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INDONESIA: Schoolgirls ‘bullied’ into religious clothing, Report says

INDONESIA national motto is unity in diversity, but Wiwin’s experiences in school have made her question how that maxim plays out in real life.

The 21-year-old lives in West Java. Her family is part of a religious minority called Sunda Wiwitan, who venerate nature and ancestral worship.

She said she faced relentless pressure in high school to wear a “jilbab”, a loose garment worn by some Muslim women, which covers the head, neck and chest.

She told Al Jazeera she often cried after school.

“They [a group of seven teachers] questioned me in the headmaster’s office, asking, what is your religion … who is your God … where is your holy book?” Wiwin recounted.

“During religion lessons, my teacher would say, wear a hijab. I felt low self-esteem … during recess, my friends sometimes called me kafir [non-Muslim].”

She told Al Jazeera one of her teachers threatened to give her a fail grade if she did not wear a jilbab.

“My school was a public school. All religions should be able to go to school without being forced to wear a jilbab, it is our personal right,” she said.

“What is the use of [saying] ‘unity in diversity’, if teachers don’t understand?”

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on Thursday examined increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia and its schools and found women and girls face increasing pressure to adhere to religious dress codes in the Muslim-majority country, regardless of their faith.

Girls bullied

One of the authors of the report, Andreas Harsono, tells Al Jazeera young women of all faiths face harassment, bullying and threats of expulsion from teachers.

It’s a practice the report calls “jilbab bullying”.

“It is a breach of religious freedoms, freedom of expression, privacy, the best interests of the child. In education all over the world, bullying is a big no-no,” he said.

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Elementary school students wearing ‘jilbab’ in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. School uniform regulations were issued in 2014. State schools are now banned from imposing a religious dress code on students [File: Achmad Ibrahim/AP]

Harsono says forcing dress codes on women goes against the values of Indonesia.

“Indonesia is one of the world’s most diverse countries, we have hundreds of religions, languages and ethnic groups. Indonesia was always based on this principle of diversity,” he said.

“This is serious, this is going to leave a long-lasting impact on Indonesian women.”

The report details how regulations on school uniforms, issued in 2014, were interpreted by some schools and regions as mandating that girls should wear a jilbab – although those who wrote the regulation said they never actually wrote the word “mandatory”.

The research by HRW was carried out over seven years – and documented the experiences of women who have been pressured in schools or public offices because of these dress codes.

The researchers stressed that: “Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether wearing the hijab, jilbab, or niqab is desirable. We oppose government policies of both forced veiling, as well as blanket or disproportionate bans on wearing religious dress.”

In some instances, schoolchildren were publicly humiliated in the classroom as teachers cut up their uniforms with scissors and sent them home, for supposedly failing to comply with dress codes.

“Every time they saw me, they said… you have to think of your parents… don’t you feel sorry that they will suffer later in the afterlife?”

Others interviewed by the researchers said their teachers or superiors threatened to report them to the provincial authorities.

Some of the women interviewed by HRW said they experienced anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts as a result of the bullying.

UNICEF has also previously noted its concerns about the behaviour of teachers in Indonesian classrooms, describing how they often use physically and emotionally violent forms of punishment to discipline children.

Human Rights Watch found this pressure is not only experienced by religious minorities but by Muslim girls too.

Justisia, aged 17, told Al Jazeera she experienced daily pressure from her teachers because she was one of only two Muslim girls who chose not to wear a headscarf at her junior high school.

“Every time they saw me, they said … you have to think of your parents … Don’t you feel sorry that they will suffer later, in the afterlife?

“My teachers said I would make my parents unhappy and I felt guilty because of that.”

Defending dress codes

A school in the city of Padang, West Sumatra, sparked nationwide debate after administrators tried to force a Christian student to wear a hijab.

Her story went viral after her father posted it on social media – and the controversy prompted the Indonesian government to ban public schools from forcing religious attire on students.

When the ban was announced in February, Indonesia’s Religious Affairs minister said there was no reason to infringe upon the freedom of another person in the name of religious expression.

Teachers at the school in Padang denied forcing female students to follow religious dress codes.

“We ask the female students to wear a hijab, but it is up to the students if they take it or not,” religion teacher Arvini Yorianda said.

“We only tell them that it’s an obligation to wear the hijab in Islam.”

Muhammad Cholil Nafis, an executive of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), says teachers who try to pressure non-Muslim girls to wear a hijab or jilbab are misguided – but he disagrees with the government’s move to ban mandatory religious dress codes in public schools.

“We do have to force our children, like we force them to throw garbage in the correct place,” he said. “For students who don’t want to wear a hijab yet, that’s where education comes in.”

But human rights observers have warned that the ban itself is not enough and HRW has listed several recommendations for the government.

Among them, the report notes that the government should improve mechanisms for registering their grievances so children have better avenues to seek help.

It also recommends President Joko Widodo work on legislation to repeal existing local regulations that discriminate on the basis of gender.

While mostly Muslim, Indonesia has a hugely diverse population, including Christians, Hindus and people following animist beliefs. State schools were banned from enforcing religious dress codes on students after a parent said a school was forcing his daughter – a Christian – to wear a headscarf [File: Gusti Tanati/Antara Foto via Reuters]

It is unclear how the recommendations will be received, but Justisia hopes other schoolgirls will not face the same pressure she did.

She is now studying at another school and she says her new teachers are more open-minded.

A friend at her previous school told her she would eventually “see the light” and change her mind about wearing a hijab.

But Justisia remains convinced that wearing a hijab should be a choice – not an obligation.

“The light is different for all of us,” she said.

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