Hijab fervour in Indonesia

In a two-part investigation, InsightAsia's Maya Notodisurjo takes a look at the custom, trends and fashions of wearing the hijab. Here Maya begins by asking who wears the hijab and why, interviewing three modern Muslim women about their experiences.

The hijab, a traditional headscarf that covers the head and chest, is a common sight in the Muslim world. For many Muslim women it is an essential part of their faith, yet for some people this simple garment also suggests controversy and cultural division.

Background and trends

The hijab was not encouraged during the restrictive era of the New Order (1966 – 1998). Surprisingly, the trend towards wearing the hijab only really took off with the start of the more liberal and democratic Reform Order, from 1998.

Why this happened is not entirely clear. The liberalized media and more diverse political landscape of the Reform era gave different Islamic perspectives a voice. Religious leaders were able to preach and encourage hijab wearing on TV and the euphoria of newfound democracy also encouraged a desire for religious self-expression.

It may also be that the new landscape of the Reform Order coincided with wider geopolitical shifts that gave impetus to more conservative Islamic voices to speak up strongly against Muslim oppression in the world and preach the adoption of traditional Muslim dress and Sharia law.

Whatever the reasons, even as late as 2002 the hijab was not permitted in a legal document. Women were expected to take off their hijab when taking pictures for passports and certificates. Gradually, however, the hijab trend gained momentum and became accepted as part of the uniform at school, in government offices and among the police.

This trend continued as new media outlets opened up opportunities for religious self-expression. Pop culture featuring Islamic themes blossomed. The pioneering book and movie Ayat-ayat Cinta (The Verses of Love) led the way in 2008, and in 2013 actress Oki Setiana Dewi had a hit song with “Hijab, I’m in Love” – describing how she falls in love with the hijab.

Now, according to Euis Sadiah, Director General of Small-Medium Industry, in a country of 205 million Muslims, around 20 million Indonesian women wear the hijab. While there is no clear statistical data, some evidence suggests that usage cuts across both geographic (urban vs rural) and age (young vs old) demographics.

Religious influences and differing views

Such usage is influenced by the kyais (Islamic leaders), and da’i (Islamic preachers). Most believe that women are obliged to cover their body except for their face and palms, based on a literal interpretation of the Koran, especially Al Ahzab QS 33:59 ('O Prophet, enjoin your wives and your daughters and the believing women, to draw a part of their outer coverings around them...') and An Nur QS 24:31.

One famous da’i who strongly believes in this obligation is Felix Siauw, an ex-Christian Chinese Indonesian who converted to Islam. Siauw now campaigns vigorously for compulsory observance via live preaching, tweets and books.

Not everyone agrees. Kyai M. Quraish Shihab, for example, considers the verses to simply be guidance from Mohammad for Arabic women wearing or planning to wear the hijab, rather than a mandatory obligation.

And there is similar debate surrounding the use of the kerudung, a thin scarf put on the head without fully covering the hair. For some Islamic scholars it is the sign of an all-out commitment to the faith, while for others it is just a symbol of a certain social class.

What do wearers of the hijab think?

With these two contradictory mind-sets, what do wearers think? I asked three typical trendsetters from the big city scene for their opinions. Fathia, 28, holds a degree in Economics and has been wearing the hijab since 2012. Sekar, 27, is a married GP with a young daughter. Dewi, 39, works for an online newspaper and has two pre-teen daughters.

A calling

All agree the decision to wear the hijab is a long process that requires hidayah, a kind of ‘calling’ - and it comes suddenly out of nowhere.

Fathia describes her journey: “To begin with I noticed how the women who wore the hijab had a more controlled behaviour. I thought this was a sign of oppression. Then I worked in a company where the environment let me learn how religion is more than just physical activity, more than just ritual.

There were so many philosophical discussions that flowed lightly, without preaching. Still, some hard part in me refused to admit that wearing the hijab is an obligation. Then, when I was applying for scholarships, I wanted it that bad I made a bargain with God: if He permitted me to get a scholarship, I’d wear the hijab! It’s like challenging God, I know. But several months passed, and suddenly I had this calling. It’s like hearing a whisper, saying, ‘Why don’t you reverse it? Why don’t you wear the hijab first?’ Feeling like reaching the point of no return, I asked some friends to accompany me buying my first hijab.”

Peer pressure

However not everyone sees it this way; for Sekar, peer pressure played a part:

“I moved from Jakarta to Malang, East Java, to pursue my degree. Most of my classmates came from East Java, which is the home of Nahdlatul Ulama (a traditional Sunni Islam movement). Naturally many of them already wore the hijab. Although they never said anything, I felt alienated wearing my Jakartan outfits. I felt like I’m not one of them. So near the end of my first year, I followed their fashion.”

The first day

Whilst making the decision to wear the hijab is not an easy one, wearing it for the first time is like defying gravity - letting go of one world and jumping to another.

Fathia says: “On Saturday I shopped for my first hijab collection accompanied by two friends. On Monday I wore it. It created a roar at the office; some gave me a cynical look, some felt overwhelmed and hugged me.  Others couldn’t believe that I had beaten them to this decision!”

With such impassioned responses likely, the timing of such a ‘coming out’ should be considered and planned delicately.

Dewi adds: “I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember the day: Friday. Why did I choose Friday? So my time for being ‘the talk at the office’ wouldn’t be long! It would be cut by the weekend.”


Our ladies all agreed that taking the plunge needs more than commitment: it needs a strong foundation.

Sekar remembers: “I felt suffocated. Not physically, but mentally. I found out the hard way that wearing the hijab is not just a matter of an outfit, it is an attitude. It tortured me not to being able to flirt with boys, to wear scarlet lipstick, or even to laugh out loud. My choice of colours and the style to cover my head are sometimes even too radical for my friends. About six months after I embraced my friends’ fashion, I cried to my Mum that I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to discard my hijab and return to the old me.”

Sekar decided to stop wearing the hijab. But this wasn't the end of her story: “I embraced the hijab again after I gave birth to my daughter. One day I held her in my arms and I realized that I am responsible for her. What better way to teach her than by giving her an example?”

And for those who do stay the course, they may find that they change inwardly as well as outwardly.

“[Since I started wearing hijab] I've learned to become better," says Fathia. "Some people say I’m calmer and quieter. True, in the past I talked too much. I might’ve made a joke that hurt others. I argued hotly all the time, but since wearing the hijab I'm able to back down even though I’m right. A good Muslim should not hurt others. I learn to raise my argument rather than raise my voice, as the Prophet said that the strong person is not those whose muscles are big, but those who are patient. And I learn to count my blessings...”

Reactions from others

Wearing the hijab can lead to a life that is far from free of prejudice, not only from the association with radical Islamists – the terror and bombing – but also from simple work situations.

“A client once rejected me because I was wearing a hijab," says Fathia. "Not every Indonesian is open minded, you know! Some think we are aliens who cannot connect with other people.

My foreign contacts often ask me about the hijab. Sometimes the questions are funny, so basic, and could be considered insulting in some way. But I like to answer whatever they ask; hopefully it can widen their horizons and challenge their misconceptions.”


Wearing the hijab is a very personal choice. My respondents started with the belief that it is a must for Muslim women, but these stories show that it cannot be forced. In Indonesia today Muslim women wear the hijab because they choose to wear it. Because they had their calling. Because they have a purpose.

This freedom of choice doesn't stop there - Indonesian women mix and match hijab styles, colours and clothing in dizzying combinations until they find what suits them best. Combine this choice with a vast population and you’ll get a correspondingly vast and vibrant style palette. That’s what makes Indonesian hijab fashion so exciting and so unique - and such a boom industry.

…And that's what I’ll be taking a look at in Part 2.

Need more local insights? Find out about our Online Muslim Research Communities in S.E Asia; contact Suhaila.shahri@insightasia.com or Maya.Notodisurjo@insightasia.com

Posted on February 15, 2016 and filed under Culture.