“I Wanted to Run Away” Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia

Over the past two decades, women and girls in Indonesia have faced unprecedented legal and social demands to wear clothing deemed Islamic as part of broader efforts to impose the rules of Sharia, or Islamic law, in many parts of the country. These pressures have increased substantially in recent years.
In 2014, the Indonesian government issued a national regulation on school dress that has been widely interpreted to require female Muslim students to wear a jilbab as part of their school uniform. Prior to and since this regulation, many provincial and local governments in Indonesia have adopted several hundred Sharia-inspired regulations, many of which are targeted at women and girls, including their dress. In Indonesia, the term “jilbab,” which literally means “partition” in Arabic, is widely used to refer to a cloth that covers a woman’s head, neck, and chest. Hijab, which means “cover” in Arabic, is typically a cloth that covers the hair, ears, and neck but sometimes also covers the chest. Many Muslim women and girls also wear long-sleeve shirts and long dresses.
This report focuses on the discriminatory regulations and related social pressures on women and girls to wear the jilbab or hijab in schools, within the civil service, and at government offices. Women, girls, and family members from around Indonesia described to Human Rights Watch the impact of discriminatory dress regulations in these and other spheres, from evening curfews to riding on motorcycles.[1] Three girls in hijabs are walking away from the camera down a street in Indonesia
A woman in Yogyakarta described the impact of the 2014 national student dress code on her teenage daughter, who went to state school in 2017: “Although the school and her teachers do not all explicitly say she must wear jilbab, they tend to give unsolicited comments or make fun of her choice not to wear jilbab. The pressure is in a way implicit, but constant.”
She said that her daughter was able to handle the situation in the first year, but in the second year she had an Islamic teacher for homeroom and the pressure to wear a jilbab became unbearable:
When he saw me, her teacher said, “Oh, I’m just following the school rules here.” “Can I see the rulebook?” I asked him. He then gave it to us. We went home and studied it. That is when I found out that although it doesn’t say that female students have to wear jilbab, from the way they phrase it, it suggests that if a female student is Muslim, she must wear jilbab. That is what’s implied.[2] The jilbab rules also affect female civil servants in Indonesia. A lecturer at a public university in Jakarta who wishes to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that she was under pressure to wear a jilbab despite the absence of any campus regulation. She pointed to a huge billboard reminding all female visitors on campus to wear “Islamic attire.” She said it embodies attitudes she faced every day that made her uncomfortable, adding that the university only mandates “decent clothing” in its regulations. The constant pressures finally prompted her to resign in March 2020. She took a new job at a private university where she says she is not judged for teaching without a jilbab.
I receive comments asking why I do not cover my hair as I should as a Muslim. I got very traumatized from these incidents and felt discouraged [so I left my job].[3] The Indonesian government’s compulsion or acquiescence to pressure women and girls to wear a jilbab is an assault on their basic rights to freedom of religion, expression, and privacy. And for many, it is part of a broader attack on gender equality and the ability of women and girls to exercise a range of rights, such as to obtain an education, a livelihood, and social benefits. The threat of being denied an education or job is a highly effective way of persuading a woman or girl to wear a jilbab, at considerable psychological cost.
Mandatory dress codes have even exposed women and girls to unnecessary physical dangers. Women in parts of the country who are forced or pressured to wear long hijabs and required to wear long skirts instead of long pants risks having their clothes getting caught in motorcycle wheels, particularly if also required to ride side-saddle, as they are in Aceh.[4] In February 2020, 10 Girl Scouts wearing long skirts died when they were swept into a river during a hike in Yogyakarta. The search and rescue team said that the long skirts had limited their physical movement and ability to avoid drowning.[5] A woman in Cianjur who is required to wear a hijab and long skirt for her government job told Human Rights Watch: “I disagree with government interference on this hijab matter. I am afraid these measures will continue, with demands that [the hijab] becomes even longer and more restrictive. [I fear] they will add other rules that curb women, such as curfew restrictions.”[6] Dahlia Madanih, who spent years monitoring local dress regulations for the governmental National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), said that once a local government begins to impose a mandatory jilbab, “other areas soon copy it, compelling either female civil servants or schoolchildren to wear the jilbab. The jilbab is seen as a symbol of female piety, high morality. Indonesia has a growing number of these mandatory jilbab areas, but they obviously do not correspond to piety and morality.”[7] From Pancasila to “Islamic Sharia”
Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and his successor, Suharto, saw a conservative interpretation of what was termed “Islamic Sharia” as a threat to the country’s guiding ideology of Pancasila, which established multi-culturalism as a foundation stone of the country’s political system.[8] However, in 1999, Suharto’s successor, President B.J. Habibie, under pressure to end a long and brutal civil armed conflict in Aceh, signed the Aceh Special Status Law, which for the first time in Indonesia’s post-independence history allowed part of the country to implement Sharia.[9] While other parts of the country have no legal authority to impose Sharia, the law and subsequent agreements had the unintended consequence of emboldening religious conservatives. In 2001, three regencies in West Java and West Sumatra began requiring the jilbab in schools. Other regencies, mostly on Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi islands, began to issue similar ordinances, making female teachers and students wear a jilbab.
As part of a larger decentralization effort, parliament in 1999 passed a regional autonomy law, amended in 2004, empowering provincial and local governments to regulate the education and civil service sectors. Some Islamic political parties and Muslim politicians, who came from “nationalist parties,” seized the opportunity to impose Sharia regulations and ordinances in various provinces and localities.
Although religion formally remains the domain of the national government and has not been decentralized, over the next decade, a plethora of religiously inspired discriminatory regulations and ordinances aimed at women were passed around the country often in the name of public order.
As of 2016, Komnas Perempuan had identified 421 ordinances passed between 2009-2016 that discriminate against women and religious minorities.[10] An academic study found that, by April 2019, more than 700 Sharia-inspired ordinances had been adopted.[11] Women and girls have been the most common target.
In June 2014, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened the door even wider when Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh issued a national regulation that, while ambiguously worded, implies and has been interpreted by officials and schools around the country to require all female Muslim primary and secondary school students to wear a jilbab as part of their school uniform.[12] While Sharia-inspired regulation of female dress in other domains remains limited to the provincial or local level, schools are now the subject of a de facto national policy.
The 2014 regulation grew out of dress requirements for Pramuka, the national scouting movement. The 2010 Pramuka Law compels all of Indonesia’s provinces, cities, and regencies to have Pramuka chapters as part of their extracurricular activities. While the law says that the Pramuka Movement is supervised by the Minister of Youth and Sports, in practice the Minister of Education and Culture plays a larger role as most Pramuka members are students. [13] The Pramuka Movement does not require school students to wear the official Pramuka uniform, but many local government leaders, who often also head Pramuka branches and supervise local education offices, make it mandatory for students to wear the scout uniform at least once a week. [14] In December 2012, the chairman of the Pramuka Movement, Azrul Azwar, issued a 50-page instruction for “boy scouts and girl scouts.” This included a specific uniform for “female Muslims” that requires the jilbab, a long skirt or long pants, and a long-sleeve shirt. The official instruction includes pictures with details about the length and style of the clothes and headdress and specifies use of dark and light brown fabrics. [15] In July 2014, Minister of Education and Culture Mohammad Nuh decreed that all schools, from primary to high schools, must include the Pramuka Movement as part of their extra-curricular activities and that all students should join. He also stated that all teachers should be accredited as “Pramuka mentors.” As a result, nearly all state school children, from grade 1 to grade 12, regularly wear the officially mandated Pramuka clothes to school at least once a week. [16] Regardless of whether girls choose to participate in extracurricular scouting activities, they are required to wear the uniform and, accordingly, jilbabs.
In a 2019 interview with Human Rights Watch, Nuh, now chairman of the Press Council, stressed that he did not include the word “mandatory” (wajib) in the 2014 regulation, explaining that it provides Muslim girls two uniform choices: a long sleeve shirt, long skirt and the jilbab, and the regular uniform without the jilbab. He said:
There is a genuine public aspiration to have these schoolgirls wearing jilbab. I do not object. I wrote that regulation. But it is not mandatory. I did not write the word “mandatory.” Any Muslim girl, any schoolgirl basically, from primary to high school, could choose, wearing jilbab or not.
If a Muslim schoolgirl chooses not to wear a jilbab—the jilbab uniform—it is not a problem. She could choose to do that. She should not face any sanction. It should be a free choice. I still see many Muslim girls not wearing jilbab. It is totally fine. If there’s a state school that makes it mandatory for a Muslim girl to wear jilbab, please report that school to the Ministry of Education and Culture. [17] In practice, however, the 2014 regulation has been understood in many regencies and provinces as requiring a headscarf for all Muslim girls. In areas that have adopted this approach, a girl from a Muslim family who wished to be exempted from wearing the “Muslim girl” uniform would have to tell school authorities that she is not a Muslim, something girls from Muslim families are very unlikely to do – nearly all consider themselves Muslim even if they do not want to wear a jilbab.
This regulation prompted provincial and local education offices to introduce new rules, which in turn induced thousands of state schools, from primary to high schools, to rewrite their school uniform policies to require the jilbab for Muslim girls, especially in Muslim-majority areas. In such schools, Muslim girls are required to wear long-sleeve shirts and long skirts, along with a jilbab.[18] Currently, most of Indonesia’s almost 300,000 public schools, particularly in the 24 predominantly Muslim provinces, require Muslim girls to wear the jilbab beginning in primary school.[19] Even where school officials have acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that the regulation does not legally require a jilbab, the existence of the regulation adds to the pressure on girls and their families to wear one.
Komnas Perempuan has repeatedly expressed concerns about discriminatory regulations, including those related to the jilbab. It has called on the national government, particularly the Ministry of Home Affairs, to revoke the local ordinances passed under the cover of the 2004 decentralization law and to end jilbab-related discrimination nationwide.[20] But the Yudhoyono government contended that the local ordinances (peraturan daerah) did not contradict national regulations as they represented “local values.”[21] His administration also allowed the adoption of elements of Sharia at the provincial and local level, including anti-Ahmadiyah and other regulations targeting religious minorities. [22] The subsequent Jokowi government has similarly failed to take action.[23] Komnas Perempuan has identified 32 regencies and provinces with rules requiring the jilbab to be worn in state schools, the civil service, and in some public places, including Bengkulu, West Sumatra, and South Kalimantan provinces.[24] Some other predominantly Muslim provinces, such as Yogyakarta, have adopted similar regulations but have not made them mandatory, instead “calling on” or “advising” Muslim girls and women to wear the jilbab.
A 2019 report by the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Centre found that 75 percent of Muslim women in Indonesia, or approximately 80 million women and girls, were wearing the hijab.[25] It is unclear how many do so voluntarily and how many do so under legal, social, or familial pressure or compulsion.[26] Most wear one of three styles of Islamic headdress: kerudung (still showing hair), traditionally worn in many parts of Southeast Asia; jilbab (which in Indonesia refers to dress that covers the hair, ears, and neck), now the most common style in Indonesia; and the Saudi-style abaya (covering the whole body with a long robe). The abaya is sometimes combined with the niqab, a face veil showing only the eyes,[27] attire that is increasingly worn in Indonesia.[28] Its advocates say that the niqab (the term used in Indonesia to refer to the abaya or the abaya and the face veil) is “the perfect hijab” (kaffah jilbab) because it completely hides the shape of female bodies and their faces.[29] Proponents have offered different justifications for the regulations, asserting they are necessary to cope with issues such as poverty, teen pregnancy, and pornography on the internet.[30] Currently, there is a campaign to pass a conservative Criminal Code that includes a provision that could be interpreted to authorize localities to apply hukum adat, or customary criminal law, aspects of which are blatantly discriminatory. [31] Many Muslim politicians argue that the jilbab is mandatory in Islam and that Muslim girls should be forced to wear the jilbab from a young age. Some criticize opposition to the mandate as “Islamophobia.”[32] Dewi Candraningrum, in her book Negotiating Women’s Veiling: Politics and Sexuality in Contemporary Indonesia, wrote that most veiled women do so in the name of Islam, “… compelled by parents and schools, as well as formal law.” She argued that schools are particularly influential, concluding based on surveys of girls and women in Java and Sumatra that school regulations were the most effective means of inducing girls to wear the jilbab.[33] The Jokowi Administration’s Inconsistent Response
After Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected president in 2014, hopes were raised among women’s rights advocates when the new home affairs minister, Tjahjo Kumolo, promised that he would review discriminatory regulations in the country. Meeting with leaders of religious minority groups in November 2014, Kumolo told them, “Indonesia is not a country based on any one religion. It is a country that is founded on the 1945 Constitution, which recognizes and protects all faiths.”[34] Pressed by Komnas Perempuan on jilbab regulations, the Home Affairs Ministry identified 139 ordinances that violate the rights of women and promised to look for ways to revoke them.[35] This has not happened. While President Jokowi announced in June 2015 that his administration had scrapped 3,143 of 3,266 problematic local ordinances and bylaws because they contradicted higher regulations, promoted intolerance, or deterred investment, the main purpose was to invalidate local ordinances that hampered foreign investment. None of the jilbab or other Sharia-inspired ordinances were revoked.[36] Following an attack by an Islamist couple on the chief security minister, Wiranto, in October 2019, the religious affairs minister, Fachrul Razi, suggested banning women civil servants from wearing niqabs at work. Facing public criticism from conservatives, Razi later apologized and stopped pursuing the ban.[37] However, the next month Razi and the newly appointed minister of education, Nadiem Makarim, signed a joint decree with other ministers to ban civil servants from using their social media accounts “to propagate hate speech and radicalism.” While the decree states that civil servants must be loyal to the state ideology of Pancasila, it did not directly mention Islamist radicalism or extremism, and did not address ordinances mandating the wearing of the jilbab.[38] However, in November 2019 Jokowi’s newly appointed home affairs minister, Tito Karnavian, called on provincial and local officials nationwide to write ordinances based on Pancasila. He said they should not adopt any dress codes for civil servants that deviate from Pancasila.[39] On January 11, 2021, Elianu Hia, a Christian father, recorded a meeting with a teacher in his daughter’s SMKN2 state school in Padang, during which the teacher pressured him to ask his daughter, herself a Christian, to wear a jilbab at school. He asked the teacher, “Is it advice or an order?” The teacher replied, “This is the school regulation at SMKN2 Padang. This is a mandatory jilbab rule.” After Elianu Hia uploaded the video and the school letter on Facebook, the story was reported by the media and national television, prompting netizen protests against the school and the education office in West Sumatra.[40] On January 24, 2021, the Minister of Education, Nadiem Makarim, responded in a video statement, condemning the abuse at SMKN2 in Padang and saying that the “mandatory jilbab regulation” at the school, or any state school in Indonesia, is against the constitution, against the education law, and against the 2014 public uniform regulation. He told the Padang local government to order the school to change its policy. The school complied, but at the time of writing it had not formally changed the regulation. That week, five Christian female students attended their classes without a jilbab, quoting Makarim’s statement. However, other Christian girls continued to wear a jilbab, saying they were afraid to attend without one since the principal had not changed the regulation.[41] On February 3, 2021, Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, and Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas signed a decree that allows any student or teacher to choose what to wear in school, with or without “religious attributes.” The decree orders local governments and school principals to abandon regulations requiring a jilbab in thousands of state schools around the country.[42] On February 10, the Indonesian Ulama Council sent a letter to the government asking for the school uniform regulation to be revised so that Muslim teachers are allowed to teach Muslim schoolgirls that it is “appropriate” for Muslim girls to wear the jilbab. The decree does not prohibit girls from wearing a jilbab. The letter criticized the decree for leading to “noisy protests.”[43] The Need for Legal Reform
After the government revoked thousands of local ordinances to promote its business-friendly program, rumors and speculation circulated widely that the revoked regulations included Sharia-inspired regulations, including mandatory jilbab bylaws. Nahi Munkar, an Islamic blog, incorrectly headlined that the Jokowi administration had “revoked” Islamic-ordinances, listing some mandatory jilbab ordinances.[44] Kumolo immediately issued a statement that none of the 3,143 ordinances were Sharia-inspired and called on the public to ignore the rumors.[45] The removal of the investment-related ordinances, however, infuriated the Indonesian Association of Regency Governments (Asosiasi Pemerintah Kabupaten Seluruh Indonesia, or Apkasi).[46] It filed a petition with the Constitutional Court seeking a ruling that the Ministry of Home Affairs lacked the authority to invalidate local ordinances. Apkasi asked the court to invalidate articles from the 2014 Regional Governance Law authorizing the Ministry of Home Affairs to revoke local ordinances.
The government defended its position, but in 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that that Home Affairs Ministry’s decision to cancel local regulations had violated the 1945 Constitution and that cancelling local regulations could only be done through a judicial review at the Supreme Court.[47] The commissioner of Komnas Perempuan, Khariroh Ali, explained the impact of the Constitutional Court decision: “By ending the central government’s authority to revoke bad regulations, the court ruling has let local governments off the leash.… These uncontrolled local regulations will be the source of discriminatory regulations against minorities.”
The government has thus far failed to bring a case at the Supreme Court challenging local regulations as discriminatory. While private actors can file a case, Supreme Court rules do not allow witnesses, experts, or other relevant parties to testify in court.[48] Tim Lindsey, a legal expert on Indonesia at Melbourne University, described the situation as a “constitutional hole.” The Constitutional Court can only rule on the constitutionality of laws, not regulations. The Supreme Court only considers whether laws and regulations were properly adopted, not their constitutionality. This means there is no judicial venue to determine the constitutionality of a large number of regulations, including the jilbab rules. This is problematic because in Indonesia the real-world impact of laws is often found in implementing regulations, such as the jilbab regulations. Lindsey suggested that the Constitutional Court should reconsider its position in order to remedy this problem.[49] If the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court continue to allow discriminatory regulations to be implemented, the national government will only be able to address them through superseding national legislation that expressly prohibits discriminatory dress and other provisions.
The contradictory signals from the Jokowi administration highlight how the fight over women’s rights and autonomy is one of the most important and contested issues in Indonesia, having a major impact on the country’s social, economic, and political future. Devi Asmarani, publisher of Magdalene, an online women’s magazine in Jakarta, captured the broader public resonance of the jilbab issue: “No other women’s rights stories, from rapes to #MeToo rallies, from celebrities’ profiles to our long features, can compete with jilbab stories. All stories about the pros and cons of jilbab are widely read on our website, often with the highest readership.”[50] Requiring women and girls to wear a jilbab is part of a movement by conservative religious and political forces to reshape human rights protections in Indonesia. It undermines women’s right to be free “from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever” under Indonesia’s Constitution. Women are entitled to the same rights as men, including the right to wear what they choose. International human rights law guarantees the right to freely manifest one’s religious beliefs and the right to freedom of expression. Any limitations on these rights must be for a legitimate aim, applied in a non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory manner.