Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

To Cover the Aurat:
Veiling, Sexual Morality and Agency among the Muslim Minangkabau, Indonesia

Lyn Parker

  1. In this paper I explore the wearing of the Islamic jilbab (headscarf or veil) by Minangkabau women who live in the province of West Sumatra, Indonesia. My main interests are in the meanings of the jilbab for the wearers of the jilbab, and in how the subjectivity and agency of individual women and girls who wear, or do not wear, the jilbab, have effects upon and are entangled with larger discourses. These larger discourses include school regulations, government policies, Islamic teachings, the messages of mass media and other powerful, if less institutionalised, discourses, such as the authority of parents and community.
  2. On a theoretical level, I am attempting to exploit the possibilities of 'agency' as an analytical tool. I think that jilbab-wearing requires a more sophisticated analysis than the twin concepts of domination and resistance offer.[1] I seek to get beyond a view of agency as implying simply intention, for social practices such as jilbab-wearing are too complex for that, and to escape the constraining effect of the agency/structure dualism. Much of the literature on veil-wearing by Muslim women lies atop an epistemological division between freedom and constraint. I want to side-step this Western epistemological structure and to show, via a focus on women’s agency, the productive effect of jilbab-wearing for the women involved. This approach is redolent of Foucault's insistence that power is productive, but, unlike Foucault, my focus is on the actual individual subject–person and the ways that women 'produce' their own subjectivity via jilbab-wearing.[2]
  3. My research among the matrilineal and strongly Muslim Minangkabau is about adolescence and schooling, and this paper is a spin-off from that project. The writing of this paper was triggered by the content of public discourse in West Sumatra. In 2004, many schools in West Sumatra had recently made the Islamic veil or jilbab a compulsory item of school uniform for girls, and in some areas the jilbab was made compulsory for female public servants. While this is a controversial move in the global context, when I was doing fieldwork in Minangkabau in 2004 and 2007,[3] the move to make the jilbab compulsory as school uniform was not itself a subject of great moment. What was dominant was an earnest concern for the morals of young people, especially young women. There was a general moral panic about their dress, mobility and pergaulan, or socialising (see Figure 1) Wearing, not-wearing, and mis-wearing the jilbab was one element in that. This moral panic about young women in Minang seemed to be the focal point of a loss of morale intimately connected to a loss of morals. This sense of krisis moral (moral crisis) settled decisively upon the dress, appearance and socialising of young Minang women.

    Figure 1. Courting couples at the park. Lyn Parker photographer.

  4. My proposition is that, for the Minangkabau women who were the subjects of my research, the jilbab has to do with religious devotion, sexual morality and virtue, and thus both faith and gender relations. In this paper, I begin by talking about veiling and issues of agency, then I move to the ethnography, which is about the meanings of the jilbab for Minangkabau women. In the second half, I talk about the jilbab in the wider context of jilbab as compulsory school uniform and the public discourse about the moral crisis of the Minangkabau.
  5. There is now a considerable literature on the Islamic veil, mainly with respect to the Middle East. Much of the recent literature analyses the discursive effects of veil-wearing—the veil as symbol of an Islamic modernity, of nationalist resistance and of the place of women in Islam. The context is the global Islamic revival since about 1970, the heightened awareness of postcolonial identities and response to the apparent supremacy of American-style capitalism and materialism summed up in the term globalisation.[4] The striking feature is the diversity and complexity of the trend towards Islamic veiling. The veil has been proposed as a symbol of both resistance and submission to dominant discourses; the role of nation-states has varied tremendously, with some, such as Egypt, moving to curb Islamisation, while others, such as Iran, have imposed strict Islamic veiling. Women themselves, in situations of relative freedom, have often adopted the veil not so much because they had to but because it had become the normative socio-religious practice of their community.
  6. There has been surprisingly little scholarly work produced on veiling in Indonesia.[5] Much of the literature on veiling as a recent practice in Indonesia and Malaysia presents it as an expression of an Islamic modernity and a new subjectivity focused on Muslim identity. Brenner, for instance, speaking of Java, sees the growing trend for wearing Islamic clothing among younger women as simultaneously articulating membership of an international Islamic community, a new awareness of Islamic authority among a more educated generation of young women and a distancing from local historical traditions and customs. Brenner and Smith-Hefner report that the commitment to veil is the product of heightened awareness and piety, which is like a religious conversion, and this applies in West Sumatra too. Most striking to me, because of the parallels with Minangkabau young women, was Brenner's discussion of the self-discipline that accompanies the decision to adopt the veil, and Smith-Hefner's note that the adoption of the veil signals 'a great behavioural divide.'[6] Ong writes of the social effects of resurgent Islam in Malaysia, and argues that it has been facilitated into power by state policies. She writes particularly of young, middle-class women, and situates the new practice of veiling within a conjunction of local and international conditions: threats to traditional male authority posed by extended female education, employment and mobility; the international Islamic resurgence and its local interpretation; and state attempts to regain control over the domestic domain and capture Islamic legitimacy.
  7. Both Brenner and Ong discuss the issue of veiling as an issue of women's agency, as though to counter possible simplistic interpretations of the adoption of the veil as simply young women being brow-beaten by fervent men into wearing a potent symbol of Islam. Brenner draws upon Foucault to suggest that the discipline associated with veil-wearing is akin to that practised by Western women, with their regimes of dieting, fashion, make-up and, one might add these days, body sculpting. She argues persuasively that this disciplinary action provides women with 'a sense of self-mastery and identity in a time of great social flux'; she is concerned not to 'reduce veiling to an effect of totalising forms of power on individuals' because this 'elides both individual agency and the symbolic role of veiling in processes of self- and social production.'[7] According to Sangren, Foucault's theory of power divorces power from intention, and views individuals as the vehicles, rather than the agents, of power.[8] Deploying Sangren's critique, Brenner identifies women's decision to adopt the veil, and their subsequent disciplining and control of their lives, as a re-invention of themselves; in other words, a consideration of intention and individual agency enables us to see the 'self-productive aspect of veiling.'[9] I like this critical approach to Foucault and support the project of making our human research subjects the centre of our work.
  8. Ong frames her paper with a discussion of social agency derived from Strathern's important work.[10] Strathern suggests that we should look beyond the independent motivations of individuals and see the possibility that agency might lie in the enactment of communal or group interests.[11] Using this formulation, Ong aims to see 'how social effects are registered'.The largely absent subject and the emphasis on effects enabled her to conclude that the agency of women was 'shaped by the intersections of their own self-interests with group identity.'[12]
  9. While many of the findings of Brenner, Ong and Smith-Hefner pertain in Minangkabau, I want to engage with some of the issues of agency raised above and to argue for a rather different emphasis in the discourse surrounding veiling practice there. As a starting point, I follow Mahmood in suggesting that we abandon the idea that agency is 'a synonym for resistance to relations of domination,' not least because social practice is often multidirectional and it is not always clear what or who is being resisted.[13] Agentic action might not be subversive or resistant in intent. Action that might be dubbed resistance to, or subversion of, a dominant social force might simultaneously be experienced as exploitative by another social group.[14] I use an inclusive sense of agency, as a capacity for identity- and meaning-making, a capacity for pragmatic response, and, in some contexts, as the ability to act.[15] Agency can derive from many sources,[16] but usually is deployed using the cultural resources at hand—in this case, the authoritative Islamic discourses that advocate modesty of dress and the wearing of the jilbab. I agree with Mahmood that (Western and liberal) feminist interest in agency and resistance has been underpinned by a largely unexpressed preoccupation with individual freedom and autonomy,[17] and I have advocated elsewhere that we should first understand as natural the worldview and cultures within which our subjects of research are embedded.[18] My interpretation of agency does involve personal change: to exercise agency implies some transformation, 'conversion' or new principle, emotion or action, though not necessarily the autonomous, emancipatory action desired by Western, liberal feminists. I am also worried by some recent Foucaultian social research, which seems to me to place undue emphasis on discursive effects, because of the danger of losing sight of our human subjects. Nevertheless, I am also uneasy about sole reliance on what our informants say about, or what they say they intend by, their social practice. Intentions can be multiple, ambiguous and contradictory, and have different valencies; they are subject to change after the fact; and people sometimes act without conscious intent—for example somatic behaviours, emotion-based behaviours, behaviour based on the sub-conscious or dreams.[19]
  10. In a paper on 'parasite singles' (young people, especially young women, who do not get married and continue to live at home with their families) in Japan, Dales notes that we can read 'parasite singlehood' in many ways. In remaining at home with their parents, young women are exercising their agency by acting in self-interested and pragmatic response to the recent tight economic situation in Japan—they are not necessarily aiming to revolutionise gender relations, the institution of the family or the role of marriage in society. However, parasite singles have the potential to be transformative in effect:

      parasite singlehood need not aim for radical effect in order to have subversive impact. This subversion can be read as agency at the causal level—a stimulus or empowerment which promotes opposition to social expectations. It may also be read as agency by consequence—a form or degree of empowerment which results from opposition to social norms.[20]

  11. Dales is arguing that the scholar can 'read' agency differently from those who exercise agency. This double-barrelled approach to agency is what I will follow in this paper. However, I would add that it is imperative that scholars clearly distinguish what the subjects of research say they are doing from what we as social scientists conclude are the effects of that agency. As social researchers, our job is not to simply ventriloquise our subjects: we do have to stand outside and abstract patterns, trends and themes, and to critically appreciate our subjects. In this paper, I want to attend mainly to the individual agency of Minang women as they express it, and in the later part I will get on to how we might view the discursive effects of 'social agency' or 'agency by consequence.'
  12. The jilbab seems a simple signifier and seems to bear a binary code: to the casual observer, it is either worn or not worn. But I would argue that the opposite pertains: that the jilbab is a complex and highly emotive symbol. For instance, while the jilbab is generally perceived as a symbol of female devotion, modesty and virtue, it can also cover a multitude of sins. A non-jilbab-wearing university lecturer made the point that it is much easier to legislate a simple matter of jilbab-wearing (you are or you are not) than the much more needed measures of prayer, studying the Qur'an and good behaviour. What is the point, she said, of wearing the jilbab while practising corruption or other bad behaviour. The force of her comments was probably not lost on the jilbab-wearing head of department, who was huddled in the corner enjoying a not-so-secret cigarette.

    Jilbab-wearing as the expression of religious agency
  13. I conducted anthropological fieldwork for three months in both 2004 and 2007, using participant observation, in a Minangkabau hill town in the heartland of Minangkabau society. My main research subjects were teenagers aged 16–18 years; typical sites of observation and interaction were schools, cafés, parks, markets, stalls and shops, homes, events such as pop concerts and extra-curricula activities such as sport.[21] I also interacted with and interviewed parents, teachers and career guidance counsellors in schools, community leaders, including Islamic preachers and clan leaders, teenagers and young people both younger and older than my core group, and some young adults who had left school early and were working.[22]
  14. Schoolgirls and young women discussed the jilbab as the Islamic veil, not as part of Minang dress or identity. Many girls have to wear it to school, so for them the material question is whether or not to wear it in non-school everyday life. Above all, they stressed that the jilbab should be an expression of piety and devotion. A student who did not wear the jilbab outside school, but who attended a state academic school, where the jilbab was compulsory, explained,

      People who wear a jilbab should really have a strong grip on religion, they should follow Allah's commands, avoid His prohibitions, they should have a commitment to guarding the good name of religion and the good name of the jilbab that they wear. The jilbab is not just a symbol. Now we see lots of people wearing the jilbab but their behaviour is not fitting for someone who's wearing a jilbab. For instance, the clothing of someone who's wearing a jilbab should not show the form of the body.

  15. Many girls commented on how the jilbab has a disciplining function while one is wearing it: it helps girls remember to be well behaved. Because the jilbab restricts neck mobility and head movement, it constantly makes the wearer aware of her own body. Wearing the jilbab encourages girls to be good: to be more careful, more devout, more polite and respectful, less flirtatious.[23] It imposes its own discipline. Another girl in the same school, who also does not wear the jilbab outside school, said,

      First, it's a rule of our religion, and second, it really comes from our hearts. If we wear the jilbab, it's just a piece of cloth, but it's heavy. If we wear it...we change drastically. We have to be responsible for ourselves if we wear it. The jilbab—it's not just a symbol, it constrains us. The jilbab is not just on the outside, but in our hearts.

  16. However, the standard answer I received to my questions about the meaning of the jilbab and why girls did or did not wear it was that the jilbab covers the aurat (nakedness). An example of this common response was this one by a student at a top state academic school: 'The jilbab is something for covering the aurat so that females will not be too much seen by guys or anyone.'
  17. Aurat is an Arabic term. It is a complex word, and its meanings extend to genitals, modesty, hole and defect, among others.[24] A simple meaning that I was often provided with is that it refers to that area of the body that should be covered in public. Aurat is often translated as 'nakedness.' It is a word used in the Qur'an and in Islamic writings worldwide. In mosques and Islamic schools in West Sumatra, congregations are exhorted to 'Tutuplah auratmu!' (Cover your aurat!). Minang girls and others emphasise that the chief function of the jilbab is to enable women to obey this injunction. Therefore, older and younger Minang women alike consider that veiling has to do with seeing and being seen, with covering and being covered, and hence with sexuality and gender relations, sexual morality, propriety and public virtue.
  18. While the veil clearly has to do with covering the aurat, the exact limits of the aurat, the occasions on which and the company among whom it should be covered, and the strictness of the injunction to cover it, are all matters for debate in West Sumatra (and elsewhere). A female preacher, ustadzah, and a clan elder both taught me that in women the aurat extends from the top of the hair to the hands and feet (and includes the voice), and in men from the navel to the knees. However, some women quote sura to show that the Qur'an enjoins dressing modestly for both genders, that women should cover their breasts, and that the function of the jilbab in Mohammed's day was to distinguish believers from non-believers.
  19. The Western preoccupation with the jilbab has perhaps led to neglect of the fact that the jilbab is only one item of clothing in a whole wardrobe of busana Muslim, or Muslim clothing, which might include a long skirt and tunic, a long caftan-style dress, a long cape and hood, and even gloves. There are many different types of jilbab and different ways of folding, tying and fixing the jilbab.[25] Many school girls like to buy cheap brooches, pins and clasps with which to fix their jilbab; often these are decorative—some have inappropriate messages such as 'ALLURING GIRL'! The effect of the outfit should be that the female body shape is shrouded and the body and hair contained. Many people point out disapprovingly the contradiction when girls wear a jilbab on top and tight or hipster jeans below, showing the body shape, midriff, navel and lower back.[26]
  20. Many girls talk about the jilbab as a protection from the male gaze, from unwanted male advances and from sexual harassment. While it was generally admitted that females as well as males experienced sexual desire (hawa nafsu), girls also thought that girls were better than boys at controlling it. A devout scholar at a state Islamic boarding school explained,

      The jilbab is mainly for us girls, to protect us. In the Qur'an, Allah has given us a guarantee, that is, "Wear this jilbab, this clothing which covers your body to the chest, so that you will be recognized as Muslims and not harassed, so that you are valued by the opposite sex."[27]

  21. After more talk about how the jilbab protects girls from 'evil acts,' this girl spontaneously introduced the topic of the status of women and the emancipation of women in Islam, claiming that the jilbab shows the honour (kemuliaan) accorded women in Islam, contrasting the situation in the West with that in Islam: we Muslim women do not need to voice emancipation, we only need to wear the jilbab and we will not be harassed by the opposite sex.
  22. And indeed many boys said that they respected girls more if they wore the jilbab. Some young men like to think of having a girlfriend who wears a jilbab not only because her purity is more guaranteed but also because only they can have access to her hair and body. This makes their 'girlfriend capital' more valuable, and their status higher. All the schoolboys that I interviewed believed that a good wife would wear the jilbab, and hoped to marry such a woman. I asked one older boy about looking for a soulmate (jodoh). He said,

      I've already had three girlfriends. All my girls wore the jilbab. Because in religion, a girl who doesn't wear the jilbab, each hair on her head that can be seen by a male, that is a sin.

  23. Some girls in the most prestigious academic school had some interesting things to say about the inside/outside aspects of wearing the jilbab and the issue of the male gaze. As we have seen, the dominant view is that wearing the jilbab must come from the heart, that it is a matter of faith and devotion, and that outer behaviour should be consonant with inner submission to God. I asked one student, what is the difference between wearing and not wearing the jilbab? She said,

      If we wear the jilbab, we must wear it from inside and from outside, that is a must. As the Muslim community, it's not just a matter of wearing the jilbab, but our way of speaking will be looked at by others. Other people will pay attention to our speech, our behaviour ...

      Apart from covering the aurat, for sure the jilbab enhances other people's view of us. Usually if we as Muslim girls wear the jilbab, then if there is a guy bothering us, he will look at us, and then he will feel reluctant to bother us.

  24. Another girl at this top school, who does wear the jilbab out of school hours, showed some endearing ambivalence about boys' response to girls wearing the jilbab:

      If my friends and I ask male friends whether they prefer girls to wear jilbab or not, for sure they will say that they prefer girls to wear the jilbab because girls wearing the jilbab cover themselves, can protect themselves. It's more guaranteed if girls wear the jilbab! ... Many girls now wear the jilbab to lead guys on. That sort of behaviour is nonsense—wearing the jilbab, but their tops are really revealing.

      Actually it's pretty funny: I have a close friend. She doesn't wear the jilbab and every day guys are more inclined to bother her than me. If I weren't strong in my faith I would feel quite miffed because I in my jilbab don't have any guys bothering me! So I have to put a positive spin on this: it means that guys value jilbab-wearing girls more highly.

  25. This insight alerts us to the fact that wearers and non-wearers alike could be critical of the advantages offered by the jilbab. Some people were cynical about the way the jilbab may or may not 'guarantee purity'; some, like the lecturer prodding her jilbab-wearing, smoking, female boss, pointed out contradictions between clothing and behaviour; some people refused the idea that wearing the jilbab could create Islamic morality; and many noted its failure to guarantee protection from unwanted sexual advances.[28]
  26. The discourse that associates jilbab-wearing with protection from male lust was not just among schoolgirls. One mother, who is also, by my reckoning, a feminist politician and activist for more female participation in her local nagari, said that she wore the jilbab but her daughter did not:

      I actually wear Muslim clothes because they prevent people doing anything bad. By covering the aurat, we've avoided the opposite sex observing us intently. This looking is very strange and lustful...I do not agree with tight clothing because it just invites people to do wicked things to us and invites the gaze of others.

  27. One mother and school teacher described the same issue but put a more adat-based (custom-based) spin on it:

      I see them [girls wearing tight jeans and revealing clothes] in buses. In Minang adat, it's not appropriate for girls to wear things like that...we have the baju kurung (Malay tunic). Sometimes, with mini-skirts, the intention is to attract attention to what's underneath. Why? What's her intention?

  28. I chatted with one jilbab-wearing girl during a break in her karate class. She saw wearing the jilbab and learning karate as ways to repulse sexual attack. She mused, 'If a girl shows her aurat and then is raped, probably she herself has done wrong: why did she encourage male lust?' She said that doing karate meant that no-one could mock her or intimidate her. She did not want to be intimidated, and just the knowledge that she did karate meant that people would not mock her. It made her feel 'strong and powerful,' and 'confident.' She said even the teachers respect her.
  29. A girl at a state Islamic day school, Fatima, explained the jilbab as the cover for women's crowning glory, their hair. She emphasised modesty and protection, connecting the jilbab to avoidance of male sexual harassment or abuse:

      The jilbab allows me to avoid that which is not good, it protects me from looks from boys...and also possibly protects and shields me from sin.[29]

  30. I asked about that sin and she said she meant sin from rape.

      According to me, there are two sins involved in rape...If the girl has shown her aurat and is then attacked, possibly it is her own fault—why did she arouse male desire? But if the girl who is raped is a good woman, possibly the fault is the man's because he couldn't withstand his own desire. But if it keeps on, why didn't he just get married, why must he take out his lust (nafsu) on someone who has done no wrong? But if that girl were wearing really tight clothes, according to me, the fault is double: the girl wants to show her body so that the boy's desire will rise.

  31. This view of male sexual desire and marriage suggests that, in this context, rape is considered a matter of uncontrollable lust, which can be triggered by female display, rather than the exercise of male power. It sees marriage as the appropriate receptacle for uncontrollable lust. Such a view makes it difficult for some people to conceive of marital rape, and also sexual abuse and violence within marriage.
  32. Some other secondary comments by women who chose to wear the jilbab were about the feelings that wearing a jilbab engendered. 'I feel calmer walking in public' and 'If people look at you, it feels nice' were common expressions. One bright young woman at the top school said, 'Sometimes, when I'm wearing clothes like this [she indicated her top], I feel sensitive, like I will be looked at by people, so then I sometimes wear a jilbab.' Generally, women say the jilbab enhances their self-confidence in public, it makes them feel neat, calm and polite. The jilbab is also connected to beauty and fashion: it was quite common for girls to say that 'The jilbab makes us more beautiful.'[30]
  33. Finally in this section on the meaning of the jilbab, I want to mention girls who do not wear the jilbab. One spirited girl who sticks in my mind, whom I will call Susi, was a 16-year-old school drop-out, working as a 'sewing girl' (anak jahit) for a family clothes-making business. She boarded with five other 'sewing girls' in the family home, and worked with them six days a week. On Sundays, she roamed the town with her gang, a group of five boys. She was the only girl in the group; she did not call any of the boys a boyfriend. Not surprisingly, Susi did not wear the jilbab; she liked to wear her hair cropped short and to wear jeans and loose T-shirts. Susi's wild Sundays were atypical for Minang girls, who are encouraged to stay close to home and to associate with girls. Susi had grown up in a peripheral farming community some hours' drive from this town. After primary school, her parents had put her in an Islamic school. She said she always took off her jilbab after school, it was so hot, and her teachers would get angry with her. Susi admitted to having been stubborn and difficult at school, but she would have liked to have become a Qur'anic teacher. Her friends had mocked her, saying, if you can't even wear the jilbab, how can you become an Islamic teacher? She acknowledged that 'Actually, we have to (harus) wear the jilbab,' but again and again, she said she didn't want to wear the jilbab: she wanted to wear her hair short, and not to wear long skirts and loose dresses.[31]
  34. A student at a private vocational school, who does not wear a jilbab, said that it is hot and restricts movement, and would make it hard for her to find work in the tourism industry. She said she will wear it after she finds work. If she put it on now, it would be in vain. She said, 'I am just a teenager, still often lazy in my prayers. Why would I wear jilbab with behaviour like that?' Another girl, who did not finish school and now works in a shop in another town, does not wear the jilbab. This seems quite typical of young women working, although some girls working at sewing in small cottage factories said that their bosses encouraged them to wear the jilbab. She explains her non-jilbab-wearing by taking the moral high ground:

      If I could, I would wear the jilbab, but my religious practice is not yet steady. There are people who wear the jilbab with mini-skirts. It's better to get all that sorted out first. After that, then start wearing the jilbab, wearing clothes that aren't short and tight. That is playing around with religion…. My prayers still have lots of holes in them, but I do do the full fast. The jilbab is not just a hat. Schoolkids—actually it's compulsory now for them—but they're not ready yet, they often take it off after school. It would be better if schools didn't make it compulsory before girls were ready. What's the point of covering your head if your heart is not clean! Better to have a clean heart, then cover your head. Once we can be obedient, speak well, and wear the jilbab, then we're complete as Muslim women.

  35. Both of these girls used arguments of religion, as well as practicality, to argue their case for not wearing the jilbab. Other girls justified their non-wearing of the jilbab in purely secular terms—such as that it made them hot or uncomfortable—but it is notable that no young women cared to take on the authority of their seniors with regards to whether or not jilbab-wearing is obligatory (wajib) in Islam. On the other hand, some middle-aged women and university lecturers had the confidence to challenge on this point.
  36. The two non-jilbab-wearing girls quoted above put jilbab-wearing in a broader Islamic frame, establishing that wearing the jilbab is only one aspect of Islamic practice and devotion.[32] Prayers and fasting are the two practices most often mentioned. The girls raise an important point: that for young women who are working or attending state schools, there are rarely formal demands for devotional practice. Outside the fasting month of Ramadhan, there are few, if any, formal Islamic social or religious groups or established routines for religious practice. While girls in Islamic schools live lives that are utterly Islamic, girls at state schools and girls who work usually do not have weekend or night-time activities at the mosque, and there is no formal requirement or group activity for prayers other than family routine. Young people do sometimes have Sunday activities initiated by the mosque—sometimes purely social, sometimes a working-bee at the mosque or other community work—but these are usually pitched at junior teens. The older ones, such as those at senior high school level, do not usually have any social or religious group activities. The religious life of the urban Minang community is dominated by mature women: women dominate prayer groups, lectures, meetings and Qur'an study groups. The only exceptions to this pattern are that men attend the Friday mosque service, and that younger children of both sexes learn the Qur'an and Arabic in classes at local mosques.
  37. Thus it would seem that girls who choose not to wear the jilbab outside school feel considerable pressure to say that they intend to wear it one day, and indeed to nominate that time—usually marked by having a permanent job or when they will go to university or become a mother.
  38. Apart from girls in schools where the jilbab is compulsory school uniform, who wears the jilbab and when? In the town, most women wore the jilbab, or some version of head covering. I was quite often the only woman in public transport vehicles not wearing the jilbab; frequently at the bank I was the only woman with a bare head of hair; at callisthenics and arisan (savings group) activities, and at picnics for housewives, I was often the only woman not wearing a jilbab; when shopping in the market there are more unveiled women, but veiled women are still in the majority. However, jilbab-wearing is more common in towns than in rural areas. My senior informants, such as kin-group elders, adat leaders and Islamic preachers, were happy to point out that jilbab-wearing is effectively an invented tradition. The important items of women's traditional dress were the loose baju kurung (long-sleeved tunic) worn over a long skirt or sarong. They said that in the old days Minang women sometimes draped a diaphanous scarf, towel or other cloth over their heads when going out, but this was not the same as the Islamic jilbab. Some of my older informants noted that while a salendang (shawl)[33] had been a common item of attire for formal wear, it was not normally used to cover the head, though it could be used as head-cover if the occasion warranted, for example to go to the mosque.
  39. In West Sumatra, unlike Java, there is not a clear generational split. The Minang girls who wear a jilbab usually have mothers who wear a jilbab. The reverse does not apply across the board: many mothers are loathe to force their daughters to adopt the jilbab if it does not come from the heart. Unsurprisingly, mothers who sent their daughters to Islamic schools had usually introduced the practice at home early on, and many of these girls adopted the jilbab in Islamic junior high. Some grew up wearing the jilbab: young girls who wear the jilbab are constantly praised and told that they are pretty (cantik). There are now state primary schools that have made the jilbab compulsory school uniform, and one would expect that girls who have been habituated to wearing it will continue to do so.
  40. There is now a strong feeling in this town that to be a good mother, or ibu, a woman should adopt the jilbab. I know women who began wearing the jilbab once they knew they were pregnant; one middle-aged woman adopted the jilbab when she began applying for jobs once her children had grown up: she didn't like it, but felt that wearing a jilbab enhanced her job prospects. Some women feel the pressure to wear the jilbab because of the new rules in schools: they have to collect their children from school, and there are sometimes signs up saying things like, 'This is Islamic territory, it is expected that you will wear Muslim clothes.' Young women who had to collect their little sisters from school felt they should be wearing a jilbab to set a good example. Schoolgirls and teachers who attend schools where the jilbab is compulsory often mentioned that they would feel malu (embarrassed) if they were seen outside of school without their jilbab. Women, girls and boys mention wearing the jilbab as one of the characteristics of a good woman, a good wife, a good mother and a desirable future wife.
  41. There is considerable variation with regards to the jilbab in the workplace. Of course, schoolteachers in schools that have made the jilbab compulsory for students also have to wear the jilbab; public servants are allowed to and most do. In private business, it depends on the type of business and boss: one woman who owns a travel business in town wears the jilbab but does not require her staff to do so; hotel employees do not wear the jilbab; for women working in shops it usually depends on the boss; in the market it is largely a matter of choice; for young women working in telephone and internet exchanges, private banks and insurance companies, there is usually freedom to decide, though many girls think that wearing the jilbab is a disadvantage when job-hunting and say that they would not wear the jilbab at the beginning and only wear it once they felt secure and permanent. Some university students said that to get a good job, for instance in a bank, one had to wear short skirts. Only when one had been in a job for two or three years could one get away with wearing a jilbab. Young women of school age who work in the market, in the fields and in the home factories making clothes tend not to wear it. This diversity in jilbab-wearing thus has class inflections: middle class, professional and urban women tend to wear the jilbab, while lower class, farming and rural women tend not to.

    Agency by consequence: the jilbab in schools and in public discourse
  42. In this section I shift to a consideration of the discursive meanings and effects of the decisions to make the jilbab compulsory as part of girls' school uniform in many schools in West Sumatra. I explore how mass jilbab-wearing by young women at school expresses the social agency of those in power in schools and more generally in West Sumatra, and, more broadly, what it 'says' to the wider society, both within West Sumatra and in Indonesia.[34]
  43. The new senior school uniforms for girls generally consist of the jilbab, baju kurung and long skirt. Formerly, school girls wore the same uniform as school girls everywhere in Indonesia: white short-sleeved blouse and straight grey skirt to knee length. Schools have generally kept the basic colour scheme of the former uniform: that is, white above and grey below, with variant colour regimes on nominated days. One typical school requires grey and white on Mondays to Thursdays, white jilbab, lilac baju kurung and black skirt on Fridays and the ubiquitous brown of the Girl Guides' uniform on Saturdays. In West Sumatra, uniform codes for boys and girls are an important part of school rules. School rules in general are copious and detailed, and are often accompanied by a points system for infringements and a system of reporting to parents. The school dress rules are detailed and precise, for instance, stipulating that the baju kurung should come to five centimetres above the knee, and should not be tight or narrow. Compliance with the dress codes is almost universal.
  44. There are three main types of school in this town in West Sumatra: academic or general schools (SMA, Sekolah Menengah Atas), vocational schools (SMK, Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan) and Islamic schools. There are both private and state schools in each of these three groups; some Islamic schools are day schools (MA, Madrasah Aliyah) and some just out of town are private boarding schools (pesantren). With a couple of exceptions, private schools in this town are generally considered to be inferior to state schools. Generally, middle-class parents send their children to academic schools and expect that they will go on to higher education and obtain white collar jobs as professionals, public servants or in business. Vocational schools are seen as the destination of children from lower- and working-class families.[35] The 'choice' of Islamic school is sometimes the result of poor results in junior high school and sometimes reflects the religiosity of parents: it is not a clear class indicator, though generally teachers acknowledge that students who attend Islamic schools are of lower socio-economic status.
  45. SMA are the desirable schools, but they are not equally so: people see a clear hierarchy among them. The top or favrit schools have made the jilbab compulsory school uniform, but the lower quality academic schools have not. A university student described to me the different schools in town and said that one of the newer state academic schools used to be thought very poor (jelek): 'They used not to have jilbab compulsory and their uniforms were not neat (rapi) but now they are improving their reputation: they have made the jilbab compulsory and have good discipline.' Teachers and parents of the top schools emphasise that the jilbab is 'neat and proper' (rapi dan sopan), and see it as something that will enhance their already considerable prestige and reputation.[36] Girls from these schools have high ambitions for further study at the country's best universities, and precise career goals, which they are quite likely to achieve. Girls at the top schools usually attend a full schedule of private lessons in the afternoons and weekends, such that their lives are full of study. The private 'academic' senior high schools are quite different: their students have generally not achieved entry to the desirable schools because their marks from junior high were too low, and they have a reputation as delinquents and low-achievers. These schools have not made the shift to jilbab as uniform.
  46. Working and lower class families send their children to vocational schools, hoping that they will get jobs straight after school. With one exception—a large state vocational school that teaches mainly girls business and tourism studies—these schools have also not made the shift to the uniform jilbab. A teacher at the one vocational school which has adopted the jilbab, remarked,

      Before, clothing was a real problem in school. Then the jilbab was made compulsory as school uniform, and the long skirt. Now, clothing is not a problem. Five years ago, we had mini skirts, lots of preman (hoodlums)—trouble! Now, it's not a problem, everything is covered up.

  47. Some argue that the adoption of the jilbab as compulsory school uniform by these types of school would hinder the employment prospects of students. Students in both the private academic schools and the vocational schools usually have a lot more free time than students in the serious state academic schools, and they tend to have more freedom to roam the town, hanging out at the park or market.
  48. This different take-up of the jilbab as compulsory school uniform by the different types of school helps to render girls of different classes of different virtue. The high-achieving, middle-class girls who attend state academic schools and the girls who attend Islamic school both wear the jilbab. The girls in the Islamic schools share with the girls in the top academic schools a serious and studious commitment, a dense organisation of the everyday schedule, the containment of the female body in the jilbab and, to an extent, a general containment in physical space. By adopting the jilbab as school uniform, the top schools legitimise Islamic constructions of femininity and associate their students with other desirable 'feminine' characteristics such as being controlled, devout, chaste and disciplined. In contrast, the private academic schools and most of the vocational schools have lax discipline, with many students truanting, many 'empty' classes (where no teacher turns up) and with male students scattered around the coffee and cigarette stalls near the school, smoking; students are more likely to be seen in the streets and parks; students are not kept busy with schoolwork; vocational school students are sent on work experience for extended periods to offices, hotels, airlines, even away to Malaysia and Singapore; and they are not likely to be wearing the jilbab. All of these things conspire to affirm a popular symbolic connection between lax discipline, free socialising, lower class and questionable morality. Thus the lower class students and vocational schools are stigmatised by their failure to make the jilbab compulsory.
  49. Although the jilbab can be seen as a symbol that identifies shared Islamic-ness and common female gender, the differential take-up of the jilbab by the different types of school reinforced certain class-based discursive effects within West Sumatra: it enabled the association of high-achieving, young middle-class women with proper femininity and sexual morality, authorising their study and career ambitions and hence mobility, while lower-class young women were seen to embody a wilder, more dangerous femininity and questionable sexual morality, even as the absence of the jilbab supposedly enabled their vocational success.
  50. I turn now to a wider discursive space and audience: that of the Indonesian nation-state. After Independence was declared in 1945, the jilbab was not part of school uniform.[37] This uniform policy was based on the principle of religious diversity inscribed in the Constitution as part of the new nation's unification agenda. Indonesian schools were required to teach religion to students, and the first principle of the Pancasila, the state ideology, is a statement of belief in God. Then, in 1990/1, the government officially allowed the wearing of the jilbab in state schools for the first time.[38] Now, as I mentioned, some parts of Indonesia have made it compulsory in state schools.
  51. This dramatic turnaround in legislation about jilbab-wearing in schools reflects the Islamisation of political life and of Indonesian society generally in the half-century since Independence. The 1990 about-face reflects the particular strategic response of the Suharto regime to this movement. Raillon notes that the 'Pancasila State' (that is, Suharto's New Order) deemed jilbab-wearing 'backward'; a 1982 decree by the Director-General for Primary and Secondary Education made 'secular' uniform compulsory.[39] Marcoes states that during the late 1980s, 'in the eyes of the State the jilbab had now also become a symbol of defiance, mirroring Islam's classical pattern of resistance against the establishment.'[40]
  52. The 1991 ruling occurred in the context of a well-known move by the Suharto government to embrace Islam. This involved the establishment of the important new intellectuals' organisation, ICMI, a flow of new funds for mosque-building and Islamic schools, the establishment of an Islamic bank, and so on—an enhancing of the public profile and official acceptability of Islam in Indonesia which culminated in Suharto and his family going on a very well-publicised haj. Political observers saw this warming to Islam primarily as a strategic move by Suharto to balance the power of the Armed Forces and widen his popular base, to counter charges of corruption by association with religious figures and secondarily as a response to the new social forces of Islam.[41]
  53. Another significant development during the 1990s was the popularisation of the jilbab by the fashion industry. Glossy women's magazines from Jakarta began presenting glamorous versions of the jilbab as an essential element of Muslim fashion.[42] The jilbab and so-called Muslim clothing—busana Muslim—became internationally fashionable. At the same time, the Muslim publishing industry burgeoned: new magazines targeting women and teenage girls appeared, a couple of which concentrate on an haute couture of Muslim dress, and a huge number of Islamic books appeared in book stalls and book shops around the country. While many of my teenage respondents sharply criticised the expensive, glossy magazines such as Muslimah, they approved of the conservative, dakwah (missionising) magazine, Annida, and women and teenage girls alike were avid consumers of readily available, small paperback Islamic novels and books giving Islamic guidance on topics such as love, fashion and how to be a good wife.
  54. Most of my research participants publicly support or comply with the compulsory jilbab in schools, but some object in private. Most of those who object do so on religious grounds: that the commitment to take up the jilbab should be forever, and that to make the jilbab part of school uniform cheapens the religious value of the jilbab. Typical is the comment of one young market-seller:

      If we take off the jilbab it's the same as getting undressed in public. If we're going to be half-hearted about it, it's better not to have worn it in the first place. If we take off the jilbab later, our sin is greater than if we'd never worn it.

  55. School teachers say that non-Muslim students are not forced to wear the jilbab, but that in practice they all do because there are so few of them and they do not want to stand out. One male principal says it is not a problem: the jilbab is part of Minang clothing, not Islamic clothing, and is just part of the school uniform.
  56. However, this 'not-a-problem' attitude is not usually shared by non-Muslim parents. The potential of the new policy to ostracise religious minority groups was brought home to me in a discussion with a Chinese Catholic family with two children. The oldest child, a son, attended the top academic school in town. The parents thought that their daughter should not have to wear the Islamic jilbab and decided they would send her away to a private Christian school in Padang, where she would have to board, because of the new compulsory jilbab. They clearly do not see the jilbab as a statement of neatness or of Minangkabau-ness: they see it as a statement of Muslim identity—and therefore of exclusion.
  57. From an international and human rights perspective, making the jilbab compulsory for schoolgirls is a bold move. People in West Sumatra are very aware that France has legislated against allowing Muslim girls to wear the veil to school, though, interestingly, very few know that Singapore has done likewise. The French legislation was widely condemned by Minangkabau respondents, on the grounds that it was an infringement of human rights and religious freedom. However, none of the Muslim school teachers or students I spoke to saw the parallel between human rights and religious freedom in France and human rights and religious freedom in Indonesia. None of them pointed out that students in West Sumatra have the right not to wear the jilbab.
  58. The post-Suharto era, with its democratisation movement, decentralisation policies and moves towards regional autonomy, has seen several regions attempt to legislate a version of syariah (Islamic law).[43] The declaration of syariah in Aceh has been most obvious and arguably most effective in mandating jilbab-wearing and in prohibiting women from wearing tight and revealing clothes.[44] Although the province of West Sumatra has not declared syariah law, many new regulations concerning the clothing and mobility of women, have been enacted.[45]
  59. In many ways then, the move of West Sumatra schools to make the jilbab compulsory school uniform is part of the wider national (and international) movement known as Islamisation. But regional autonomy (otonomi daerah) is also a thriving discourse in post-Suharto West Sumatra, and in the declaration of the compulsory jilbab I think we can also see the articulation of concern about the place of the Minangkabau within an increasingly contested nation-state.
  60. The attempted moves of provincial and sub-provincial authorities to legislate jilbab-wearing in general, and the successful moves of school principals to enforce it within schools, cut the ground from under both the nation-state and parents, staking a claim for authority and moral righteousness. It is important to note that this is not the way women who choose to wear the jilbab outside of school see it, as I hope I have shown in the first half of this paper. However, the introduction of jilbab as compulsory school uniform combined with the dominance of Islam and regional autonomy as public discourse leave little room for young women to wear the jilbab to school and then not to wear the jilbab outside of school. Because the jilbab is not just a hat or scarf—because it has a 'heavy' religious meaning—the declaration of jilbab as school uniform takes away the agency of individual young women and makes clothing a matter for public judgment and decision-making.
  61. Principals and teachers in West Sumatra say that the decision to make the jilbab compulsory, along with other uniform changes, i.e. moving from blouses and knee-length skirts to the baju kurung and long skirt, was made by principals in consultation with staff as part of the move towards regional autonomy and the local push to 'return to the nagari' (traditional Minang village). They argue that the decision was made because the jilbab is part of traditional Minangkabau dress, not Islamic clothing, and that its adoption goes hand-in-hand with the revival of adat and the return to the surau (traditional Islamic prayer-house). We have seen that this is not how the schoolgirls present it—they talk about it in terms of Islam—but the principals' insistence should be heeded because it points to the two pillars that support Minang identity: their fervent Islamic religiosity and their distinctive adat.
  62. The feature of Minang adat that sets it apart from other ethnic identities is its matrilineal kinship system. Matriliny is the basis of Minangkabau adat. Matriliny seems to outsiders to set Minang social relations into an irreconcilable conflict with Islam. For instance, Minang inheritance practices for communal wealth are matrilineal, while Islamic practices for the inheritance of private wealth are patrilineal. Nevertheless, Minang people do not see them as contradictory, and they are always quoting one version or another of the aphorism, Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah: adat is based on Islamic law and Islamic law is based on the Qur'an. Adat and Islam are perceived to 'follow complementary paths' but together form 'an inseparable unity.'[46] There is an overarching ideal of harmony and integration of the two. Matriliny is the defining feature of Minang adat—women are the 'central pillar of the house.'[47] Young women are responsible for making a good marriage, for continuing the family line and ensuring descent-group prosperity, and, ultimately, for the continuation of the kinship system, which is the backbone of Minang adat, culture and society. For these reasons, the moral quality of young women in Minangkabau society is a matter of great public interest and the responsibility weighing on Minang teenage girls is quite heavy. One senior lineage elder explained,

      [T]eenage girls...who are called Puti Bungsu...are the baton to be passed on in the relay to build adat, to develop religion...[W]e Minangkabau yearn after our Puti Bungsu.

      In religion it is said that young women, that women are the pillar of the nation. When they are good, everything is good. When they are rotten, everything is rotten. So adolescent girls have a heavy responsibility for saving their people.

  63. The consternation about girls' morals is made more plausible by a good understanding of the high and responsible position of (young) women in Minang society and adat. Under the discourse of adat, young women must be protected. This helps us to understand as logical the declaration that the jilbab is part of adat. It also helps us to understand a certain defensive, 'fortress' mentality which the Minangkabau have adopted recently. Students and other participants in my research frequently and vehemently made declarations about the ways young people in Minang were being negatively influenced in this 'era globalisasi.' I collected hundreds of essays from students, and by far the most popular essay topic (of a choice of five) was 'The Problems Faced by Minang Young People.' The standard claims were that the morals of young people were 'lacking' (kurang) or 'rotten' (merosot), and that 'the cultural forms of foreign cultures—among them, free socialising (pergaulan bebas), tight clothing, narcotics and strong drink'—were 'cutting down' or corrupting the morals of the young.[48] Sometimes these claims were couched in terms of conflicts with the norms of Minangkabau adat and Islam, and sometimes as a betrayal of the high morality set out by the forefathers—the Minangkabau national heroes and pioneers such as former Vice President Hatta. Most students explicitly linked the decline in morals to the negative influence of the West and globalisation, and posited a causal link between lack of parental attention, the negative influence of Western media and inadequate religious commitment (keimaman) on the one hand and undesirable practices such as wearing tight clothing and showing one's aurat, free sex, drug abuse and criminal behaviour (such as rape) on the other. Students did not often discuss the jilbab in their essays, but almost all mentioned the issue of tight clothing and of 'showing the aurat.'[49] The solution was invariably to strengthen religious commitment and to build a moral fortress (benteng) against the negative incursions of the West through a revived adat, and for young women to choose the right path of modest dress, polite language and proper respect.
  64. There is an impressive list of Minangkabau 'big men' (tokoh) who have been leaders of national political, Islamic, literary and educational life. It is acknowledged nationally that a disproportionate number of Indonesia's political leaders, writers and intellectuals have come from West Sumatra. But in recent decades the high profile of the Minangkabau within the nation-state has declined, and there is concern in West Sumatra about the position and standing of the Minangkabau within the nation-state.[50] Student essays and local newspapers are thick with pride at 'being Minang' but this is mixed with agonisings over Minangkabau identity: what is it with the Minangkabau, where are we headed, what does it mean to be Minangkabau, and so on.[51]
  65. West Sumatra has been at the forefront of moves to re-institutionalise local adat and re-establish the local form of decentralised government. Indeed the Minangkabau are enthusiastically and nostalgically declaring and building re-invented nagari—the ancient paradigmatic form of ostensibly egalitarian local government—all over West Sumatra. The declaration of jilbab as school uniform is part of the same trend, and can be seen as an expression of new ethnic vigour. Coupled with this renewed ethnic pride now is a general disappointment with and loss of morale about the nation-state of Indonesia—about its international standing, its economic progress, its political leadership and integrity. This is not unique to West Sumatra.

  66. I proposed in the Introduction that 'agency' can be found to operate at different levels and with difference valencies. I argue that jilbab-wearing in West Sumatra is a social practice that evinces the individual and group agency of Minang women and girls, and simultaneously operates as 'agency by consequence' at a 'causal level' in society to produce various discursive effects.[52]
  67. Women and girls wear the jilbab as an outward expression of their individual, interior faith, devotion and submission to Islam. In this, jilbab-wearing advertises their new religious awareness and conversion to piety. Adopting the permanent jilbab is an expression of religious agency, through which they (re-)produce symbolic meaning and religious and social identity. This agency can be read as occurring at the level of individual subjectivity as well as group identity. In making the decision, women and girls are affected by the larger discourses swirling around them—of urgent exhortations to come to a new awareness of Islam, with associated 'Cover your aurat!' messages from the mosque and the elders; of fashion; of moral injunctions from schools, parents and neighbours and the demands of the job market. Sometimes their response is pragmatic (the jilbab helps or hinders in a job search) and sometimes it is triggered by a feeling of wanting to be thought well of in the community (they would feel malu or embarrassed if caught without a jilbab).
  68. We know that group identities are formed and articulated in opposition to other social groups. In central Java and Malaysia, as reported by Brenner, Smith-Hefner and Ong, the donning of the jilbab by devout Muslim women was in part a statement of a new, 'aware,' Islamic subjectivity and in part a statement of difference—especially difference from more 'synthetic' varieties of religion, with their accretions of adat, animism and Hindu–Buddhist traditions. The new jilbab marked a clear break from adat and local tradition and also an inter-generational difference. The widespread adoption of the jilbab in highland West Sumatra seems to have been rather different, partly because this is one of the more homogeneous areas of Indonesia, in terms of religion and ethnicity. I argue that if we look at the exegesis of the girls and women involved in my study, we see that there is no particular local ethnic, traditional or religious Other from which they feel the need to distinguish themselves. There is also no clear generational conflict.
  69. It seems to me that the widespread adoption of the jilbab in West Sumatra articulates a new, moral, female identity which has had the effect of accentuating male/female difference. This is particularly so in schools, where girls now appear nun-like, devout and neat, and boys tend to look Western, modern, 'out there,' 'cool,' secular and scruffy by contrast (see Figure 2).

    Figure 2. Class photo at a state senior Islamic high school. Lyn Parker photographer.

  70. The emphasis on wearing the jilbab in order to cover the aurat and protect oneself from the male gaze, from sexual harassment and even attack, is a discourse that effectively creates a superior female moral identity in opposition to a morally suspect Other. In many instances, this Other is explicitly identified as a predatory opposite sex; sometimes this Other is an unidentified moral disorder characterised by free socialising, lecherous 'looking,' sexual harassment and sexual practices such as kissing and embracing right through to sexual promiscuity or 'free seks,' often associated with the West. In both of these, the jilbab enables girls to exert agency: by wearing the jilbab, girls create social and moral order, insisting on their own virtue through invisibility and inaccessibility to boys. The jilbab enables them to operate in the potentially morally suspect world with moral rectitude and respectability. By wearing the jilbab, girls are drawing a line in the sand, and saying to boys, No further. In this sense, 'saying no' to sex is a source of power for girls, and they get strong support for their stand from other members of the community. A senior adat and descent-group leader, former headmistress and member of parliament said,

      By all means, we encourage our young women to go on to higher education. We can let them loose, provided there is already a store of faith in their hearts. But there are two conditions: in mixing with others, they are not to cheapen themselves, and secondly, they are not to show their aurat to anyone.

    Thus the jilbab operates as a moral force-field for women. This subject-centred view of jilbab-wearing demonstrates that jilbab-wearing enables girls' and women's agency, albeit in a context of perceived male predation.

  71. In this context, it is tempting to go a bit further than agency and to treat jilbab-wearing as a symbol of female resistance to male power. This move assumes that resistance is a sub-set of agency and connotes directed opposition, that is, holding girls' virginity fast against sexual predation.[53] It seems that through jilbab-wearing, young women are insisting that they can still get an education, be physically and socially mobile and successful in the public sphere.
  72. However, this discourse in which jilbab-wearing is 'saying no' to sex works two ways: those girls and women who want to decorate or display their bodies in ways that jilbab-wearing does not encourage, or who desire sexual freedom—to attract the sexual interest of boys and men, to have pre- or extra-marital relationships or to engage in any of a wide range of behaviours that are not tolerated in this puritan milieu—find that the ubiquity and popularity of the jilbab makes such self-expression untenable and illegitimate. This is an instance of the agency of some simultaneously disabling the agency of others.
  73. The shift from the level of individual religious subjectivity to the public sphere of compulsory school uniforms and state regulation of women's dress reveals multiple discursive effects and the social agency of those in power. Prescribing women's appearance is an attempt to define the idea of woman—to identify and symbolically sequester the 'good woman' from morally suspect women, and to identify women in general with morality and 'tradition.' This burdening of the feminine with 'tradition,' with the local and the moral is quite common worldwide and was very noticeable in the clothing conventions within the New Order Indonesian nation-state.[54] It often allows men to operate in the wider world of the public sphere, the nation, and the global, wearing their western-style dress and leaving their women behind in the safe moral order of the family and local community. It would seem, though, that the jilbab in Minang does the opposite: it symbolically allows women to operate in the wider world while maintaining respectability.
  74. It is also possible to see two other discursive effects in the increasingly compulsory jilbab of West Sumatra. One is an attempt to hold the Islamic line in a battlefield of sexual morality against the incursions of the West through globalisation. The concern with young women's dress, socialising and sexuality was explicitly linked by many research participants to influences such as the (Western) mass media, but only rarely was this directly linked to the wearing of the jilbab. This is a more muted and diffuse discourse of the jilbab, and of course Muslim dress has become Islam's own globalised fashion. In this sense, the jilbab symbolises perhaps the resistance of Islam to the West.
  75. Finally, the discursive effect of the schools' declaration of the jilbab as uniform and other attempts at legislation that move towards the declaration of syariah, is not so much direct opposition to the nation-state as a staking out of ethnic territory and identity, fortified with Islamic morality. In this, women's bodies are deployed by senior men and women capitalising on a social movement to enhance their own sphere of influence—whether it be the reputation of the school under their command, the adolescent girls in their clan or the image of the province. This discursive effect is an example of 'agency by consequence.'[55]
  76. The simple act of donning a square metre or two of cotton is a 'heavy' and multivalent act for women of Minangkabau. The devout wearers of the jilbab earnestly explain its value as an expression of Islamic devotion and commitment, and its function in covering the aurat. Through wearing the jilbab, Minang women exercise religious, sexual and gender agency. However, the very ubiquity of this practice has also had rather darker discursive effects, symbolically disabling those women who would prefer not to wear it, and providing some in positions of power an opportunity to wield their power. The contestations surrounding the adoption of the jilbab indeed reveal 'symptoms of complex social and cultural difficulties.'[56]


    Because future research may be jeopardised and relationships for people interviewed may be made difficult, all interview details remain confidential.

    [1] For a critique of Scott's work on domination and resistance, see Lyn Parker, 'Resisting resistance and finding agency: women and medicalized birth in Bali,' in The Agency of Women in Asia ed. Lyn Parker, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005, pp. 62–97.

    [2] See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, trans. Kate Soper, Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1980; and Michel Foucault, 'Afterword: subject and power,' in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd edition, Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 208–16. For a critique of Foucault's approach see Parker, 'Resisting resistance,' pp. 70–76.

    [3] The phrase 'in Minangkabau' borrows from the way Indonesians talk—i.e. Minangkabau is both a place inhabited predominantly by members of the Minangkabau ethnic group, and the group itself. 'Minang' is a common abbreviation.

    [4] A useful introduction to some of the postcolonial issues surrounding veiling are the six papers collected in Part 5 of Reina Lewis and Sara Mills (eds), Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003, pp. 489–609; see also Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; and Billie Melman, 'Transparent veils: Western women dis-Orient the East,' in The Geography of Identity, ed. Patricia Yaeger, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 433–65. See also, for Egypt, Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005; for Malaysia, Judith Nagata, 'Modern Malay women and the message of the "veil",' in 'Male' and 'Female' in Developing Southeast Asia, ed. Wazir Jahan Karim, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1995, pp. 101–20; Sylva Frisk, Submitting to God: Women's Islamization in Urban Malaysia, Goteborg University, Department of Social Anthropology, 2004; and Aihwa Ong, 'State versus Islam: Malay families, women's bodies, and the body politic in Malaysia,' in American Ethnologist, vol. 17, no. 2 (1990):258–76.

    [5] The work includes Nancy J. Smith-Hefner, 'Javanese women and the veil in post-Soeharto Indonesia,' in The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 66, no. 2 (May 2007):389–420; Johan Lindquist, 'Veils and ecstasy: negotiating shame in the Indonesian borderlands,' in Ethnos, vol. 69, no. 4 (December 2004):487–508; and Suzanne Brenner, 'Reconstructing self and society: Javanese Muslim women and "the veil,"' in American Ethnologist, vol. 23, no. 4 (1996):673–97.

    [6] Brenner, 'Reconstructing self,' pp. 686–90; Smith-Hefner, 'Javanese women,' p. 399.

    [7] Brenner, 'Reconstructing self,' p. 689.

    [8] P. Steven Sangren, '"Power" against ideology: A critique of Foucaultian usage,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 10, no. 1 (1995):3–40.

    [9] Brenner, 'Reconstructing self,' p. 689.

    [10] Marilyn Strathern (ed.), Dealing With Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    [11] Strathern, Dealing With Inequality, p. 23.

    [12] Ong, 'State versus Islam,' p. 272.

    [13]Saba Mahmood, 'Feminist theory, embodiment, and the docile agent: some reflections on the Egyptian Islamic revival,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 16, no. 2 (2001):202–36, p. 205.

    [14] See an example of this in Tomoko Nakamatsu, 'Complex power and diverse responses: transnational marriage migration and women's agency,' in Agency of Women, ed. Parker, pp. 158–81.

    [15] Parker, 'Resisting resistance,' p. 65. I would argue that action is not always possible or desirable, depending on the social morés at work. See Lyn Parker, 'Conclusion,' in Agency of Women, ed. Parker, pp. 217–29, especially pp. 224–25.

    [16] Parker, 'Conclusion,' pp. 219–24.

    [17] Mahmood, Politics of Piety, pp.10–17.

    [18] Parker, 'Resisting resistance.'

    [19] See Sherry B. Ortner, 'Specifying agency: the Comaroffs and their critics,' in Interventions, vol. 3, no. 1 (2001):76–84.

    [20] Laura Dales, 'Lifestyles of the rich and single: reading agency in the "parasite single,"' in Agency of Women, ed. Parker, pp. 133–57, p. 148.

    [21] I made field notes daily and conducted well over one hundred interviews with adolescents, in Indonesian, which were recorded and transcribed, often with comments on laughing, smiling, etc. All translations from Indonesian to English are my own.

    [22] I employed a research assistant, a local university student in her early twenties, to help with interviews and transcriptions, though we conducted interviews separately. She wore a jilbab. I did not, except when going to a mosque or sometimes a pesantren, an Islamic boarding school.

    [23] Comments made by my informants in this regard are very similar to those reported in Smith-Hefner, 'Javanese women,' and Brenner, 'Reconstructing self.'

    [24] Ahmed, who surveyed women and gender in Islamic societies generally, notes:

      The word 'awra is one of those words whose complicated layered meanings and range of possible referents are richly suggestive of the androcentrism of dominant Arabic culture and of the connections it made between women, sexuality, and shameful and defective things. Its meanings include blind in one eye; blemished, defective; the genital area; generally parts of the body that are shameful and must be concealed; women's bodies; women's voices; and women.

    Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam. Historical Roots of a Modern Debate New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, p. 116.

    [25] These include knitted or crocheted head-hugging caps, which are sometimes worn around the house but can also be stylish statements of rebellion; gaily-coloured, short head scarfs that can be taken as either a token jilbab or a statement of rebellion; simple, plain white cotton cloths; extremely expensive, highly coloured silks that make a fashion statement; jilbab that have beautifully embroidered edges, lace or motifs. There is no doubt that busana Muslim is fashionable; the fashion is supported by a large textile and clothing industry (production, marketing and distribution) in West Sumatra.

    [26] See the photos in Smith-Hefner, 'Javanese women,' pp. 410–11.

    [27] She went on,

      We are indeed valued by the opposite gender—especially the girls who escape from evil acts, the girls who wear the jilbab, especially a jilbab which is perfect, loose, which doesn't show the hollows of the body. That is the majority, now, girls who don't want to be pestered by wicked people. Besides that, the jilbab shows the honour accorded to women in Islam.

    [28] See Lindquist, 'Veils and ecstasy,' p. 496, for other examples of cynicism or doubt about the 'purity' offered by the veil.

    [29] Fatima began with the orthodox Islamic line,

      According to me, the jilbab covers the hair which is the crown of women, it covers my crown, my crowning ornament, which is not to be shown to anybody, no matter who. Because that is women's ornament. According to Islam the hair is woman's crowning glory. Why would that be shown to other people? It is something which is private property. Why would a woman want to show off her ornament to someone else?

    [30] Not surprisingly, quite a few people mentioned how hot the jilbab is, and some clearly enjoy the jilbab because it makes them feel more 'feminine.' A student who does not wear a jilbab said,

      Actually the jilbab is nice, yeah, but it doesn't suit my face. If I wear the jilbab, it never stays put and looks neat, it's always in a mess and I feel troubled wearing it.

    Another girl mentioned that she has fat cheeks and she doesn't wear the jilbab because it does not suit her.

    [31] While a couple of neighbours referred to Susi as a tomboi, she herself did not use the term, though I did not ask her directly if she self-identified with this term. See Evelyn Blackwood, 'Tombois in West Sumatra: constructing masculinity and erotic desire,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 4 (November 1998):491–521.

    [32] I am grateful to Sylva Frisk for her question about this issue, which prompted me to return to my field notes to seek evidence of young women's Islamic practice.

    [33] This is the Minang version of the Indonesian word, selendang.

    [34] I was not privy to the discussions or decision-making processes that culminated in these new school rules, though I did ask teachers and principals why and how the decisions were made. My focus here is on the effects of the new rules.

    [35] I distinguish 'class' here mainly on the basis of parents' occupations, with middle class parents mainly working as 'white collar' professionals, public servants and the more successful businesspeople; working class parents are those who worked as farmers, lower-end traders and sellers (e.g. pushing an ice-cream cart, selling from a stall), 'blue-collar' tradespeople such as mechanics and 'sewing girls.'

    [36] See the illustration in Eve Warburton, 'No Longer a Choice,' in Inside Indonesia, vol. 89 (April–June 2007):13.

    [37] I have not found any reference to government decrees about the jilbab as uniform from these early days of Independence. Claims that the jilbab was banned in schools come much later, in the 1970s and after, when students began testing the waters, for instance, by trying to sit exams wearing their jilbab. See below.

    [38] There is some confusion as to the actual date of the decision. Smith-Hefner, 'Javanese women,' p. 397, n. 8, reports that the decision (SK No.100/C/Kep/D/1991) was issued by the Department of Education and Culture on 16 February 1991. The Straits Times reported in January that the Ministry's decision was taken after a meeting between officials from the Ministry and representatives of MUI, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (Islamic elders). 'Girls give thanks for nod to wear Islamic headdress,' The Straits Times, January 22 1991. Hefner notes, 'In 1990, after months of stormy protest, the government finally allowed Muslim school girls to wear jilbab (religious veils) to classes.' Robert W. Hefner, 'Islam, state and civil society: ICMI and the struggle for the Indonesian middle class,' in Indonesia vol. 56 (1993):1–35, p. 32.

    [39] François Raillon, 'The New Order and Islam, or the imbroglio of faith and politics,' in Indonesia 57 (1993):197–217 [original in Archipel 30 (1985):229–61 in French], pp. 205–06.

    [40] Lies Marcoes-Natsir, 'Symbol of defiance or symbol of loyalty?' in Qantara de Indonesia, 2004, online:, site accessed 10 August 2005.

    [41] See Adam Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s, St. Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1994, Chapter 7; see also Greg Barton, 'The prospects for Islam,' in Indonesia Today: Challenges of History, ed. Grayson Lloyd and Shannon Smith, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2001, pp. 244–55 and Robert W. Hefner, 'Islamization and democratization in Indonesia,' in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997, pp. 75–127.

    [42] Suharto's daughter, Tutut, developed a stylish way of wearing the jilbab, which 'gripped the nation.' Marcoes-Natsir, 'Symbol of defiance.'

    [43] On syariah in post–Suharto Indonesia see, among others, M.B. Hooker and Tim Lindsey, 'Public faces of syarī'ah in contemporary Indonesia: towards a national Mażhab?' in Australian Journal of Asian Law, vol. 4, no. 3 (2002):259–94; and Martin van Bruinessen, 'Genealogies of Islamic radicalism in post–Suharto Indonesia,' in South East Asia Research vol. 10, no. 2 (2002):117–54.

    [44] The main target of the so-called 'syariah police' has been women wearing un-Islamic clothing. Unmarried couples, caught dating in secluded places late on a Saturday night, and single women suspected of prostitution have also been targeted. Others who have been punished are gambling men, who were publicly caned. Nani Afrida, 'Aceh shariah police target unmarried couples,' in Jakarta Post, 25 July 2005. See also Andreas Harsono, 'Beyond the jilbab,' in Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 2004, online:, site accessed 13 July 2005.

    [45] Margot Cohen, 'Get thee home,' in Far Eastern Economic Review, vol. 164, no. 30 (2 August 2001):56–57; Edriana Noerdin, 'Customary institutions, syariah law and the marginalisation of Indonesian women,' in Women in Indonesia: Gender, Equity and Development, ed. Kathryn Robinson and Sharon Bessell, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002, pp. 179–86. In 2005 the Jakarta Post reported a by–law enacted by the West Sumatra administration that imposed a curfew on women that prohibits them from going out between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am. Diani, Hera, 'Revival of draft Islamic code sought,' in Jakarta Post, 8 March 2005, accessed via Factiva, 10 August 2005. See also Virginia Hooker and Yasrul Huda, 'Starting early,' in Inside Indonesia, vol. 90, (Oct–Dec 2007), online:, site accessed 30 October 2007.

    [46] Taufik Abdullah, Schools and Politics: The Kaum Muda Movement in West Sumatra, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Modern Indonesia Project, 1971, p. 5.

    [47] J. Van Reenen, Central Pillars of the House. Sisters, Wives and Mothers in a Rural Community in Minangkabau, West Sumatra, Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1996.

    [48] The quotations in this sentence and later are from one unexceptional essay by a student in the penultimate year of a top state academic school.

    [49] A typical paragraph is:

    Formerly, young people in Minang wore dress called the baju kurung. This clothing was in accord with our norms because it covered the aurat. Nowadays, it is very rare to find young women who wear the baju kurung or at least Muslim clothing for covering the aurat. For them, "it is not the time for wearing loose clothes." In fact, we hear and see that tight clothing, among other things, gives rise to criminal behaviour such as abductions and rape.

    [50] See Audrey Kahin, Rebellion to Integration: West Sumatra and the Indonesian Polity 1926–1998, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.

    [51] A few quotations (translated) from one weekend's edition of the local newspaper, Singgalang, give the idea:

      1. Accusing in a Cultural Event [headline of Editorial about the upcoming launch of a book about Minang identity]

      If we ask, "Is there still such a thing as Minangkabau?" many people will be offended...because for them, as Minang, Minangkabau-ness is an ethnicity that has national influence. We are famous for the strength of our adat and religion. We are unique because of our matrilineal descent...Yet, if we look at society, many aspects of Minangkabau identity have disappeared. Look at the function of the mamak [the mother's brother], the function of inherited wealth, the role of mothers. There is much that has shifted... (Saturday 9 October 2004, p. 10).

      2. Minangkabau ... What is it with us? [headline]

      We are very proud to be Minangkabau. Why not, because each Minang is "fortressed" (dibentengi) by two fundamental principals, i.e. adat and Islam [the proverb quoted above].... Our brothers [saudara-saudara] in other ethnic groups in this archipelago of ours do not have this double fundamental base (Sunday 10 October 2004, p. 11).

      3. A large photo of school boys in uniform sitting at a stall was captioned,

      Since olden days, at the centre of Minangkabau society has been the culture of "mejeng" and hanging-out (nongkrong) at coffee-shops (kedai). This is the reason that a culture of democracy and egalitarianism has flowered. Here, the role of the coffee-shop has begun to be left behind. Their position has been taken by drink carts which jam the public spaces, which just goes to show the trend towards individualism (Sunday 10 October 2004, p. 2).

      4. Confusion Embracing Minangkabau [headline]

      Minangkabau society really is in a state of confusion: there is an atmosphere of confusion about values and confusion about institutions.... (Sunday 10 October 2004, p. 3).

    [52] Dales, 'Lifestyles of the rich and single,' p. 148.

    [53] This hierarchy is argued for in Parker, 'Resisting resistance.'

    [54] For example, see Lyn Parker, From Subjects to Citizens: Balinese Villagers in the Indonesian Nation-State, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2003, pp. 231–33.

    [55] Dales, 'Lifestyles of the rich and single,' p. 148.

    [56] Harry Judge, 'The Muslim headscarf and French schools,' in American Journal of Education, vol. 111, no. 1 (November 2004), online:, ccessed 13 March 2008.


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