Rights Group: Indonesian Women Pressured to Wear Head Scarves, Follow Dress Code

2021-03-18
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Rights Group: Indonesian Women Pressured to Wear Head Scarves, Follow Dress Code Women walk past hijabs displayed for sale at the Tanah Abang textile market in Jakarta, March 16, 2021.
[Reuters]

Women and girls face increasing pressure to follow religious dress codes in workplaces and schools amid growing Islamic conservatism in Indonesia, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Thursday.

A recent decree prohibiting public schools in the Muslim-majority country from enforcing religion-based dress codes – such as headscarves and long skirts – does not include Islamic schools, or women who work in the civil service and government offices, the HRW report said.

“Over the past two decades, women and girls in Indonesia have faced unprecedented legal and social demands to wear clothing deemed Islamic as part of broader efforts to impose the rules of Sharia, or Islamic law, in many parts of the country,” the report said.

“These pressures have increased substantially in recent years,” said the report titled “‘I Wanted to Run Away’: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia.”

HRW said that compelling women and girls to dress a certain way is discriminatory.

Responding to HRW’s report, an executive at Indonesia’s semi-official authority on Islam denied that women had been forced to wear hijabs.

Amirsyah Tambunan, secretary general of the Indonesian Ulema Council, also questioned why HRW said urging women to wear headscarves was discriminatory.

“What I see in society is that wearing a headscarf for Muslim women is voluntary and there is no coercion,” Amirsyah told BenarNews.

“On what basis is HRW reporting that calling on women to wear headscarves is a discriminatory act against women? Have they done research with correct methodologies based on facts on the ground?”

An official at the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said the government needs to take reports of discrimination against women seriously, “especially when victims experience bullying and harassment.”

The ministry would respond to any cases of such discrimination, said Lenny N. Rosalin, the deputy for child development.

“Such discrimination has an impact on children and we must take action,” Lenny told BenarNews.

‘Jilbab bullying’

Pressuring girls and women to wear garments such as long skirts and the jilbab – a cloth that covers a woman’s head, neck and chest – is an assault on their rights to freedom of religion, expression and privacy, and an attack on gender equality, HRW said.

This compulsion also affects girls’ and women’s physical and mental well-being, the report said.

Ifa Hanifah Misbach, a psychologist in Bandung, spoke to HRW about what she called “jilbab bullying” – teachers and colleagues punishing girls and women and harshly ridiculing them for not strictly adhering to what they consider modest dress.

HRW recommended that the government take strong disciplinary action against institutions that pressure women and girls to wear the jilbab or other religious dress.

In some parts of Indonesia, women are forced or pressured to wear jilbabs and long skirts instead of long pants, HRW said.

In February 2020, 10 Girl Scouts wearing their uniform – long skirts – died when they were swept into a river during a hike in Yogyakarta, local media widely reported.

Wahyu Efendi L., the Yogyakarta head of the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), told The Jakarta Post that the girls’ long skirts caused them to be dragged away by the strong flood current and limited their physical movement.

In its report, HRW recommended that Indonesia’s scouting authority repeal provisions of the uniform regulation that have been interpreted as requiring female scouts and schoolgirls to wear the jilbab and other religious dress.

‘Decree needs to be applied broadly’

In 2014, the Ministry of Education and Culture issued a regulation on public school uniforms which was widely interpreted as requiring Muslim female students to wear headscarves.

“Even when school officials have acknowledged that a 2014 national regulation does not legally require a jilbab, the existence of the regulation adds to schools applying pressure on girls and their families for the girls to wear one,” HRW said last month.

Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, who co-signed the Feb. 3, 2021, decree allowing students to choose what they wear to school, told HRW at the time that the schools have “misinterpreted” the 2014 ministerial regulation.

The latest decree, she hoped, would correct that misinterpretation, HRW said.

Still, the new decree applies only to state schools under the management of local governments and the Education and Culture Ministry.

The rights group recommended that the government review dress codes in Islamic state schools and universities under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, “which makes mandatory jilbab [a] requirement.”

The February decree does not apply to publicly funded institutions either, where female civil servants are pressured to wear a jilbab and “decent clothing,” HRW’s report said.

A lecturer at a public university in Jakarta – who wished to remain anonymous – told the rights group that she had been under pressure to wear a jilbab even though there was no campus regulation on the garment and the university mandated only “decent clothing.”

The constant pressure to dress a certain way prompted the lecturer to resign last March.

“She took a new job at a private university where she says she is not judged for teaching without a jilbab,” HRW said.

The Indonesian government must also work with Islamic organizations to create a public messaging campaign against requiring or pressuring women and girls to wear the jilbab and promoting tolerance and inclusivity, the HRW report said.

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