The Politics of Moslem Clothing in Indonesia By NURAINI JULIASTUTI


Jilbab versus Schools

The paper is about the dynamics of jilbab conflicting with the social, political, and cultural issues in Indonesia. In about 1930, the polemic of jilbab carried on. A school girl of 17 years old disagreed on the rule urging adult women to wear head covers in order to keep up their chastity. According to her, Java (Indonesia) was not Saudi Arabia and to pray to Islam did not mean to adapt Arabian tradition. An Islamic media “Bergerak” [1] put a side on her argument. (Van Dijk, 1997: 65)

More than fifty years later, in 1983, Nugroho Notosusanto launched a press-release to respond to the issue of female students in jilbab saying that “For those who opted for wearing head covers, the government would facilitate them to move into private schools which provide for head covers”. (Kompas, August 6, 1983) Before, the Minister held an exceptional meeting with the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI)[2] and explained that “A uniform was ought to be unvarying for anyone dealt with it. If not, it was not a uniform.”

Then, following the press-release issued by the Chairman of MUI, K.H. E.Z. Muttaqien, responding to the questions on the head covers (not jilbab) worn with the school uniforms, it was said that “Pedoman Pemakaian Seragam [3] was a rule for the headmasters to regulate the school uniforms considering the educational atmosphere in their regions. Concerning the religion, the whole nation including teachers and mubalighs, [4] would refer to the instruction of the President in front of MUI Gathering consisting of four points; the right to believe in religion, master religious values, live peacefully among different religions, and perform wisdom in solving religious matters. MUI in company with other institutions were working on the operational pattern (bolded by the writer) of the instruction of the President. (Kompas, March 20, 1984) Please notice of what MUI stated that the issue here was head covers not jilbab. Jilbab is a new vocabulary at that time.

Until then, in 1987, in the Rapat Kerja [5] Komisi IX DPR [6] RI with the Minister of Religious Affairs, Munawir Sjadzali, it was mentioned that the Minister himself admitted there had not been an official judgment on how to dress for Moslem women in public considering his side had to deal with the Islamic leaders on it. (Kompas, July 17, 1986)

The issue of jilbab at schools eventually became critical when four students of SMU 1 [7] Bogor brought a legal action to the court after the headmaster forbade them to wear head covers. (Kompas, October 6, 1988) It was triggered by the letters sent to their parents informing that their child had been expelled from the school. On the accusation, they exclaimed that the decision had made their studying status unclear. Their exams, homework, and laboratory tasks had not been examined by the teachers as if they never did any. In addition, it was noted down clearly that they obeyed the Manual of School Uniform released by the government including the colour although they wore head covers. Finally, it was reported by Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH) [8] Jakarta that the case came to a peace agreement of the two sides.

In the following year, the similar case happened. Ten female students of SMU 68 Jakarta went to LBH Jakarta since they could not attend their classes by the reason of indiscipline on the school uniform and hence should be “returned to their parents”. (Kompas, January 5, 1989) It was informed that at the beginning, they were not allowed to attend their classes and do exams but later it became worse when the school did not give in their reports and forbade them to enter the school.

The school suggested them not wearing head covers and took them off during the classes but it was rejected by those students and their parents because of the religious belief. The school proposed them to move into other schools and declared “They were to return to their parents”. The letter was also confirmed by the Head Department of Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan (Depdikbud) [9] Jakarta, Soegijo, saying that “I would like to convey my deep gratitude on your effort to maintain discipline and obedience which ruled the whole students. If you were ready to do it, they would be accepted in the school. Exams were proceeded to continue properly”.

In the middle of the disagreement, there was a remarkable statement taken from the discussion on the book entitled ” Islam Alternatif ” [10] by Jalaludin Rakhmat. The speaker, Dr. Ir. Fachrurozie Sjarkowi, in his article ” Beated in Achievement, Jilbab-Wearers Cornered ” said that “All incidents faced by those of jilbab-wearers were caused by the fact that some female students of Islamic schools were inferior in terms of knowledge and skill to common public school female students.

The culmination of all these disagreements was the official declaration on the rule of particular school uniform of SMP [11] and SMU [12] in the year of 1991 until 1992. Surat Keputusan No. 100/C/Kep/D/1991 was the revision of Surat Keputusan No. 052/C/Kep/D/1982 on the school uniform that was made through a series of consultations with those of Islamic leaders, society, mass media, Kejaksaan Agung, [13] Menteri Penerangan [14] and Badan Koordinasi Intelijen Nasional (BAKIN) [15]. It was also mentioned that a female student who required wearing particular uniform due to her private belief, was allowed to wear it with the colour and design described in the enclosure and should be under the knowledge of their parents or guardians.

In the previous letter, it was declared that “Due to the religious consideration and local tradition, a school was allowed to have authority over the design of uniform especially for the female students including to all students of a school.

The different thing was the design of the head covers. In the former regulation, head covers were tied up like a dastard or blangkon [16],the blouses were similar to suit hanging outside the skirt, long sleeves, and the skirts were up to the kneels (SMP) and ankles (SMU). In the latter regulation it was committed the female students to wear white head covers, usual blouses inside of the skirts, long sleeves by wrists with a buttoned pocket on the left. The height of the skirts for both SMP and SMU students was to reach the ankles.

Referring to the regulation, any female student in a public school was free to wear jilbab to school whereas those who went to Islamic schools or colleges were commonly obliged to wear jilbab. In fact, some of the female students only wore jilbab when they went to schools or colleges only. They would take off their jilbab when they finished classes. It can be said that the new regulation has unveiled a new phase to the persistence of female Moslem believers in Indonesia.

After the fall of Orde Baru [17], the regulation of school uniform became lax so that we could catch sight of a school with several types of uniforms. From 2002, for instance, there was a new tendency in dressing in the circle of female SMU students in Jakarta. It was quite easy to find a female student in a pleated skirt by waist reaching the ankles but the sleeves are short and the hair was loosened. Others dressed in skirts by kneels with short sleeves. The rest of them wore jilbab in usual uniform but the skirts were longer up to the ankles. From my interview with some of the female students, it was discovered that the uniform is a part of fashion style and not such a precondition to jilbab. They even said that some of the teachers were welcome to this trend as they looked well-mannered.

Regional Autonomy and the Side Effects

Regional autonomy has enabled the officials to perform strict rule of religious life in some regions. The Regent of Cianjur, Warsidi Swastomo called the officials and officers of his Pemerintah Daerah (Pemda) [18] to dress in “Islamic clothes” and demanded the members of society to ensue.   The Islamic clothes referred to jilbab for women and long shirts (similar to long tunic with a round neck) for men (Kompas, February 1, 2002) It was intended to build devout spirituality of the people. The Regent believed the policy could make the most of human resource in his region. It was designed to Islamic believers and had been discussed with non-Islamic leaders who had already agreed on it.

In the meantime, in the Province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, from March 15 coinciding with the Islamic New Year of   1 Muharram 1423 Hijriah, it was formally practised the Islamic law. The region became a requisite body-covered area. The names of stores, streets, and destination boards at buses should be in Arabic and Latin. For those who did not dress appropriately as demanded in the Islamic law: women’s clothing was to cover the body, would be sanctioned. It was also reported in the mass media that two days prior to the practice, store-owners were busy to change the name of their stores in Arabic and Latin while the regional officers changing the name of streets, departments, and so on in both language and in the coming years, it would be in English. Buses of long distance and inter-city trips changed the writing in both Arabic and Latin. (Kompas, March 14, 2002)

Beauty salon entrepreneurs were obliged to obey the rule of Islamic value as well. Women hair-dressers could not do any treatment to men. It had to be separate beauty salons for women and men.

To support the practice, the Regional Government of NAD planned to recruit 2,500 Polisi Khusus Syariah (Polsus Syariah) [19]. The government consequently put up with the budget. Polsus Syariah would be under the Islamic law which was in charge of maintaining its law in the province such as dressing appropriately as required for women and men and the prohibition of adultery.

Hence, the regional autonomy brings about an opportunity to give meaning of Islam which they pray to freely without any worry of discriminative pressures or stigmas considering the policy were impossible to be done in the era of the New Order.

Stylish Jilbab

In the middle of 1990, there were a number of Moslem fashion shows and competitions. Fashion designers who concentrated their designs on Moslem clothes, showed their Moslem trends for the next year as many other designers did for autumn, winter, spring, and summer collections. Before, Moslem fashion designs were easily seen in female magazines especially on special occasion like Idul Fitri but subsequently, in the following years, a number of magazines showed them in the fashion pages.

Nowadays, many women do not dress in jilbab with loose-fitting cloths hiding the body lines. They wear tight t-shirts or long-sleeved shirts, and body-shaped jeans. The phenomenon leads to the term of “stylish jilbab” meaning “fashionable jilbab”.

Jilbab and Moslem clothing had been very popular at the end of 1990s. In the recent wedding parties, there are many women dress up in Moslem outfits but with more attention-grabbing colours and models. To some extents, wearing such outfits is practical for freeing them from having a heavy hair bun. Besides, the outfits also give flexibility to move than of traditional ones (sarongs and kebayas). Here, we can see the reasons of wearing jilbab (Moslem clothes) which has nothing to do with religion.

During Ramadan, there is a great sudden demand on wearing Moslem clothes. Televisions are full of serial programmes worshipping God, various quiz shows approaching closing time and opening time of fasting break time, and almost all television presenters of news or infotainment programmes wear Moslem clothes.

There is still one thing contributing to the popularity of jilbab that is the wearing of jilbab by a few celebrities. Some of them are Inneke Koes Herawati, Yessi Gusman, and Desy Ratnasari while some older ones are Sitoresmi, Ida Royani, and Ida Leman. The last three names are also known as fashion designers. The position of public figure has a significant impact on the popularity of something. Once, people were familiar with the head cover worn by Mbak Tutut, the nickname of the elder child of the former President Soeharto.

When Bali was in bombing terror in 2002, there was a rumour saying that Jamaah Islamiyah as the doer of a number of bombing disturbances including in some other places of Indonesia and other countries. It brought an effect as Moslem clothing became things to be distrusted. However, jilbab and other Moslem clothing were still popular in Indonesia. One important thing to consider is the variety of Moslem clothing in Indonesia worn by Islamic women as well as their ideologies behind.

Indeed, I find it difficult to formulate the reasons of Moslem women in wearing jilbab. Nevertheless, I bring in into view of something gripping from the art work of Angki Purbandono, a visual artist from Yogyakarta, entitled The Fashion of Indonesian Moslem Women. Angki took pictures and interviewed five Moslem women of different cloths; Dian (a woman in veil), Riska (a woman in jilbab with fashionable style), Sitoresmi (a fashion designer woman frequently in glamorous Moslem clothes), Atik (a woman in long jilbab), and Endah (a woman who used to be in jilbab). In the following, I cited some parts of the interview between Angki with some of the women.

Dian (25 years old)

At the beginning, my family did not agree of my wearing veil but since I was fully conscious of being a Moslem woman, I kept going with it. So far, my family is okay with it. I never face any difficulty with it. Well, it is suggested to have dark colours and is preferred black in order not to tease men.

The decision of wearing veil came from my belief, books, and my reading-verses group. They were my biggest support, not the family. It did not mean that I got influenced by friends but I did believe this was the way of God. The way demanded me to dress like it. My group does not belong to a particular Islamic organization. It is merely a free-membership one. You may continue to join or leave it.

In my opinion, the appropriate Moslem cloth that covers the whole body is the veil that I wear now. It does not only cover the head like many women put on but it will be difficult to tell every one. I tell my close friends only.

I mingle with anyone who is in or without veil. I teach in an Islamic kindergarten and it is rather exclusive, to be sure. I take off my veil when I teach the children. While leaving the school, I put it on again. The children get used to with my veil. They are not afraid of me or surprised. I face no disturbance or pressure from the children or my surrounding where I live.

Endah (23 years old)

I used to wear jilbab but I no longer do it now. My family is not a religious one, just so-so; doing fasting during Ramadan, celebrating Idul Fitri, and keeping ritual prayers if remember. I learned a new comprehension on myself after joining my friends in a reading-verses group in SMP that the right way of life was one written in the holy book. Then, when I was in the third grade of SMP, in 1995, I started wearing jilbab. After wearing jilbab and mingling with some Islamic friends, I felt as if I found an oasis in the circle of my interaction with the family and neighbourhood liking for speaking rudely, gambling and drinking alcohol, and the kind. I felt comfortable to live in my little world: living peacefully, no distractions, moving from one reading-verses group into others, taking care of my community, lowering gaze, and reading Islamic books.

Leaving SMU for a college, I was separate from my close friends. I began to read different kinds of books in the library and compared my way of life with others’. I asked myself: is my world this narrow?

Later, I started changing my appearance from very long jilbab to the shorter one. I met a lot of people, held discussions of anything, dared to ask myself on the jilbab I wore: why did I have no courage to take it off? Was I afraid of being mocked by others? What was the influence of jilbab to my spiritual life? I raised a question to myself on the fanaticism of people on their beliefs. In short, I thought any religion basically taught good deeds.

I want to live in peace and comfort. I want to live a life with conscious choices because I realize everything depends on me. Finally, with a strong will to be a new human being, I take off my jilbab.

Riska Andini (21 years old)

I wear jilbab because I get used to with it. It was by the time when I had an Islamic schooling programme for a year in SMU. Then, I became unconfident when I did not wear it. I felt comfortable with it.

My chin was pierced but it was not fashion. I did it to respond the challenge of my friends.   “Come on, dare you be pierced or not”, they said to me.

I want to supervise all of my doing with jilbab but I smoke. My parents know it but I dare not smoke in front of them. Honestly, I keep thinking over these things but so far I have got along with a tolerant community so that I do not get burdened with them.

I go steady with a man. I do what people commonly do on dating. I wish my jilbab would not be a barrier for me to get along with someone I like. In my opinion, jilbab is just a piece of cloth. I think that way so when I do not wear it, I feel as if I do not dress.

Apart from my college activity, I join in Brit Pop and Indie Pop community called “Common People”. I often come to the place and have a discussion. Now, I have a project to issue a music magazine with its members. I am the only woman in jilbab among them.

Angki printed each photo in the real size of human body. Then, it was patched on a piece of thin board with a leg so it could stand upright. The head of each photo was omitted to let visitors ‘put on’ their own heads to each figure in the installation. The record of the interview was compiled in a disc and visitors might have turned it on. It was like a footnote in writings. Through her art work, Angki seemed to ask them “What would you like to wear to show your ideology and identity if you are a Moslem woman and live in Indonesia?”

Jilbab in Indonesia is a means freely interpreted by the Moslem women. It is elastic, flexible, and can be applicable to any circumstance the wearers deal with.


  1. In English is “On the Move”.
  2. The Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars
  3. The Manual of School Uniform
  4. Islamic preachers
  5. Working Session of Commission
  6. The Indonesian Legislative Assembly
  7. Senior High School
  8. Legal Aid Society
  9. Department of Education and Culture
  10. Alternative Islam
  11. Junior High School
  12. Senior High School
  13. The Council of Attorney General
  14. The Minister of Information Affairs
  15. State Intelligence Coordinating Agency
  16. Javanese head cloth
  17. The New Order regime
  18. Regional Government
  19. Islamic Law Police

This essay firstly appears in our Newsletter KUNCI #13, December 2003, and its English version appears in the website of Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

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