Veiled Insecurities

«Необязательно видеть весь путь.
Просто поверьте и сделайте первый шаг». Мартин Лютер Кинг

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Despite this widely accepted normative script of religious awareness and personal transformation, it is clear from the interviews and life histories I recorded that, in fact, social pressures and incentives do play a significant role in the decision of many young women to veil. Among the most critical influences are those related to campus life. One striking index of this fact is that at Gadjah Mada University the proportion of women veiling increases dramatically from the first year of schooling to later years. Many female students describe themselves as having been confused and insecure when they first came to university and experienced its overwhelming freedom and diversity. The sentiments expressed by one second-year student were common: “There was so much freedom (bebas sekali)! My parents trusted me, but I felt overwhelmed (bingung).” Campus religious organizations, friends and family members, religion teachers, and Islamic publications all reinforce a message of the dangers of free interactions between the sexes and press for veiling as the solution. For many young women, college is the first sustained period away from home. Most women who live away from home move into rental rooms or boarding houses with other women students. Surprisingly, these boarding houses have few regulations concerning male guests or curfew hours. Although in the 1970s the convention was that boarding house owners would arrange for live-in housemothers for their rental properties, in the 1980s the requirement came to be widely disregarded. During those years, the combination of a booming student population and liberalizing social trends left most boarding houses with little or no adult supervision. Even for young women who continue to live at home, taking college courses typically involves a lengthy commute alone or with a friend, on a bus or motor scooter. In the course of commuting, young women point out, they come into close proximity with many young male strangers. Some of those young men take clear pleasure in the freedoms of urban living, and feel few of the inhibitions on interaction with young women found in village or neighborhood settings. Young women complain that in these unsupervised environments they are vulnerable to unwelcome advances and even physical harassment. Veiling, as many young women insist, offers a significant symbolic defense against unwelcome male advances, while allowing young women to enjoy their freedom of movement nonetheless (see Papanek 1973). For their own part, women widely report that veiling helps them to feel “calm” (tenang) and more in control of their feelings and behavior, particularly in interactions with members of the opposite sex. Others describe feeling more “self-assured” (lebih pe-de/percaya diri) about speaking up in class or asking questions when male students are present. Yet others describe the veil as a constant physical reminder, one that helps to keep them from overstepping the bounds of moral propriety. These themes of heightened self-confidence and moral self-control run through all of the veiling narratives I collected from young women. While they recognize that veiling imposes certain limitations on their behavior, those who have made the commitment to veil say they have weighed their decision carefully and view the limitations as positive, not negative. While framed by women first and foremost as a personal moral commitment, the “new veiling” neutralizes at least some of the tension young women experience between urban living’s freedoms and its moral threats.

 

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