A student wearing a niqab face veil stages a protest against the ban on wearing niqabs on university grounds at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta on March 8, 2018. (Photo: Koko, AFP)

To Ban or Wear: The Niqab in Indonesian Public Offices

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The central government’s proposal to ban the niqab in Indonesian public offices faces pushback from local political leaders and various quarters of the country’s Muslim community.

Last October, Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Gen. (ret). Fachrul Razi made public central government plans to ban Muslim female civil servants from wearing the niqab (a veil covering the whole face, except the eyes) at work. Security concerns about the rise of Islamic radicalism were provided as justification. Soon after the Minister of State Apparatuses and Bureaucracy Reform, Tjahjo Kumolo, banned female civil servants in his ministry from wearing the niqab, arguing that the outfit will prevent officers from providing good services to the public. Although misleading, the wearing of niqab is often seen as a manifestation of religious radical thought contrary to Pancasila, Indonesia’s pluralist state ideology.

This controversial niqab ban proposal, so early in President Joko Widodo’s second term, immediately stoked up the country’s foundational debate between religious freedom, state security, Pancasila, and the 1945 Constitution.

Recently, the niqab ban plan garnered national headlines again. In late June, for the first time, the head of a regional government in Indonesia compelled female civil servants to wear the niqab. Observing that some female civil servants did not wear masks during a weekly sporting event, the head of Central Lombok regency, Suhaili Fadhil Thohir, urged all female Muslim civil servants in the region to wear the niqab. Suhaili, despite a lack of evidence, argued that the niqab protects against the Covid-19 virus, and “helps women to cover their aurat (body parts that are required to be covered) and earn Allah’s blessings.” Although not mandatory, the Regent encouraged female civil servants “to wear the niqab on a daily basis.”

For niqab ban-supporting government officials, it protects the third article of Pancasila – “the Unity of Indonesia” – that is vital to keep the Unitary State of Indonesia intact.

Central Lombok is not the only region where local government leaders are not hesitant in allowing their female civil servants to wear the niqab in office. In response to the niqab ban plan, Maros Regent of South Sulawesi province, Hatta Rahman, stated that before the ban is imposed, female civil servants in his region are free to wear the niqab. Gorontalo Regent, Nelson Pomalingo, and Depok Mayor, Mohammad Idris, expressed similar stances. However, not all regional leaders are against the ban. Eltinnus Omaleng, Mimika Regent in the predominantly Christian province of Papua, did not allow female civil servants in his region to don the outfit even before the niqab ban proposal was launched.

The disjuncture in the attitude of state and government officials at central and regional levels towards the niqab ban is a result of different interpretations of stipulations in Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. Some government officials at regional level, whose stances are backed by conservative national Muslim figures, argue that the wearing of niqab in office is a citizen’s right as guaranteed by the first article of Pancasila, “Belief in One God”. Niqab wearing is further supported by Article 29 of the Constitution in which “the State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.” They argue that these articles assure that Indonesian citizens are free to express and practice their faiths, including the wearing of niqab.

In contrast, central government officials who are more concerned with rising Islamic radicalism in Indonesia see the niqab as a divisive symbol of religious exclusivism. Fachrul Razi, the former deputy chief of the Indonesian military, was among the national-level officials who supported this view. For niqab ban-supporting government officials, it protects the third article of Pancasila – “the Unity of Indonesia” – that is vital to keep the Unitary State of Indonesia intact.

So far, officials in Jakarta have been cautious in putting the ban in place. They have avoided implementing a sweeping niqab ban policy across government offices at both central and local levels due to the fear of severe public backlash. Fachrul Razi, who initially cited security reasons to justify the niqab ban, backtracked on this statement in the face of a nationwide backlash, including from moderate Muslims. Tjahjo Kumolo, who banned the niqab in his ministry, has never formalized this restrictive policy in writing.

While the niqab issue is being debated theologically, legally and constitutionally; any move to regulate the wearing of niqab in public offices will result in backlash by Muslims from various quarters because it will be considered as a state intrusion into their religious space. The ‘ban or wear’ debate will not go away.

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