This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Ever seen the Saudi versions of ad campaigns imported from the West? The ones that blur, pixelate, or completely photoshop women out? Well, Indonesian universities are jumping on the same bandwagon.
Two student government associations from the State University of Jakarta (UNJ) announced their new members in two separate Instagram posts; each with their own way of limiting the depiction of their female members. The engineering faculty posted photos of its new student government, with the women fading into the background. Meanwhile, the faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences’ student government depicted their male members as their usual human selves, but represented its female members with identical hijab-clad illustrations.
The student organisation Study & Peace UNJ (SPACE UNJ) first called attention to the unequal representation of men and women on February 9.
Abdul Basit, head of the engineering faculty’s student government, said the women agreed to be depicted that way and that they were not pressured into being censored.
“As far as I know, the women themselves requested this. Some of them are really religious. We usually don’t even post an announcement like this, but the girls asked us to. That’s why I faded their images. Maybe they’re not comfortable having their faces out there. The women themselves never post photos of their faces on Instagram,” Basit told local media.
Some Muslims believe that the Islamic code of dressing and behaving modestly is intended to prevent temptation; the principle is then extended to depictions of women in the public sphere.
In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, government bodies regulate depictions of women in the public sphere, often censoring them to maintain modesty and avoid “tempting” members of the opposite sex.
Muthia, Research Coordinator at SPACE UNJ who goes by one name, said this isn’t the first instance of discrimination by UNJ’s student government associations. The Engineering faculty has been censoring its female members since at least 2018, while others have published posters that scaled down the size of images of women.
“Regardless of the truth behind this ‘common agreement,’ we regret that it turned out this way. If you’re going to depict women as cartoons, then do the same for the men. The same goes for the blurring. The public will inevitably focus on the striking differences between the depictions of men and women in these posters and see that the women are being explicitly marginalised,” Muthia told VICE.
While the university has not released a formal statement on the matter, faculty members have been speaking out against the discrimination. “If depictions of women can tempt the opposite sex, the same should be said for depictions of men,” Andy Hadiyanto, Professor of Social Science at UNJ, told local media.
The move also sparked backlash from Indonesian netizens, many of whom criticised the blatant exclusion of women from the public sphere.
"I'm shocked that a state university would blur photos of women or replace them with caricatures. That's the erasure of women's roles and existence from history," one Twitter user wrote. "This is what those so called religious folks want. Women slowly being pushed away from public space," another tweeted.
After the UNJ case blew up, netizens began calling out other universities for similar practices; Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Islamic Geography Club also edited photos of women in their organisation by blurring them into oblivion.
Kalis Mardiasih, an author who writes about women in Islam, said this type of censoring may lead to other types of more extreme discrimination that would further marginalise women. After censoring their images, it might be their voices, opinions, and entire existence that are pushed to the sidelines. Censoring women in the public sphere, Mardiasih said, is counterproductive to women gaining the recognition they deserve.
“I’m always amazed by the erasure of women scholars from history. I’ve found that women’s strides are often glossed over in literature,” Mardiasih told VICE. Censoring these women’s faces, Mardiasih said, supports this type of erasure.
"Take Ummu Darda (Prophet Mohammed’s best friend) as an example. She was a progressive legal expert in Damascus. She was an orphan who had mastered Islamic jurisprudence and taught men in the men’s quarters of mosques. One of her students even went on to become caliph. But all I’ve read about her was how faithful she was to her husband,” Mardiasih said.