Indonesian students made to wear hijab in classrooms (Representational image, source- Asia News)

The issue of the hijab is being debated not just in India, but in many other parts of the world as well, including Islamic countries like Iran and Indonesia, but for different reasons than the one in India. While Islamic women in India are advocating for the hijab and demanding the right to wear the hijab in schools and colleges, in violation of the uniform dress code, women in countries like Iran and Indonesia are protesting and opposing the hijab to seek freedom from a garment that was forced on them by Islamic hardliners.

Recently, a terrifying incident of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini was reported from Iran, who was beaten to death by the ‘morality police’ for not conforming to the mandatory hijab laws of the country. A similar incident happened in Indonesia a few months ago when a Muslim student was allegedly forced to wear a hijab by her teachers, which led to her suffering from severe depression and anxiety. The incident which happened in July this year stirred up the debate on the right of individuals to make choices in the country. It highlighted intolerance in Indonesia and a breach of basic human rights.

A recent report by DW has highlighted the issue in Indonesia.

In mid-July, a 15-year-old first-year senior high school student in Bantul, Yogyakarta, was summoned by three professors for not donning the Islamic headscarf or hijab and was discovered crying in the toilet. The adolescent had previously been tormented by her teachers at her school orientation, who accused her parents of not performing daily Islamic prayers.

The incident of teachers bullying her at school for not wearing a hijab caused the victim girl uneasiness to such an extent that she went to a bathroom to cry and stayed there for over an hour. She cried and screamed and also stopped regular communication with her family. The school’s director and the teachers involved have been suspended while authorities are still investigating what transpired for the incident to happen in the first place. Meanwhile, the youngster agreed to be moved to another school.

According to the reports, several incidences of professors forcing female students to wear the hijab and cover their head, neck, and chest have made news in Indonesia, the country which houses the world’s largest Muslim population. The country of 280 million people, 88% of whom are Muslim, has also seen a rise in religious conservatism in recent years. The movement has extended to other aspects of society and is having a negative influence on the daily lives of women.

Indonesian public schools require female students, including non-Muslims, to don a hijab (Image source- Straitstimes.com)

Indonesian school teachers advocating the hijab

Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director for the NGO named Human Rights Watch (HRW) opines that the concept of mandatory hijab in Indonesia stems from a semi-autonomous Indonesian province on the northwest tip of Sumatra Island named the province of Aceh. Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that follows Shariah, the Islamic law. The government there in the year 2002 also approved a municipal rule regulating Islamic clothing standards which included the jilbab for women (a long loose outer garment).

“Several provinces and regencies in places like West Sumatra and West Java started to adopt their by-laws mandating the jilbab in certain public buildings, universities, and schools”, Pearson was quoted. However, Indonesia in 2014 introduced student uniform regulation and stated that jilbab was not to be considered a mandatory attire. “The new decree states that students and teachers may choose to wear a long skirt and a short- or long-sleeve shirt with or without a jilbab“, the regulation read.

Though it clearly asked the local governments and school principals to revoke the mandatory jilbab regulation, several schools interpreted the regulation wrongly and advocated a hijab mandate. At least 24 provinces in Indonesia’s Muslim-majority provinces adopted the headscarf, long-sleeve shirt, and long skirt as uniforms for its female pupils. The schools excluded the jilbab mandate but obligated the female students to wear hijab which had no mention in the new decree.

However, the hijab mandate was recognized by the government in February 2021 after a father of a high school student opposed school regulation demanding girls to mandatorily wear hijab. The complaint was reported by a Christian student’s father in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. The government then signed a decree permitting any student or teacher to choose whether or not to wear the hijab at school.

But a local group opposed the ban and knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court to demand the imposition of Shariah in West Sumatra. “The decree was overturned largely on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that education is a matter for regional, not central government. Unfortunately, they won,” the HRW Asia director, was quoted. An inter-ministerial panel is analyzing several mandatory hijab laws and regulations, as well as their implications for schoolgirls and female public officials.

Human Rights Watch notes pervasive harassment of girls refusing to wear hijab

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) research issued in 2021, the number of national and regional regulations attempting to control the clothing of Muslim girls and women in the school system has risen in recent years. Islamic women have never in the past faced so many restrictions and pressure over their choice of attire.

The HRW research report observed pervasive harassment of girls and women who refuse to wear the hijab, as well as the profound psychological pain that such harassment may bring. According to the research, females who did not comply were forced to drop out or withdraw from school in at least 24 of the country’s 34 provinces, while several government officials, including teachers, physicians, school administrators, and university professors had to quit their jobs for not conforming to the hijab laws.

The pressure however is less intense in big cities such as Jakarta and Bali, which are home to the majority of Indonesia’s Hindu people. While most Indonesians believe that wearing a hijab should be a personal choice, schools in the country continue to torture students over their choice of attire which is not wearing a hijab.

Hijab can pave way for more limitations on women

Many Muslim women do not choose to wear a hijab. But unfortunately, even the privileged segments of Muslim society do not often have the option of rejecting it once it has become the norm. Women in Iran and other Muslim countries are seeking to abolish the hijab rule, which religious police forcibly enforce upon them. However, in India, Islamists backed by ‘liberals’ argue that requiring all female students to wear uniforms to school is oppression. In Indonesia Islamist girls going to schools and colleges are feeling pressured to wear hijab and jilbab, while the Islamist community in India is pressuring the government instead to allow hijab in educational institutions.

The recent proposal to legalize hijab in Karnataka schools and junior colleges, sponsored by the student arm of the terror organization PFI, became a worldwide topic. The matter escalated even more after the Karnataka High Court ruled in March this year that wearing Hijab is not an essential practice in Islam, as claimed by the Muslim students, and that the students should follow the uniform rules of respective schools inside the premises. Islamists reached the Supreme Court where the matter is still being heard.

At these times when India is debating the issue of hijab, it becomes important to note that hijab, burqa, jilbab, or niqab is anything but a symbol of oppression. The Islamic veil was introduced centuries ago to protect women from men who could not stop objectifying women. Also, women back then were made to believe that they were not capable enough to protect themselves and that they needed to cover themselves. But times have changed and today, in the 21st century, imposing a hijab, or niqab, veil, ghunghat etc is a blatant violation of women’s rights.

It is a slippery slope. First, the hijab is hailed, asserted as a matter of choice and pride and made ‘mainstream’, the garment soon becomes a mandate because Islamist hardliners do not consider women worthy enough to have a say in their life choices.

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