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The hijab in Indonesia: From oppression to high fashion

Some observers of the dynamics of religiosity in Indonesia have argued that there has been a conservative turn in Indonesian Islam.

The hijab in Indonesia: From oppression to high fashion

Women shopping for hijab at a traditional retail market in Jakarta. Almost 80 per cent of Muslim women surveyed wear the Islamic headscarf, with the figure rising together with education and income. Photo: Reuters

Some observers of the dynamics of religiosity in Indonesia have argued that there has been a conservative turn in Indonesian Islam.

What is defined as Islamic conservatism is a type of religiosity closely associated with Wahhabism, Salafism or even radicalism. It is akin to bringing back dated Islamic culture and practising it in the contemporary era.

What is often neglected in understanding this kind of conservatism, which is different from other forms of conservatism, is its association with capitalism, market forces and global trends.

In fact, this kind of association allows religious conservatism to manifest itself in pop-cultural forms. Adopting it does not make one feel old-fashioned; instead, it allows one to experience a sense of religious piety and being trendy at the same time.

Conservatism, packaged and marketed through global capitalist channels, is no longer shrouded in a veil of backwardness, but brandishes the face of a new modern culture. One salient example of this trend is the donning of the Islamic headscarf, commonly known as the hijab.

Previously, the hijab was seen as a symbol of oppression, an awkward outfit that constricted the freedom of women.

In certain quarters of society, it was even seen as a strange practice or was taboo.

Now, the image of the hijab has taken an about-turn, as the headscarf takes centre stage in fashion shows, being displayed or exhibited as fashion accessories in five-star hotels in Jakarta and other major metropolitan cities around the world.

Thus, the hijab is getting more ubiquitous in Indonesia not just because Muslim women are getting more conservative, but because they are getting more fashionably conservative.

To wear the hijab is hip, and those that wear it are known as “hijabers”.

But as we begin to see the hijab donned more commonly in public spaces in Indonesia, have Muslim women in general really taken to the headscarf, and has it really become a standard part of their attire?

A recent nationwide survey commissioned by the Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute seems to suggest that this is indeed the case. Over 82 per cent of respondents agree that Muslim women should wear the hijab, and the proportion differs little where gender is concerned.

That is, more than 80 per cent of Muslim women think that they should wear the hijab, which means that it is not simply a practice imposed on them by Muslim men. Indeed, 78.2 per cent of the Muslim women surveyed claim to wear the hijab.

Contrary to practices during the New Order era, particularly in the 1980s when wearing the hijab in public schools was prohibited, female Muslim teachers and students are now strongly encouraged to don the hijab.

In fact, movie stars, politicians, businesswomen, police officers, military personnel and even female national athletes wear the hijab in their daily and professional lives.

Currently, the types of hijab available on the market are not only the conventional ones sporting modest designs, but are also exquisite and luxurious ones that fetch high prices. Several nationally-acclaimed designers have dabbled in creating these trendy headpieces, while fashion models, artistes and movies stars have taken part in marketing these fashionable headscarves through various outlets, both online and offline.

Some of them are religiously motivated, while others, including non-Muslims, are motivated by profit. Whatever the motivation, the business of the hijab in Indonesia is big business, and the religious market is one that cannot be ignored.

Another interesting finding from the survey is related to the income and education of hijabers.

In contrast with common assumptions concerning those who wear the hijab, the survey shows that almost 95 per cent of Muslim women with a high education wear the hijab, compared with less than 80 per cent for those with medium or low education.

At the same time, the survey shows that the higher the income level of the Muslim women, the more likely they are to wear the hijab.

In short, the trend seems to be that Muslim women of higher socio-economic status are more likely to be wearing the Islamic headscarf as part of their regular attire.

This result also underlines the transformation of the meaning of the hijab and religious piety.

Being religious, as expressed through donning the hijab, is no longer seen as hindering the education and career of Muslim women.

Instead, for some Muslim women, the hijab is even perceived as a symbol for educated women and professional success.

Thus, the fact of the matter is that the hijab is not merely a sign of conservative Islam imposed by Muslim men on less educated and low-income Muslim women.

On the contrary, the hijab may be seen as trendy and the in-thing to wear, and a sign of independence for Muslim women in Indonesia.



Ahmad Najib Burhani and Hui Yew-Foong are, respectively, Visiting Fellow and Senior Fellow at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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