In Indonesia, schoolgirls are often forced or bullied into religious dress codes, despite the national motto of “unity in diversity.” The country is known for having a diverse population from numerous backgrounds and has claimed to celebrate those differences. However, Indonesia has the largest Islamic population in the entire world, with about 87% of its population identifying as Muslims. Because of this, Islamic clothing and practices have been emphasized in schools, coercing young students to adjust in order to fit in. This has created a sense of displacement and unfair treatment which affects schoolgirls all over the country.
In a report on the subject, Human Rights Watch found that religious intolerance in Indonesia has increased. This especially affects female students, who are forced to adhere to religious dress codes such as wearing hijabs. Andreas Harsono, one of the authors of the report, explained that teachers expose young girls from all religions and faiths to harassment and discrimination, as well as bullying and threats of expulsion. The report refers to the phenomenon as “jilbab bullying,” which it says has led women to suffer anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
The report was carried out over seven years and investigated the experiences of women who had been exposed to unfair treatment because of their faith or bullied into religious dress codes in schools and public offices. Human Rights Watch discovered that more than 60 discriminatory laws forcing female students to adapt specific dress codes had been implemented since 2001. Schools and districts established regulations regarding school uniforms in 2014 mandating that girls wear a jilbab, a loose item of clothing covering the head, neck, and chest and often worn by Muslim women. However, the officials who wrote the regulations claimed they never used the word “mandatory.” “Indonesian state schools use a combination of psychological pressure, public humiliation, and sanctions to persuade girls to wear the hijab,” Harsono wrote. “This is serious, this is going to leave a long-lasting impact on Indonesian women.”
Wiwin, a 21-year old, is one of many female students who have experienced jilbab bullying. School institutions do not actually adhere to the Indonesian idea of unity in diversity, she says. In high school, she felt immense pressure to wear a jilbab. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Wiwin said, “They [a group of seven teachers] questioned me in the headmaster’s office, asking, what is your religion … who is your God … where is your holy book?” “During religion lessons,” she continued, “my teacher would say, wear a hijab. I felt low self-esteem … during recess, my friends sometimes called me kafir [non-Muslim].”
Her teachers would threaten her with a failing grade if she refused to wear a jilbab, Wiwin said, and she would often cry on her way home from school. “My school was a public school. All religions should be able to go to school without being forced to wear a jilbab,” she said. “[I]t is our personal right.”
Another woman, Hanifah Misbach, also described facing religious oppression when she was a young student in high school. Misbach feared expulsion if she refused to wear a hijab and experienced constant pressure to dress according to Islamic dress codes. Now 45 years old and a psychologist in Bandung, West Java, Misbach counsels dozens of Indonesian girls who have been rejected, bullied, and threatened with expulsion for refusing to wear the veil. “The impact of religious pressures, especially to wear the jilbab, when you’re young, makes it feel like you have no breathing room,” she told Reuters in an interview. “I wanted to run away.”
Wiwin’s and Misbach’s experiences reflect a larger structure of oppression in Indonesia. The attitude towards non-Muslims is not only discriminatory, it creates a system of exclusion. Young women and girls who do not identify as Muslims face disadvantages and are not given the same opportunities to succeed. The threat of failing grades forces students to either assimilate or lose their degree, and an education is crucial for building independence and establishing a career. Furthermore, education is a tool for promoting gender equality. By staying in school, women can defy gendered expectations to stay home and have children early on in life. However, when these girls are intimidated with failing grades, they are left with no choice but to adhere to Muslim dress codes or put their educations, and their futures, in danger.
The problem goes far beyond educational institutions. In their research, Human Rights Watch found several cases of female civil servants and lecturers who resigned from their jobs due to coercion from employers to adhere to hijab and other Muslim dress codes. Many women had limited access to government services because they chose not to veil. This is a women’s rights issue which must be addressed immediately.
Furthermore, forcing religious clothing and assimilation on girls contradicts Indonesia’s core values. The country is one of the most diverse in the world, with hundreds of different religions, languages, and ethnic backgrounds, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and those from other minority faiths. However, religious conservatism and intolerance for non-Islamic beliefs have increased significantly over the past 20 years. This is an assault on basic rights to freedom of religion, expression and privacy. “Wearing a jilbab should be a choice, it should not be a mandatory regulation,” Harsono argues. “There is a growing belief all over Indonesia that if you are a Muslim woman and you don’t wear the hijab you are less pious; you are morally less.”
Pressure and bullying are difficult to address. In order to solve this complex issue, Indonesia must implement more laws protecting religious freedoms. Teachers should not be able to threaten students with failing grades for not adhering to Muslim dress codes. Wearing a hijab, jilbab, or niqab should be optional and neither prioritized nor demeaned. Organizations such as the United Nations must urge Indonesia to remove government policies forcing students to adhere to Islamic dress codes in school.
Indonesia is a country of diversity and should celebrate its differences. Moreover, the Indonesian government must provide education on diversity and religious minorities, as the discriminatory laws are based on societal values that are deeply ingrained.
Simply demanding a change of laws and policies may not stop the bullying. Human rights organizations in Indonesia must emphasize the experiences of women who felt bullied and pressured into assimilating, and support them by fighting for education on religious freedom and diversity. Adhering to Islamic ideas of modest clothing should be a choice, not something that is forced upon anyone.
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