The politics of Veiling

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One reason Hull and other scholars a generation ago tended to overlook the Islamic resurgence taking place across Indonesia in the 1970s is that their research focused on developments in rural as opposed to urban Java. Had Hull begun her study in the universities around Yogyakarta rather than in villages outside of town, she might have gotten a significantly different impression. At Gadjah Mada University in the late 1970s, I witnessed a new spirit of Islamic activism that, rather than just emphasizing prayer and religious study, sought to link Islam to social and political transformation. Muslim students sponsored scholarship programs for poor village youth; sent prose lytization (dakwah) teams into neighborhoods and villages; organized cooperatives for transportation and health services; and, most generally, developed a cadre of activists dedicated to the “Islamization” of student life. The new Islamic activism emerged in the wake of far-reaching changes in campus life. After 1978, the Suharto-led, New Order government had enacted laws aimed at “campus normalization” that effectively prohibited explicit po�liti�cal activity. These laws unwittingly benefited Muslim and other religious groups, since state controls weighed less heavily on religious organizations than they did on secular political bodies. Spared the full brunt of state restrictions, Muslim student organizations were well positioned to take advantage of the anti-regime mobilization that swept university campuses during the final years of Suharto’s reign (Hefner 2000; Madrid 1999). Young women activists in jilbab became a familiar sight in the front lines of the demonstrations that eventually brought down the Suharto regime in May 1998. Veiling offered female activists symbolic protection from threats of violence during pro-democracy rallies. It was also intended to signal to the public that the students’ cause was a moral one, not merely a matter of power politics (Madrid 1999; Rahmat and Mukhammad 2001). Until 1991, the New Order government had prohibited veiling in government offices and in nonreligious state schools. Indonesian school children and all government employees wear standard uniforms of a designated color, style, and fabric. For women and girls, these uniforms have long consisted of a knee-length skirt and a short-sleeved blouse or jacket. Prior to 1991, there was no long-�skirted, veiled option for students or government employees. Women who veiled in opposition to the state’s policy faced discrimination and the derision of their fellow students, employers, and co- workers. Even more serious, they faced the possibility of expulsion from school or the loss of their job. When the restrictions on veiling were lifted, many students reported that they came under pressure from their classmates to adopt the veil to protest against earlier government restrictions. Interviewees told me that at some high schools, virtually the entire Muslim female student body adopted the veil in a matter of days, although in the weeks that followed some women began reevaluating their decision.

Not all Javanese parents were happy with their daughters’ desire to veil. They feared veiling would mark their daughters as nonconformists, hinder their chances for employment, and make it difficult to attract a marriage partner (Brenner 1996). Some of the most vigorous opposition to veiling came from families in which one or both parents were employed as civil servants. As representatives of the state, civil servants bore the brunt of policies during the early New Order; the government neither rewarded nor encouraged public piety. Many middle-aged government employees interviewed after the collapse of Suharto’s New Order acknowledged their personal debt to government programs and pensions. A surprising number also admitted that they agreed with the government’s earlier suspicion of “radical” or “fanatic” Islam and, as a result, were initially opposed to veiling (Alatas and Desliyanti 2002; Brenner 1996). The early 1990s was the peak of the Islamic resurgence, and many young activists derided the Suharto government as anti-Islamic. As government policies became more Islam-friendly, however, pressures to veil as a symbol of anti-government protest diminished. In fact, as Suharto in his last years sought to wrap himself in the garb of conservative Islam, some critical women activists began to insist that veiling was only meaningful if linked to demands for democratic reform.

 

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