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 Islamic culture.
  • 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 Contemporary Society
by Michael G. Peletz

Religious Practices and Cultural Expressions
by Michael Laffan

  1. 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 Muslim women?
    • 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?

  2. Share Background Reading by Toby Volkman and essay excerpts provided through shared reading with the class.

    Have students respond to the following discussion questions:

    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?

  3. 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.

    Group A.
    Small-group discussion of the “Introduction” to the Sisters in Islam pamphlet “Are Women and Men Equal Before Allah?”:

    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?

    Group B.
    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?

    Group C.
    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?

    Group D.
    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?

  4. 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, the media)?
    • 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’ ideas.)
    • How is gender representation through clothing an issue for women in general? How is this tied to issues of equality in American culture?

  5. 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 assignment:

    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.

  1. 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?

  2. 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.