big cities in Indonesia, including Jakarta; Bandung, West Java; Yogyakarta; Padang, West Sumatra; Medan, North Sumatra; Lampung, Pontianak, West Kalimantan and Makassar, South Sulawesi. It has more than 6,000 members.

Hijab history in Indonesia

According to historical records, the hijab in Indonesia was first worn by noblewomen in Makassar, South Sulawesi, in the 17th century .

Javanese women adopted the style in the early 1900s following the establishment of Aisyiyah, one of the country’s most prominent Islamic mass organisations.

Research by Jean Gelman Taylor, an associate professor of history at the University of New South Wales, found there were no hijab pictures during the 1880s and 1890s. Unfortunately, she didn’t mention the reasons.

Only a few of the Indonesian Muslim heroines wore the hijab in the past, and many of them did not wear it. This phenomenon tells us that the idea of wearing hijab is a personal preference.

Under the New Order regime, the government banned women from wearing the hijab at schools. The Soeharto regime tightly controlled religious issues in public. The government assumed that the hijab was a political symbol that was imported from Iran and Egypt, whose politics did not align with Indonesian culture. The government worried that the hijab as a political symbol would become a threat to government stability.

Since then it has become more acceptable in society. Soon after, hijab became a trend. The two largest Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama, have agreed that the hijab is the ideal form of Muslim women dress. This agreement has made the hijab acceptable for the majority of Indonesian Muslims.

Reasons for wearing hijab

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood from Egypt argues that many Muslim women wear the hijab to express their religious identity and piety. By wearing a hijab, a Muslim woman believes she is more pious than those who decide not to.

Many Muslim women in Indonesia also seem to wear the hijab for this reason. In the 2014 survey, 95% of the hijab-wearing respondents said they wore it for religious reasons. Some Muslim women also wear it for security, comfort and political reasons.

Indonesian scholar Dewi Chandraningrum said in her book, Negotiating Women’s Veiling, Politics & Sexuality in Contemporary Indonesia, that female politicians usually wear hijabs in political campaigns, hoping that they will secure more votes by getting sympathy through being pious.

Women’s autonomy

While Indonesian women can wear the hijab more freely in public spaces, efforts to regulate how women wear the hijab still occur.

For instance, Indonesia’s Home Affairs Ministry instructed women civil servants who wear the hijab to tuck their head cloth inside their shirt collars. This resulted in protests as some women prefer the style of hijab that covers their chest. As a result, the government cancelled the new dress code requirements.

A different kind of pressure on hijab style comes within the community itself. Conservative Muslims claims that the long hijab style is the best way of wearing the headscarf as it follows the Alquran’s teachings. However, progressive scholars and feminists challenge this claim, fearing that it will deny women’s freedom to determine the way they dress.

Wherever and whichever way the pressure comes on whether or not to wear a hijab and how to wear it, I believe these efforts derive from an attempt to control a women’s autonomy. Remembering how Indonesia heroines in the past wore the hijab as a matter of their preference, we should encourage today’s women to choose to wear or not to wear the hijab based on their personal preference.