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HRW: Indonesian Women Speak Out on Dress Codes

Most of Indonesia’s provinces and dozens of cities and regencies impose discriminatory and abusive dress codes on women and girls, Human Rights Watch said on 21 July. The harmful impact of these regulations is evident in the personal accounts of Indonesian women – as schoolgirls, teachers, doctors, and the like.

A file photo of Indonesian flag. (Source: Mr.TinDC (CC BY-ND 2.0))

The Indonesian Home Affairs Ministry, which supervises local governments, should invalidate those local decrees, more than 60 of which are in effect across the country. The central government, however, has no legal authority to revoke local laws, such as the 2004 dress code in Aceh province that was inspired by Sharia, or Islamic law. But government rules nonetheless authorize the Home Affairs Ministry to nullify local executive orders that contradict national laws and the constitution.

“President Joko Widodo should immediately overturn discriminatory, rights-abusing provincial and local decrees that violate the rights of women and girls,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These decrees do real harm and as a practical matter will only be ended by central government action.”

Local authorities have issued discriminatory decrees as executive orders, starting in 2001 in three regencies, Indramayu and Tasikmalaya in West Java province, and Tanah Datar in West Sumatra. Such restrictive local regulations have appeared and spread rapidly over the last two decades, compelling millions of girls and women in Indonesia to start wearing the jilbab, or hijab, the female headdress covering the hair, neck, and chest. It is usually required in combination with a long skirt and a long sleeve shirt.

The officials who issued the decrees contend the jilbab is mandatory for Muslim women to cover intimate parts of the body, which officials deem to include the hair, arms, and legs, but sometimes also the woman’s body shape. Women and girls face social pressure and threats of possible sanctions unless they comply with the regulations.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 women who have experienced abuse and often long-term consequences for refusing to wear the jilbab. Human Rights Watch collected the text of the regulations and included them as an annex to a 2021 report. South Sulawesi province authorities adopted the latest decree in August 2021.

The 2021 report documented widespread bullying of girls and women to force them to wear the jilbab, as well as the deep psychological distress the bullying can cause. In at least 24 of the country’s 34 provinces, girls who did not comply were forced to leave school or withdrew under pressure, while some female civil servants, including teachers, doctors, school principals, and university lecturers, lost their jobs or felt compelled to resign.

Bullying and intimidation to wear the jilbab also takes place on social media. In two cases, Human Rights Watch documented threats of violence conveyed via Facebook. Human Rights Watch interviews revealed that intimidating and threatening messages have also been sent on messaging apps, such as WhatsApp.

Zubaidah Djohar, a poet, and an alumna of an Islamic boarding school in Padang Panjang, West Sumatra, received death threats that promised “hacking” and “poisoning” after having a theological argument about the jilbab with Gusrizal Gazahar, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council in West Sumatra, on February 28, 2021. Her colleague Deni Rahayu also received death threats, mostly from members of a Facebook group of school alumni. Both reported the threats to the police, but there is no indication police meaningfully investigated the complaints.

They also reported the threats to Facebook but received no response. Human Rights Watch sent extensive documentation of the abusive online behavior to Facebook in April 2021. Facebook responded in August 2021, saying that it “reported the speech to one of [its] escalation channels,” but provided no information on the outcome. In April 2022, after multiple requests for updates, a Facebook staff member based in Singapore offered to meet Djohar during a vacation in Jakarta, which Djohar declined. Facebook has not said what it was doing about the abuse.

Nearly 150,000 schools in Indonesia’s 24 Muslim-majority provinces currently enforce mandatory jilbab rules, based on both local and national regulations. In some conservative Muslim areas such as Aceh and West Sumatra, even non-Muslim girls have also been forced to wear the jilbab.

In 2012 and 2014, Pramuka, the national scout movement that schoolchildren are required to join, and the Education and Culture Ministry, issued dress codes requiring jilbabs for “Muslim girls” from grade 1 through 12, in apparent contradiction of the 1991 ministerial regulation that allows schools to let female students to choose their “special attributes.” The Pramuka and Education Ministry nationwide regulations strengthen and reinforce the local decrees. Schools usually require students to wear the Pramuka uniform once a week.

In February 2021, Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, and two other ministers, amended the 2014 regulation to specify that schoolgirls are free to choose whether to wear the jilbab. Makarim said the regulation was being used to bully schoolgirls and teachers. But in May 2021, the Supreme Court struck down that amendment to the regulation, effectively ruling that girls under age 18 have no right to choose their own clothes. The ruling ended government efforts to give Muslim girls and teachers the freedom to choose what they wear.

More than 800 public figures signed a petition that condemned the decision and asked the Judiciary Commission to review it, saying the regulation was unconstitutional and discriminatory. In June 2021, the Judiciary Commission rejected the petition on a technicality.

International human rights law guarantees the rights to freely manifest one’s religious beliefs, to freedom of expression, and to education without discrimination. Women and girls are entitled to the same rights as men and boys, including to wear what they choose. Any limitations on these rights must be for a legitimate aim and applied in a non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner.

These protections are included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against WomenIndonesia has ratified each of these international treaties. Mandatory jilbab rules also undermine the right of girls and women to be free “from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever” under article 28(i) of Indonesia’s Constitution.

In 2006, Asma Jahangir, the late United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that the “use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion” indicates “legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights laws.”

“The Indonesian government should take urgent action to end the bullying, intimidation, and violence against ordinary Indonesians who dare to discuss the jilbab issue publicly and raise concerns that these local regulations violate rights,” Pearson said. “The government should investigate every incident and hold those responsible accountable so that every woman and girl in Indonesia feels comfortable to dress the way they want without fearing retaliation.”


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