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An Islamic University In Indonesia Just Banned the Niqab From Campus

The culture wars continue.

by Sattwika Duhita
08 March 2018, 10:00am

A student wears a niqab in Makassar. Photo by Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters

Update, 12 March 2018: Administrators at Universitas Islam Negeri Susan Kalijaga have since reversed the ban amid heavy criticism online and in the press.

For women in Indonesia, how you dress is bound to get you in all kinds of trouble. It honestly doesn't even matter anymore what you wear. Dress in typical Western clothes, the kinds of stuff you can buy at H&M and someone will tell you that you're immoral; that your clothes are too revealing.

But swing the other way as a Muslim woman and don the full-face veil, or niqab, and someone's bound to call you a radical Islamist or worse. Few things today are as divisive as the niqab and other Arab dress. Indonesia is in the middle of a long-brewing culture war over what kind of country it wants to be as moderate Muslims and religious minorities battle it out with an increasingly influential fundamentalist fringe.

Now an Islamic university in Yogyakarta, the traditional heartlands of Java, has entered the fray. Universitas Islam Negeri Susan Kalijaga recently banned the niqab and the full-body burqa on campus, calling the conservative garb a sign of radical ideologies. The university, the second Islamic higher education institution to ban the full-face veil in Indonesia, ordered 41 women who wore niqabs to attend "re-education" classes about why the niqab is wrong or face expulsion.

Why ban the niqab?

Yudian Wahyudi, a rector at the university, told BBC Indonesia that Islamic attire like the niqab was against the spirit of moderate Islam being championed by the university.

"We see the symptoms," he told BBC Indonesia. "We want to save them [from radicalism] and not let them get lost."

Human rights groups think otherwise. They argue that the university's no-niqab policies aren't the best way to promote moderate Islam. Discriminatory policies like that could instead turn other students against women who choose to wear the niqab and further cement their views.

"It's reckless," the Jogja Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) wrote. "It doesn't respect the principles of human rights and it tends to be discriminatory."

It's also a throwback to Gen. Suharto's repressive New Order regime. Under the New Order, outward signs of conservative Islam like the niqab, or even less controversial attire like the hijab, were off-limits for anyone employed by the government or in the education system.

The hijab rapidly rose in popularity after the fall of Suharto to the point that, today, it's a common part of Muslim fashion in Indonesia. Now groups like the Niqab Squad are trying to rebrand the full veil as a fashionable, pairing them with hats reading "I'm wearing niqab and I'm not terrorist."

What's going on here?

Indonesia's college campuses are on the front lines of the country's culture wars. Fundamentalist groups like the now-banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia had deep ties with student groups and used university campuses as recruiting grounds.

The Ministry of Education and Culture found a similar story at Indonesian high schools, discovering that 7.2 percent of students supported ISIS and 8.5 percent thought Indonesia should adopt nationwide Shariah law. It was enough to set off alarms as high as the office of the president. A few months after that survey hit the press, President Joko Widodo vowed to increase efforts to combat radicalism on college campuses and high schools.

This is how you end up with two Islamic universities banning specific Islamic attire in Indonesia. When staunchly secular countries like France ban the "burkini" the response seems to be in-line with the rest of their laws (regardless of how discriminatory they may be). But when an Islamic university in the world's largest Muslim-majority country does the same thing, it strikes some people as a strange turn of events.

How's it going to shake out?

No one really knows. Some rights groups say the university is on the fast-track to a lawsuit. Others say the rector is violating the norms of national and international law on freedom of expression and religion. But Indonesia doesn't guarantee total freedom of religion anyway—it only protects six faiths recognized by the state—so it's unknown if that argument is going to get much traction.

One thing is for sure, the niqab ban is going to face a lot of challenges in the coming months. Hamzal Wahyudin, the chairman of LBH Jogja, told VICE that students who feel discriminated against by the ban could file complaints with state institutions like the Ministry of Religion or rights groups like Komnas HAM. But there's no guarantee any of that will result in the ban being overturned.

"If the Ministry of Religion states that the policy has no legal foundation, then it may instruct the related institution to revoke the policy," he told VICE. "But if the ministry finds that the policy is in accordance with the law, then the institution may continue to implement the regulation."

The matter could eventually end up before the courts, as long as someone has the time and money to push the lawsuit through Indonesia's sluggish legal bureaucracy. And even then the ban might remain in effect.

But, regardless of how it ends, not everyone is convinced the ban has any legal or religious merit in the first place. Masruchah, a commissioner with the National Commission On Violence Against Woman (Komnas Perempuan), told BBC Indonesia that the entire thing was ridiculous and a serious miscalculation by the university.

“It’s not certain that people who wear niqab are close-minded or fundamentalists," she said. "Or radicals."