Friday, December 3, 2010

On Wearing a Headscarf

Muslim women in Indonesia are encouraged to wear headscarves, known here as jilbabs, out of a sense of modesty in lines with the Islamic faith. The wearing of such headscarves is optional in most parts of Indonesia, and from what I've observed on Sulawesi and Java, the rules surrounding the wearing of jilbabs are pretty lax. However, there is at least one part of Indonesia where Muslim women are required to wear headscarves - Banda Aceh. When Megan and I were invited to this conservative city to give a workshop on English Language Teaching, our co-workers in Yogyakarta and Manado strongly encouraged us to cover our heads as a sign of respect.

I had only worn a headscarf here in Indonesia on one other occasion, for a friend's wedding in Gorontalo last year, and that was a bit of a mistake. My intention was to try to look a bit more dressed up for her special day but I ended up attracting a lot of unnecessary attention to myself that I felt should have been given to the bride instead.

So, I didn't really have much experience when it came to wearing headscarves and had to ask around at the office to see if anyone had any I could borrow for the trip to Banda Aceh. Megan did some shopping in Manado as well and we compared notes in Jakarta. I was impressed...and intimidated... when Megan pulled a proper pull-over-the-head type jilbab out of her suitcase as well as matching arm covers! I displayed my borrowed collection of scarves as well as one of my own batik scarves I got in Yogya and admitted to Megan that I didn't have any idea how to wear it. Fortunately, Megan had learned how to properly drape a head scarf from one of her Muslim students in Chicago. For the rest of the trip, I happily let Megan do this for me!

On the day of our flight to Banda Aceh, we decided to put on our headscarves before we even got in the taxi. We did this because we wanted to be respectful right from the very start of our trip. Sharia law is strictly enforced in Banda Aceh and the Sharia police have been known to dole out 40 public lashings to Muslim women caught without proper headscarves or caught wearing too-tight clothing. These people don't mess around. We later found out from our host that it's not necessary at all for non-Muslim women to wear headscarves in Banda Aceh and people probably would not have thought twice about seeing two bules in line to check in for a flight to Banda Aceh without them. But we didn't know this then and I'm glad we didn't because I got to experience what it's like to wear a jilbab for a few days.

In recent years in America and Europe there has been a lot of public outcry about the wearing of headscarves. The headscarf is often seen as a symbol of the inferiority or invisibility of women or as a threat to Western ideals about the separation of religion and public life. It seems to me that a lot of this debate stems from Islamaphobia. Personally, I liked wearing a jilbab for a few days.

As a fashion accessory, the jilbab is pure genius. It makes any outfit look instantly dressier and more put together. In fact, Muslim women have a staggering number of headscarves in just about every Crayola color imaginable that they color-coordinate with their outfits. A sparkly pin or two to hold the scarf in place adds a little extra bling to the look as well. And in Indonesia, where humidity and lack of air-conditioning has forced me to wear my hair pulled back in a rather boring pony-tail most days, the jilbab is a welcomed answer to bad hair day issues. It's way more glamorous than a baseball cap.

Feeling well-dressed in my batik scarf from Yogya
More surprisingly, wearing a jilbab suddenly made me feel visible and accepted in a country where there's no getting around the fact that I'm a bule. For starters, people started addressing me as Ibu instead of Mrs, Miss, Ma'am or nothing at all. Airport porters rushed to assist me with my bags, gazing at me with awe. Random strangers told me how beautiful I looked (ok, granted I get a lot of this too without wearing a headscarf but now the compliment felt more genuine and respectful instead of creepy). And, best of all, the flight attendant on Garuda asked me, IN INDONESIAN,  if I wanted to eat nasi ayam (chicken with rice) or nasi ikan (fish with rice). What a victory - I was no longer the invisible or gawked at bule.

Two American tourists in Banda Aceh

Megan and I with our jilbab-wearing workshop participants

With a bit of reluctance, I packed my scarves away after I returned to Jakarta. The only annoying thing about wearing a headscarf is getting it to stay in place for an entire day. Mine kept slipping off, forcing me to ask Megan to readjust it or to re-drape it myself in a decidedly less elegant way. But I think Muslim women actually wear a sort of under jilbab cover that keeps the whole thing in place. I had also been concerned about how I would react to having my head covered in the heat of Indonesia but I found that I actually didn't mind. Just like wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day, wearing a headscarf also prevents sunburn!

There are a lot of practical reasons for wearing a headscarf and my little experiment helped me to see the headscarf as normal, rather than a marker of difference. However, I believe the wearing of headscarves, especially for Muslim women, should be optional and based on personal preference, as it is in most of Indonesia. 40 public lashings for not wearing one seems very harsh and unnecessary.


  1. Great post, Julianne! :-) I enjoyed it very much and can relate to your findings -

  2. You look GREAT in the "jilbab". ;) I know yours was a scarf but still! I tried on an actual jilbab once and looked like a chihuahua. ;)

  3. I'm a Muslim and the two of you indeed look beautiful in your hijabs, and I'm happy that you got an equally beautiful experience from it.

    As a side note, I must clarify that Islam does not specify any type of punishment for a Muslim who is guilty of not covering up, whether men or women. The 40 lashings for not wearing the headcover is neither in the Quran or in the Prophetic traditions known as Hadith.

    This punishment therefore is known as ta'zir - it is a type of ruling which is formulated based on the discretion of the relevant authority. As a matter of fact, most so-called religious rulings pertaining to crime are ta'zir.

    The Quran itself specifies the punishments for less than 7 types of crimes including murder, armed robbery and adultery.

    However, from what I've seen the way they are being administered in Aceh, these lashings are clearly meant NOT to hurt ( the lashings are pretty lame ) therefore they are meant actually to embarass the guilty party from committing the crime again. That is why these lashings are done in public.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Faris! That's really interesting about the lashes in Aceh being meant more to embarrass rather than physically hurt.