Indonesia's culture wars know no bounds. Late last year, the central bank released a series of designs for new Rupiah banknotes. One of them honored Cut Nyak Meutia, an Acehnese national hero who fought against the Dutch. But in the image Cut Nyak Meutia has her hair up in a bun instead of covered by a hijab. The country's conservative class were up in arms. Shouldn't a woman from Aceh province of all places—the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Sharia law—be wearing a hijab, they asked.
Well, not really. Cut Nyak Meutia fought against the Dutch colonial forces in the late 1800s. Indonesian women weren't wearing the hijab back then. And even Cut Nyak Meutia's own descendants said there was nothing wrong with the representation. Teuku Ramli told local media that while his great-grandmother was indeed a devout Muslim, she didn't wear a hijab.
"During those turbulent times, no one was wearing a hijab," Teuku told Tirto. "It's only in recent years that the Acehnese started wearing it."
But the controversy touched on a deeper issue in Muslim-majority Indonesia. What does the hijab really mean for women? On one hand, it's often associated with religious piety and upright moral standards. But on the other hand, it's seen as a tool used by men to oppress women.
During the New Order, women weren't allowed to wear a hijab in any government-issued IDs. Today, many state-run schools force Muslim girls to wear a hijab. Now, a lot people look down on non-hijab-wearing Muslim women as being not religious or not "pure" enough.
"It's too bad because, as women, we should unite to fight the domination of patriarchal narrative sourced from the interpretation of religious verses," Lailatul Fitriyah, a theology doctorate candidate from University of Notre Dame in the US, told VICE. "It's almost like we are being pitted against each other. At the moment, our energy is spent on fighting other women."
Lailatul is a feminist. She's also a Muslim woman who has been wearing a hijab since she was six years old. She grew up in East Java, where it's pretty normal to see women wearing the veil. But today she's a santri who is studying Islam at a traditionally Catholic university. Her time as a minority has taught her about tolerance. It's also taught her about what it means to be a woman who wears the veil.
VICE: Why do you wear the hijab?
Lailatul Fitriyah: I grew up in an Islamic boarding school, so wearing the hijab was an obligation. All women in my family have been wearing a hijab since they were six or seven years old.
But I also started questioning it from early age. In middle school, being in such a religious environment that demanded that all women to wear the hijab, I still couldn't find the answers I was looking for. All through middle school, I wore the hijab even though in my heart I always said, 'When I graduate from school, I'll take the hijab off.' I hadn't found the answer to questions like, 'Why do I have to wear the hijab? Why can't the Quran being interpreted in a different way?'
When I did my bachelor's degree, I had moved out of the Islamic boarding school. I was living by myself. So I took my hijab off, and even claimed to be an atheist for a while.
"The way we should understand the verse is not by focusing on the jalabib, but the message it's trying to convey. The message is about being modest."
When did you decide to put on the hijab back on?
When I was doing my Master's in the United States, I met many experts on Islam and sat in some classes that opened my mind to the interpretation of Quran. I treat the hijab as something functional. If I feel like wearing it, then I wear it. If I'm in the desert or going on a hike, then I take it off.
Back in the US, something else affected me as well. It was the first time I experienced what it felt like to be a minority. I was far away from any mosque and finding a fellow Muslim at the University of Notre Dame was difficult. I also experienced Islamophobia and racial discrimination. I ended up taking part in social activism, for example in Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ movements, and activism fighting for minorities.
It was at that time that I realized a new value of the hijab, that I'm wearing one to remind myself of my minority-ness. I'm an individual, different from other people, and I would like people to respect that. And since I'm different, I need to respect other 'different' people as well. I need to always make a space for difference whether it's in religion, gender, ethnicity, et-cetera. My hijab is a social one, not a religious one. It makes me more human.
But in the Quran, there are a lot of verses on how women should dress.
The Quran was written in a certain social context to answer problems that existed within certain political and cultural contexts. Regarding the verses on hijab, those verses were written under a very different social and political context than today, and each of them had their own cause.
Verses often quoted as the foundation of wearing the hijab, Annur: 31 or Al Ahzab: 59, are no different. To apply those verses as relevant today, we need to take into account the experiences and challenges faced by Muslim women. Al Ahzab: 59 says that we need to wear a jalabib, which is a big cloak. Jalabib doesn't translate into a veil, but a big cloak on top of the clothes we wear. If we look at the modern life, many women have professions and face different kinds of challenges outside the comfort of their own homes, so it makes no sense to demand this of all Muslim women.
The way we should understand the verse is not by focusing on the jalabib, but the message it's trying to convey. The message is about being modest. It doesn't mean that Muslim women need to be all covered up and wear a burqa, but they need to be modest in how they project themselves.
In Indonesia, some Muslim communities are of the opinion that 'aurat' covers one's entire body except for the face and palms. What's your take on this?
There's a general misconception among Muslim communities regarding the definition of Sharia and Fiqih. People assume that anything related to the laws of Islam is Sharia, and therefore holy and unchangeable. Sharia is not Fiqih, and vice versa. Fiqih is a set of laws established by clerics based on the verses of the Quran, the Prophet's sunnah, and discussions among clerics called Ijma. Local customs and traditions can also be the source of Fiqih.
Aurat as we know understand it today, is not a concept based on verses in the Quran. Aurat came from Fiqih in relation to mahram. Mahram are the male members of a family who constitute as guardians, or wali, for a wedding ceremony. Around our mahram, we don't have an obligation to cover our aurat.
But different cultures have different interpretations on what it means to 'cover the aurat.' For example, Turkish Muslim women only wear their clothes when praying, while Indonesian Muslim women wear another layer of clothing called mukena. It's OK to be different because it's a matter of Fiqih. The concept of Aurat is very contextual, it's very flexible. As long as we don't violate the boundaries established by the Quran, which is for women to be modest, then it's OK. As long as we don't wear the same clothes we wear for clubbing when we're praying then it's OK.
There should be a regulation about Islamic values in general, and about hijab in specific, in Indonesia or anywhere really where the local culture is not an Islamic one. It's important not to dismiss the local culture, it should actually be taken into consideration when establishing Islamic jurisprudence. That's why the wives of the kyai [Indonesian Muslim scholars] back in the day didn't make a big fuss about the length and width of the hijab, or whether Muslim woman should wear long tunics. Back in the day, people took local context into account. The kyai were very wise, like the founders of NU, of the Muhammadiyah. We don't have that now.
If you ask me if hijab liberates or oppresses me, I'd say both.
So the definition of 'hijab' has evolved over time. How has it changed here in Indonesia?
In the context of Indonesia, there's been an increase in the Islamification of society, especially after the end of Suharto's regime. I'm so grateful that he's no longer president, but one of the legacies of his regime is that Islamists gained so much power. Indonesians are very insecure, they think [traditional] Kejawen Islam and other versions of Islam infused with local culture are 'not Islamic enough.' So there's this desire to find the authentic identity.
There are new schools that describe themselves as pesantren, but their curriculum is different from what's taught in traditional pesantren in East Java. It has everything to do with the search for authenticity we talked about. But this search is dangerous, because there's no way of telling which is more authentic, and who should have the final say. That's why we tend to forget our local Islamic wisdom, the wisdom that our early kyai once possessed. Now we're competing to be the most 'Arab,' because Arabs are associated with Islam. In my opinion, this competition [to be the most Arab] is disgusting.
Some people say the hijab is a form of oppression. But others see it as liberating. You wore one, then you didn't, and now you see it as more of a cultural signifier than a religious must. So how do you feel about these conflicting notions?
In my opinion, they're both right. I mean, there's no fixed meaning to wearing a hijab. People give meaning to it like they do to everything we wear and do.
So, perhaps, the women of Afghanistan who live under the Taliban see the hijab as a form of oppression. Perhaps, the women of Iran see it the same way.
For women who live in France or the US, the hijab can be a political statement to protest against uniformity, or to fight for space in the non-Islamic political and social sphere. The meaning of my hijab has evolved and will continue to do so. I've been wearing hijab since I was little. If you ask me now about the meaning of my hijab, I'd say it's more of a social thing than a religious thing. If you ask women if hijab liberates or oppresses, I'd say both. But you may hear different answers from different women.
A lot of women are pressured into wearing the veil today—by both men and women. Why has it become so common in Indonesia?
When there's this convention in our society that being a 'true' Muslim woman means covering our skin, it's hard to avoid judgment. I support anyone who wants to wear niqab, or a burqa, if that's what they want. But people have to understand that those who wear the long hijab, the niqab, or the burqa are not superior to those whose hijab is 'imperfect.'
The fact that people don't understand that is why we have to deal with the term 'jilboobs' today. It's such a shame, because we, as women, are supposed to unite and fight against the dominating patriarchal narrative, which based on the interpretation of religious teachings. It's like we're pitted against each other, there's the 'good girls who go to heaven' and then there's women who are 'not an angel of heaven.' These days we spend so much energy fighting other women.
So is it possible for Muslim women in Indonesia to make their own authentic, independent decisions when it comes to wearing a hijab?
I think it's a little hard to isolate an individual from their cultural and social context. I'm not sure that anyone who wears a hijab is 100 percent sure that it's ultimately their own decision. That they're not influenced by, say, their cousins. I think what we can do is to reclaim our own hijab. How? By reflecting back on why we wore it in the first place, on what it really means for us. And if the answers to those questions bring us closer to no longer wear a hijab, then that's OK too. It's all a journey where we are supposed to question our motives and evaluate them every now and then.
This interview has been edited for clarity and context. We produced this story in conjunction with FemFest 2017—an event discussing gender, sexuality, and feminist issues right here in Jakarta, Indonesia. The feminist festival runs from 26-27 August at SMA 1 PSKD in Central Jakarta. See the full address here.