Javanese Women and the Veil
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When I first lived in the Javanese university town of Yogyakarta in the late 1970s and periodically walked the grounds of the prestigious Gadjah Mada University, I could not help noticing how young female university students were dressed. At that time, the coed school “uniform” consisted of Western-style knee-length skirts and short-sleeved blouses. Fewer than 3 percent of the Muslim female student population wore the veil. When I returned to Yogyakarta in the late 1990s, the transformation was dramatic. Women students had exchanged their short skirts for pants or “maxis,” and the percentage of Muslim women on campus wearing the veil had risen to more than 60 percent. The veiling style preferred by most Indonesian women today differs considerably from the loose-fitting headscarf known as the kerudung or kudung, which in previous generations was worn by pious Javanese women and is still today preferred by some older or traditionalist Muslim women. The keru dung is typically made from a soft, translucent fabric and is draped over the hair or over a close-fitting hat. Parts of a woman’s neck and hair may remain visible. By contrast, the “new veil” or jilbab, is a large square piece of nontransparent fabric folded so as to be drawn closely around the face and pinned securely under the chin so that the hair, ears, and neck are completely covered. The fabric reaches to the shoulders, with some styles covering the chest. The jilbab is typically worn with a loose-fitting, long-sleeved blouse or tunic and a long, ankle-length skirt or loose, wide-legged pants.

There is a paradox to this far-reaching change in Muslim women’s dress. Veiling has spread, not on the heels of social immobility or traditionalization, but in the wake of far-reaching changes conventionally associated in Western social theory with economic development and cultural “modernity.” These developments, the impact of which first began to be felt in the late 1970s, include the expansion of mass education, the movement of women into public employment and the professions, heightened social and spatial mobility, changes in the family, and fundamental shifts in the economic and class structure of society (Blackburn 2004; Hull and Jones 1994; Robinson 2000b). As the disproportionately high incidence of veiling among female medical and technical students indicates, the practice has spread most widely among the segment of the female student body best positioned to reap the benefits of recent educational and economic changes. This makes the question of the cultural significance of veiling for Muslim women and gender roles all the more intriguing. This chapter examines the practice and meanings of the new veiling and of Islamization for young Muslim Javanese women in the new middle class. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, I explore the social and religious attitudes of female students at two of the city’s leading centers of higher education: Gadjah Mada University (UGM), a nondenominational state university, and the nearby National Islamic University (UIN). The ethnographic and life-�historical materials discussed here underscore that the new veiling is neither a traditionalist survival nor an anti-modernist reaction, but a complex and sometimes am�biguous effort by young Muslim women to reconcile the opportunities for autonomy and choice offered by modern education with a heightened commitment to Islam.

 

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