To veil or not to veil?

The Jakarta Post - - OPINION - Nur Aisyah Ko­taru­ma­los The writer is a PhD can­di­date in the De­part­ment of So­ci­ol­ogy, Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

The ques­tion of veil­ing has al­ways been a heated de­bate, while in the past three decades In­done­sia’s re­li­gious land­scape has changed dra­mat­i­cally. Back in 1993, when veil­ing was not com­mon nor an es­sen­tial part of the iden­tity of an In­done­sian Mus­lim woman, I started to cover my head.

At my sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment school, the head­scarf had never been part of the uni­form and stu­dents who wore the veil were do­ing so out of their own free will.

There was no such heaven and hell nar­ra­tive that scru­ti­nized our phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Pre­sen­ta­tion and moral­ity was not as­so­ci­ated with re­li­gios­ity in the pub­lic space.

My de­ci­sion to be­gin veil­ing was against the back­ground of grow­ing moder­nity and glob­al­iza­tion, where veiled girls were con­sid­ered kam­pun­gan (from the coun­try­side), fun­da­men­tal­ists or ex­trem­ists.

School­girls who de­cided to adopt this out­fit daily while study­ing out­side of an Is­lamic school were of­ten con­sid­ered as ex­ces­sive. The mod­ern form of Is­lamic dress was re­garded as merely copy­ing the Mid­dle Eastern style and one could still be con­sid­ered a good and pi­ous Mus­lim with­out the jil­bab (head­scarf.)

Iron­i­cally, such crit­i­cism of­ten came from Mus­lims, both men and women, old and young, ed­u­cated and non-ed­u­cated. Peo­ple would voice their con­cern and as­sume that we should share the same views.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by veiled women was still ram­pant de­spite In­done­sia hav­ing the largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion.

Veiled women of­ten failed to get jobs in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors and were banned from wear­ing Is­lamic style cloth­ing at work. Those who in­sisted on wear­ing the veil found they could no longer be pro­moted, re­gard­less of their qual­i­ties and qual­i­fi­ca­tions. I still re­mem­ber my school re­fus­ing to take our of­fi­cial pic­tures for our diplo­mas if we cov­ered our heads. It forced us to re­move the veil and no one dared chal­lenge the dis­crim­i­na­tion against us.

To­day, veil­ing has a bet­ter im­age and is re­garded with moder­nity in­stead of back­ward­ness. Thanks to the Is­lamic resur­gence, more In­done­sian women and men em­brace the Is­lamic form of dress that is openly cel­e­brated in the fash­ion in­dus­try.

In­deed, veil­ing has un­der­gone a par­a­digm shift. While Mus­lim women now have more free­dom for re­li­gious ex­pres­sion in ev­ery­day life, of­ten the free­dom not to wear the veil has be­come more re­stricted.

Mus­lim women who opt not to wear the head­scarf are con­stantly un­der pub­lic scru­tiny. As such women are of­ten judged as in­fi­dels or hyp­ocrites, their re­li­gious faith and un­der­stand­ing is of­ten ques­tioned, as if the piece of fab­ric is the sole stan­dard for be­ing a de­voted and pi­ous Mus­lim women.

The stan­dard of moral­ity is mea­sured by the head­scarf and the fail­ure to wear it invites com­par­i­son to a pros­ti­tute.

Dis­course over sex­ual ha­rass­ment or crimes against women of­ten place the women as the prob­lem.

Peo­ple fo­cus on whether their cloth­ing was provoca­tive, sexy or re­vealed their au­rat (in­ti­mate body parts), over­look­ing the state’s fail­ure to pro­tect women and the col­lec­tive fail­ure to ed­u­cate men in also be­ing mod­est.

While veil­ing has be­come a norm in In­done­sia’s re­li­gious land­scape com­pared to 30 years ago when it was mar­ginal, many now see veil­ing as a manda­tory re­li­gious state­ment, of­ten forc­ing women to cover their head and neck.

This leaves women with vir­tu­ally no right to ex­press their iden­tity and free will.

The case of Rina Nose, a tele­vi­sion presenter ac­tu­ally named Nu­rita Per­mata Putri, who de­cided to give up wear­ing her hi­jab has trig­gered a de­bate over per­sonal choice.

The per­sonal is al­ways po­lit­i­cal, as they say, re­flect­ing that her per­sonal course of ac­tion is deemed to chal­lenge the main­stream per­spec­tive over re­li­gious obli­ga­tion.

While for years I en­coun­tered stigma, dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate speech against don­ning the jil­bab, to­day I can re­late to what Rina and oth­ers who be­come the ob­ject of crit­i­cism for their non­com­pli­ance to Is­lamic re­li­gious cloth­ing.

Just as I ex­pe­ri­enced, Mus­lim women have been the sub­ject of be­ing la­belled an “other” by the so­ci­ety in which they live in, con­sid­ered and treated as dif­fer­ent and alien.

To­day’s so­ci­ety is dif­fer­ent from In­done­sian so­ci­ety in the past, but the bot­tom line is ex­actly the same, where the free­dom of ex­pres­sion for women is not rec­og­nized.

Our no­tion of wom­an­hood has al­ways been the sub­ject of def­i­ni­tion by so­ci­ety and the state, as if women have no brains or per­spec­tive on what to wear.

Once upon a time, we were fight­ing for free­dom of re­li­gious prac­tice and ex­pres­sion in the pub­lic sphere as the au­thor­i­tar­ian regime had re­stricted it.

So, to­day, why do we have to com­pel women to wear some­thing that they do not choose to? Once we, the veiled women, had to live through stigma­ti­za­tion and op­pres­sion. Why do we now have to stig­ma­tize those who choose not to wear the veil?

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