In Sharia Heartlands, Women are Punished for Wearing Too Little, Shunned for Wearing Too Much
Aceh is the only province in Indonesia allowed to enforce Sharia Law, but these conservative bonafides aren't stopping people from making fun of women who choose the full veil.
Anggi Wulan. All photos by author
Every other woman in Anggi Wulan's village wears a hijab. It's not like they have much choice, Aceh is allowed to enforce its own version of Sharia law, and under Islamic rules all women are required to cover their hair. But Anggi covers more than just her hair. This 25-year-old woman chose instead to wear the niqab, a full-face veil that's becoming increasingly popular in Indonesia's more conservative circles.
Now, you would think a woman choosing a to wear a conservative veil in Indonesia's most-conservative province would be welcomed as one of the true believers, right? Nope. Anggi told me that she's been subjected to ridicule since she donned the veil. Her friends and neighbors—even her own family—mocked her behind her back. They laughed in her face and called her names, she said.
“I’m sad to know what they said about me," Anggi told me. "About how they laughed at me and mocked me. It really brings me down."
In Aceh, women who wear the niqab are often seen as exaggerating their faith; as unnecessarily overcomplicating things when Allah made his rules as easy to follow as possible, people say. Others even argue that women who wear niqab are Islamic radicals, and most likely members of an extremist group. This is why a university in Yogyakarta banned the niqab on campus; before reversing the ban a week later amid heavy criticism.
The niqab is pretty popular on the campus of Banda Aceh's State University of Islam Ar-Raniry. But the majority of women who wear the niqab are international students from Malaysia, not local Acehnese women. Out of the university's 200 or so Malaysian students, almost half of the women wear the face veil. Now, local students are doing the same—although this just might be a coincidence instead of a sign of mimicry. The niqab is gaining ground in Muslim-majority provinces and cities throughout Indonesia.
“I don’t think that they are influenced by the Malaysian students," Farid Wajdi Ibrahim, the dean of the university, told me. "Maybe they just understand their religion really well. Students can wear niqab as long as there's no problems. It doesn’t really matter if they wear the niqab or not."
Watch: VICE News' report on Aceh, This Is What Life Is Like Under Sharia Law
Anggi has only been wearing the niqab for a year. Before that, she used to look like any other woman in Aceh—dressing in loose clothing and a hijab. Sometimes, she even wore the kinds of skinny jeans and tight-fitting tops that would earn her a warning from the local Sharia police. But then, her perspective on her faith changed. She suddenly became concerned with covering her aurat, an Islamic term for the parts of the body that must be kept private.
"I made the change because I fear Allah," she explained. "As it's written in the hadith: it's a great sin to wear clothing that reveal your aurat especially around the opposing sex. People can say whatever they want. The most important thing is for me to do the best for myself and my God."
And as much as it's a personal choice, some women in Aceh also believe the niqab is a way for them to show solidarity with other women. But they still have to be prepared for the potential backlash as well. When Vera Wati started wearing the niqab last year, she deleted all her photos from social media. She's since had to deal with a constant stream of criticism from her peers, including those who say she's just being "too much."
But Vera also found acceptance among a new circle friends, her village's so-called "niqab squad." Niqab squads have been popping up in recent years throughout Indonesia as young Muslim woman try to fight back against the stigma associated with the veil. And in few places, are these squads as common as in Aceh.
Not everyone is happy about the niqab's newfound popularity. Mauli, a woman who lives in Meuboloh, in West Aceh, thinks these women, she calls them "niqab sisters," are nothing but "hypocrites who try really hard to be holier-than-thou."
There's nothing in the Hadith or the Quran that says you need to wear a niqab to be a good Muslim woman, Mauli said. All you need to do is try to follow Allah's rules and ask him for his forgiveness when you don't.
But too often, these niqab squad women treat the veil as some kind of religious shield from criticizing their actions, she said. Mauli told me that she's seen plenty of veiled women talking trash behind people's backs, despite the fact that gheebah (backbiting) is considered a sin in Islam.
"Sure, people can't see you when you're wearing a niqab," Mauli said. "But you can still see things that you shouldn't be seeing. Why don't you go live in an Islamic boarding school if you really want to go to heaven? You'll be free from sin there."
Another woman, Izah, told me that it's a shame that women who wear the niqab like to separate themselves from others. “I used to wear a niqab when I attended Quranic recitation classes," she told me. "We had to wear it. It’s OK if women want to wear a niqab. They have the right to do so. But they don’t have to separate themselves from others."
Sometimes, they don't have much choice. Women in the full veil are treated with such suspicion that from others that they feel more comfortable sticking together in groups. Mira told me that even her best friends left her once she put on the niqab. She used to model Islamic fashion, but she now just sticks with her fellow niqab squad friends and tries to ignore all the harsh comments she hears people say behind her back.
"Words no longer bother me," she said. "But the fact that my friends left me, it really hurts. They think I’m weird, but this is who I am. I hope I can pull through."