Women, Education, and the Veil in Contemporary Indonesia
How do Muslim women navigate concepts of religious tradition
and modernity in an increasingly global world? How
is this tension reflected locally in contemporary Java?
Students will read a context essay that both introduces and suggests
ways of understanding the concurrent increase in women’s educational
opportunities and use of the Islamic veil by young women in institutions
of higher education on Java, Indonesia’s most populous island.
Students will also read and discuss a primary document written by
the Malaysian Muslim feminist group Sisters in Islam, “Are Women
and Men Equal Before Allah?”, and then analyze and discuss the selfdescription
of the group and the group’s arguments.
Students will be able to:
- Examine their own beliefs and biases that are formed by fashion
and tradition in clothing.
- Understand the reasons women in Java choose to don the veil.
- Examine and analyze perspectives on “equity” and gender in
- Work cooperatively in small and whole class groups/discussion.
- Write persuasively on the issues under analysis.
Two to three class periods
Introduction to Southeast Asia: History, Geography, and Livelihood
by Barbara Watson Andaya
Diversity and Unity in
by Michael G. Peletz
Religious Practices and
- Teachers should familiarize themselves with the
background essay by Michael G. Peletz, “Diversity and
Unity in Contemporary Society” and specific excerpts
cited here, as well as background essay by Barbara
Watson Andaya, “Introduction to Southeast Asia,” and specific excerpts cited here prior to engaging students
in introductory discussion.
a. Introduce questions of clothing as a reflection of
beliefs, tradition, and affiliation.
Ask students to consider:
- How does clothing, or fashion, function as a symbol
of beliefs, lifestyle, or cultural preferences?
- How does clothing make you feel comfortable (or
uncomfortable) in different settings?
b. Introduce the pictures of Muslim women and girls
from Java wearing headscarves. Some of the pictures
include boy students. Discuss:
- What are these women’s religious affiliations? How
do you know?
- Why do you think they wear the headscarves?
- What does this reflect about them as individuals?
- How does it set an expectation of their lives as
- Compare the clothing of the boys and girls in the
pictures where both occur, especially their headgear
(scarves and hats), when boys are wearing headgear.
- What are the main differences you notice between
the clothing of the girls and boys? What do you think
could be some of the reasons for the differences?
- Share Background Reading by Toby Volkman and
essay excerpts provided through shared reading with
Have students respond to the following discussion
a. What is the significance of veiling for Muslim women
in Java, if it is not about some sort of “return to
tradition”? And how can understanding the Javanese
story help us to understand, or ask better questions,
about the resurgence of such practices—whether in
the Middle East or France—in other contexts?
b. How do symbols like the veil become politically
controversial? In Indonesia, the government actually
banned the veil in government offices and nonreligious
schools, as a part of enforcing independent
Indonesia’s early identity as a secular state. These
restrictions were lifted in 1991 when Indonesia’s
long-lived dictatorship, the Suharto regime, came
under attack and tried to court favor with Islamic
groups. How have other governments dealt with
matters of veiling, or religious dress, in schools, in
Europe, the United States, and elsewhere?
c. Consider this quotation from Michael G. Peletz’s
essay: “Western media accounts frequently give the
impression that all Muslims share the same values,
views, and aspirations, and that they all speak in a
single voice. In fact, nothing could be further from
the truth! There is a great deal of ethnic, socioeconomic,
and other diversity among Muslims in
Southeast Asia (as elsewhere). Such diversity is of
considerable significance because it typically entails
divergent life experiences. Divergent life experiences
in turn commonly give rise to contrasting views
on important issues such as the fundamentals or
essence(s) of Islam; their implications for women
and gender; the proper place of Islam in the political
process and in public life as a whole; as well as the
role that Islam—and Islamic law should play in processes
of modernization and state policies bearing
on the future.” (pp. 30-31)
How can popular media distort our understanding of
such complex phenomena as veiling? What happens
to our understandings when we look more closely at
historical, social, economic, and political contexts?
- Divide the class into four groups and have them focus
on different parts of the pamphlet by Sisters in Islam,
using the questions provided as response guides.
Small-group discussion of the “Introduction” to the
Sisters in Islam pamphlet “Are Women and Men Equal
Have the group read the “Introduction” carefully. Who
are the Sisters in Islam? Be prepared to have someone
from your group introduce this organization to all your
classmates. How do the Sisters see the responsibilities
of women and men in the struggle to understand
Islam as a way of life? What are the Sisters worried
about? What do they say was the founding spirit of
Islam, and how do they claim many Islamic practices
and attitudes today differ from that founding spirit?
What do they feel is the root cause of the idea among
some Muslims that women are inferior to men? What
activities have the Sisters been doing together, and
how does it make them feel? What are some of the
important messages from the Qur’an that the Sisters
find especially important, what do they want to do with
these messages, and what is their goal?
Small-group discussion of the pamphlet by Sisters in
Islam, “Are Women and Men Equal Before Allah?”,
Sections 1, 2, and 3:
Have the group read Sections 1, 2, and 3 carefully.
Summarize the Sisters’ beliefs about the equality of
men and women before Allah. How do the Sisters
prove their points about women’s and men’s equality
before Allah—what resources do they use to make
their arguments? What do the Sisters say are the main
differences between men and women? How do these
differences relate to the question of value in the eyes
of Allah? What are the things that only men or women,
but not both, can do? What are the things that the
Sisters believe women cannot do, according to Allah?
Small-group discussion of section 4 of the pamphlet by
Sisters in Islam:
What are some of the errors Sisters in Islam believe
some people make when they insist that men and
women are not equal before Allah? What are some
things people should do or take into consideration in
order to make the right interpretation of the Qur’an?
How do the Sisters prove their points about women’sand men’s equality before Allah; what resources do
they use to make their arguments?
Small-group discussion of Sections 5 and 6 of the
pamphlet by Sisters in Islam:
Do the Sisters believe that men have authority over
women? Can you explain the distinction the Sisters
make between “authority” and “responsibility,” and
how they relate to men and women? What is the outcome
of inappropriate discrimination between men and
women? What are some of the key words the Sisters in
Islam use to describe what they believe is the proper
relationship between men and women? What are the
obligations that both men and women have in Islam,
according to the Sisters? How do the Sisters prove their
points about women’s and men’s equality before Allah;
what resources do they use to make their arguments?
- Have students present their responses to the sections
of the reading. Complete the presentation with a wrapup
discussion for the entire group:
- What does equality mean to you? In your answer,
consider the issues discussed in Toby Volkman’s
context essay and the Sisters in Islam pamphlet:
Does equality mean being the same as someone
else, or everyone else?
- What are some of the most important ways in which
people can be considered equal? Are there some
that are less important than others?
- How can you be considered equal to someone who
is different from you—is this possible?
- What social institutions influence your ideas about
equality (school, family’s philosophy of life or religious
tradition, the ideas of your peers, the government,
- Which of the Sisters’ ideas, if any, do you agree with
about the ways in which men and women should
be considered equal and why? (You don’t have to be
Muslim to agree with or critique many of the Sisters’
- How is gender representation through clothing an issue
for women in general? How is this tied to issues
of equality in American culture?
- Ask the students to select one of the following two
questions and write a brief essay, 2 to 5 pages,
responding to the question chosen, either as a short
homework assignment or as an in-class writing
a. The veil has been called a form of “portable seclusion,”
or, in anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s words,
a “symbolic mobile home” that frees “women to
move about in public and among strange men in
societies where women’s respectability, and protections,
depend on their association with families and
the homes which are the center of family lives.”
What kinds of gendered functions (that is, having
different functions for men and women) does clothing
perform in our own society? And how do you
understand the idea of a “symbolic mobile home,”
that is, something important to you spiritually or
philosophically that you can carry with you wherever
you go? Can you give an example? Is your example
related to dress, like the veil for many Muslim
women, or is it completely symbolic? Does your “symbolic mobile home” have anything to do with
gender (i.e., whether you are male or female)?
b. Although Javanese women say that they chose
to wear the veil themselves, as a personal/private
act of “becoming aware” or pious, what role might
wider social forces (e.g., the fashion industry, media,
religious education in the schools, the resurgence
of Islam) play in their decisions? Can you think of
decisions you have made about choices in your daily
life that were made independently of any outside
influence from the society in which you live, as opposed
to decisions that were influenced by factors
similar to those listed above—the fashion industry,
media, religious education you might have received,
your school life, or even the influence of peers such
as your friends and classmates? To what extent do
you think choices can be understood as personal, or
as part of something beyond the individual?
Students will be assessed on their responses to guiding
questions, participation in small group activities and
whole class discussions, and the final essay.
Have students read the shared passages aloud in small
groups for additional comprehension support. Question
responses vary in length and required reading, for differentiated
ability groups. Essay requirements may be
modified in length as appropriate. The lesson provides
opportunities for written and oral responses and use of
textual and visual materials for analysis.
- How do nongovernmental groups function in society?
Sisters in Islam is not just a group of female religious
scholars who publish essays and pamphlets; it is
an active, modern organization which offers many
services and has a public identity via the internet.
Look together with the students at the website, http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/, and discuss the way the
group portrays itself to the world, the kind of services
they offer (especially legal services for women
in need), the other publications they have produced,
etc. Note that there are websites in both English and
Bahasa Malaysia (the official language of Malaysia);
which audiences does this dual language capacity
seem to be trying to reach? Discuss the concept of an “independent, nongovernmental organization,” which
are usually nonprofit as well, and what such groups
contribute to society. What kind of nongovernmental
organizations—NGO’s, for short—are the students
familiar with? How are these groups different from governmental
organizations and businesses (usually called “for-profit” organizations)? Why might the women
involved in Sisters in Islam have chosen to pursue the
goals they give on the website (and in the pamphlet)
as a group independent from the government, rather
than as workers in government posts?
- Have the students do newspaper and web research
on places other than Java where issues involving
the Islamic veil have been topics of public debate in
recent years, and report back on their findings or write
research papers. One place might be France, where
the question is whether schoolgirls will be allowed to
wear the veil in public schools; there has also been a
debate on whether teachers in Germany can wear any
obviously religious clothing in public school classrooms
(the most famous case comes from the city of
Stuttgart), particularly—but not only—the Islamic veil.
The issue is not only “hot” in Belgium and Holland
and other European countries with majority Christian
populations like France and Germany, but also in
Turkey, a majority Muslim country close to Europe that
is trying to join the European Union! Drawing on the
background essay by Peletz and Volkman’s mini-essay,
compare the motivations of young Javanese women
who have found wearing the veil more attractive in recent
years with that of young Muslim girls and women
in Europe and Turkey who have chosen to wear more
traditional Muslim clothing, including the veil. Why is
the issue so controversial in Europe? What are some of the main points of controversy? In their research, did
the students come across the tendencies that Peletz
notes in the media, that is, the tendency to make all
Muslims seem alike? Do they think the news sources
they found did a good job of presenting many different
points of view on the controversy?
Sources could include stories on National Public
Radio’s website (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4182321), PBS (for a broadcast on
the veil in France, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/france/transcript.html and articles on why the
headscarf is banned in Turkey, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/muslims/portraits/turkey.html), the English-language service of the German
international radio service Deutsche Welle (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,978043,00.html), and the
BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3459963.stm for a page full of resources on the “headscarf question”
in Europe.). The interview with Lila Abu-Lughod on
Asia Society’s website, cited above, is also accessible
and useful: www.asiasource.org/news/special _ reports/lila.cfm.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. Asia Source Interview, on Asia
Society’s website: www.asiasource.org/news/special _ reports/lila.cfm.
Brenner, Suzanne. 1996. “Reconstructing Self and
Society: Javanese Muslim Women and the Veil.”
American Ethnologist 23 (4): 673-697.
Lindquist, Johan. 2004. “Veils and Ecstasy: Negotiating
Shame in the Indonesian Borderlands,” Ethnos 69(4):
487-508. This is a study of veiling and the use of the
drug Ecstasy among Indonesian migrants who work as
factory labor or prostitutes on the island of Batam.
Ong, Aihwa and Michael G. Peletz, eds. Bewitching
Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in
Southeast Asia. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press, 1996. This is a frequently cited collection of essays
dealing with women and gender in Southeast Asia
among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Three of the
nine essays focus on Muslim societies in Sumatra and
Java (Indonesia); two concern Muslims in Malaysia; the
others deal mostly with non-Muslim societies in Thailand,
Singapore, and the Philippines, as well as Filipino workers
in the Muslim Middle East.
Peletz, Michael G. Gender, Sexuality and Body Politics
in Modern Asia. Key Issues in Asia Series. Ann Arbor,MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2007. This 110-page
booklet is intended for undergraduate and advanced high
school students and their teachers.
Rinaldo, Rachel. “Feminism in Uncertain Times: Islam,
Democratization, and Women Activists in Indonesia.”
Paper presented at the 8th Annual Conference on
Globalization held at the University of Chicago on April
11, 2006, available on the conference website as a
PDF at http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/scg/conference/2006/index.html, last accessed June 8, 2007.