Religious Dress in Schools Polemic and Indonesia’s Philosophical Vacuum
The popularity of a recent image lamenting the wearing of conservative dress, particularly headscarves, by girls in Indonesia’s state schools have highlighted philosophical tensions in society and politics, with no easy answers.
This year in particular there has been a polemic about the compulsory wearing of Muslim dress, including the jilbab (head covering or scarf), by girls in Indonesia’s state schools. This was reflected in social or entertainment media but has also provoked responses from the government and debate in the mainstream media. The way this polemic has evolved has exposed the nature of ideological balances in Indonesian society. Such imbalances also underpin national politics.
The latest wave of this polemic escalated as a photograph from a lifestyle magazine went viral, expressing the desire of mothers with girls in state schools for their daughters not to be forced to wear the jilbab. This image was of a photo of Indonesian girls at school in the 1980s without head coverings and wearing knee-length, not ankle-length, skirts and short-sleeved, not long-sleeved, tops.
The proliferation of Indonesian state schools where girls are required to wear religious (or conservative) dress covering their heads, necks, and chests, with long skirts and long-sleeved tops in accordance with conservative Muslim dress codes, in some cases even if the individuals are not Muslim, certainly indicates that major changes have taken place.
It is not only this one picture which escalated the polemic. There have also been reports of parents complaining to members of local parliaments that their daughters’ teachers have pressured them to wear a jilbab. This has happened in Jakarta and elsewhere like Bantul and Yogjakarta. In most cases, it is unclear whether there is a formal obligation on girls to wear the religious clothing or if there is repeated informal public pressure or shaming by school authorities and teachers, such as by quizzing girls not wearing religious dress in front of their classmates.
Since Indonesia’s decentralisation following the Habibie administration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the regulation of schools is now a local responsibility of Indonesia’s 514 local districts (kabupaten) and town municipalities. In some cases, school uniforms sold by schools have included religious clothes and head coverings. This can be seen as another form of pressure from local authorities.
The central government, through repeated statements, has emphasised that the official policy is that there is no compulsion on girls to wear the jilbab. This is consistent with Ministerial Regulation No. 45 of 2014 on school uniforms, which states that female Muslim religious wear can be worn “because of (individual) personal beliefs”. This regulation is widely interpreted, as summed up below by the local authorities in Madiun, East Java, as meaning:
In essence, schools should not make regulations or appeals for students to use certain religiously specific clothing models as school uniforms. Schools should also not prohibit (it) if participants wear school uniforms with a certain religiously specific [item of] clothing based on the will of the parents, guardians, and students concerned.
In February 2021, three ministers — the Minister for Education and Culture, Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister of Religion — issued a formal Letter of Three Ministers stating that local governments or schools were not to require or prohibit students from wearing religious uniforms. In essence, this left it to the individual student’s choice. However, Minister for Education Nadiem Makarim stated that it would be difficult to enforce such practices. On 13 October, a new Ministerial regulation was issued, basically reaffirming that schools risked sanctions if they forced girls to wear religious clothing if that was not their (or their parents’) wish.
There exists among some in society, represented perhaps by what is referred to as ‘civil society’ and within liberal Islamic circles, a sentiment for a more progressive social situation but no developed overall worldview that stands as an alternative to socially conservative religious worldviews.
Minister Makarim perhaps sees difficulties because of the decentralisation of school regulations across Indonesia and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different ideological responses to the jilbab question. The clearest response has been, naturally, from religious organisations. The large Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah, argues that Muslim girls are obligated to cover their aurat (parts of the female body which should be covered). To Muhammadiyah, such clothing is religiously obligatory and should be encouraged but not forced upon people.
Figures from the Council of Ulama Indonesia (MUI) have expressed similar sentiments. Such statements encourage teachers and schools to apply pressure on the girls. An additional source of pressure is the linking of the teaching of “character” in schools with religion. All this is seemingly formally separate but there is extensive connecting of the two issues during the tertiary teacher training process in Indonesia’s universities. There is certainly a strong emphasis on such a link from the Ministry of Religion’s directives. Some regional MUI branches have, while accepting that non-Muslims should not be forced to wear Muslim dress, taken the view that Muslim girls should.
However, voices from the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) have been more liberal, with some NU members even saying that not only is requiring non-Muslims to wear Muslim dress wrong but that it is not obligatory for Muslim girls or women to do so.
To understand the dynamics of this ideological polemic, it is necessary to go back to that photograph. Today’s mothers of teenage girls use their childhood photographs alongside expressions of hope that their children can enjoy the same freedoms they did in the 1980s – during the New Order. These are the same mothers who complain to teachers about the pressure on their daughters. One such complaint also came from a mother who herself wears a jilbab but respects her daughter’s wish not to.
It is impossible to tell how widespread such sentiments are but this trend is not accompanied by any secular or religiously liberal philosophical outlook. Ironically, although the New Order government generously funded religious organisations, its social praxis – if one can use that term – was distinctly secular. From Ali Murtopo’s “25 years of accelerated modernisation” coined in 1973, to strongly defended family planning and to the relaxed regulations on school uniforms for girls: all this was contained in a secular framework. However, the New Order’s dogmatic adherence to an interpretation of the official state ideology, Panca Sila (the Five Principles), that emphasised conformity and obedience, in turn blocked any major development of liberal thinking, secular or religious.
In Indonesia today, the desire for returning to a socially freer atmosphere is reflected in the tension between a mere sentiment and strongly held religious ideologies. This is also the situation in national politics. There exists among some in society, represented perhaps by what is referred to as ‘civil society’ and within liberal Islamic circles, a sentiment for a more progressive social situation but no developed overall worldview that stands as a viable alternative to socially conservative religious worldviews.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of “An Introduction to the Politics of the Indonesian Union Movement” (ISEAS 2019) and the editor of “Continuity and Change after Indonesia’s Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment” (ISEAS 2019). His newest book is “Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship”, (Penguin Random House, 2022).