Beyond the Veil

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Though their effect may be less immediately apparent, contemporary social developments other than veiling have had an equally dramatic impact on young Muslim women’s lives. Many of these developments have to do with the increased educational and employment opportunities that were unavailable to women a generation ago (cf. Smith-Hefner 2005).

Most of the young women I interviewed are the first generation of women in their families to receive a college degree. Ina, for example, is a fourth-year student at UGM. Her mother never completed high school because her parents forced her into an arranged marriage at age seventeen. Despite her limited schooling, Ina’s mother encouraged all her daughters to put off marriage and continue their education; her two oldest have graduated and now work in Jakarta. Ina, like the majority of young, middle-class women today, also intends to finish her university studies before marrying. Moreover, when she and her friends do marry, they fully expect it will be to a man of their own choosing. Recognizing their lessening control over the choice of a marital partner for their offspring, middle-class Javanese parents have begun to emphasize the importance of their daughters being able to work so they can take care of themselves and their children should things go wrong. Parents underscore the sacrifices they have made to educate their children; the great majority also affirm that for a young woman to get a college degree and then not work would be an enormous waste of time and money. Equally surprising, many parents state that they want their daughters to educate themselves and work “so that they will not be too dependent upon their husbands.” This practical counsel, with its cool-headed assessment of women’s vulnerabilities relative to unreliable husbands, stands in striking contrast to the pattern reported for Javanese by Hull a generation earlier (Hull 1996). Veiled or not, a full 95 percent of the university women I interviewed reported that they expect to work both before and after marrying. Women echo the concerns of their parents. They want to work so that so that they will avoid being completely dependent on their husbands and so that their relationship will be “more equal.” They are also aware of the sacrifices their parents make in order to finance their educations; by working, they hope to repay some of that debt. Others plan to help in the educational support of a younger sibling or other relative. On a less idealized level, most young women also observe that in a modern economy, a woman’s income is required to maintain a family according to a reasonably middle-class standard.

All this is to say that women who, as Hull reported a generation ago, prefer not to work and plan to stay at home to care for children, are today a fast-windling minority. Phrased in cultural terms, many middle-class women have clearly caught wind of a new narrative of self and personal development. They cite the solitude and boredom of staying at home all day (like their mothers) and talk about their desires for “self actualization” and “realizing their potential.” This complex mix of motives—monetary, religious, individualistic, and self-actualizing—reminds us again that, like the Islamic resurgence as a whole, veiling has heterogeneous influences, responsive both to the desire for greater religious piety and for the mobility and prosperity of the new middle class.

 

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