Why niqab is being worn by more Muslim women in Indonesia, and a secular nation’s sometimes hostile response to full-face veil
Wearing a full-face veil in a country where most Muslim women choose either a hijab or no headscarf at all is as much a cultural as a religious choice, and one being promoted and defended by groups such as the Niqab Squad
At a small restaurant close to her office in central Jakarta, locals are becoming used to the sight of Tri Ningtyas Anggraeni clad in an all-black niqab, an Islamic garment that covers the body and face, leaving just the hands and eyes exposed.
It’s rare to see a niqab worn in secular Indonesia, even though the majority Muslim population numbers more than 225 million. Most women wear either a hijab – a loose-fitting headscarf or a variation that covers the chest – or no headscarf at all.
A 2015 research report by the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Centre revealed less than two per cent of Muslim women in the capital city wear the full-face veil, but their number is growing, along with niqab-wearing communities across the country.
Scholars say the trend is a sign of increased religious conservatism in the country, but also a cultural phenomenon: women are expressing a personal preference and becoming more attuned to trends in the Muslim world.
In a sign of the division in Indonesia between those with Islamic leanings and those who favour a secular way of life, Tri Ningtyas says she often faces ridicule and abuse for wearing the niqab in public.
She assumes her critics associate the garment with terrorists or extremists. “A lot of people are afraid when they see me,” she tells the South China Morning Post.
Passers-by have reacted by shouting nasty names at her, calling her a ninja, terrorist, thief or ghost. Once, Tri Ningtyas says, someone threw a plastic bottle at her, but she refuses to confront her aggressors. “I prefer to ignore them and pray for them,” she says.
Tri Ningtyas began wearing a niqab three years ago after reading that it was a sunnah – highly recommended Islamic practice. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the Koran, she says various hadiths – teachings that describe the Prophet Mohammed’s words and deeds – state that all his wives wore the niqab.
But most importantly, Tri Ningtyas says, she covers herself up to protect her dignity as a woman, uphold her modesty, and avert the gazes of men.
Last year, Tri Ningtyas became a member of the Niqab Squad, a community of women established recently by Indadari Mindrayanti, an Indonesian actress and the former wife of a famous comedian and television personality, Caisar. The group’s aim is to defend the rights of women who choose to wear the niqab.
Tri Ningtyas now heads the Jakarta branch of the Niqab Squad. She says the organisation has expanded to 30 communities across Indonesia and overseas, attracting roughly 3,000 members.
“It started with a WhatsApp group and Facebook page. Not long afterwards, women in other cities wanted to be part of the community. There are Niqab Squads in Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, and more recently they have started up in Malaysia, Taiwan and South Africa,” Tri Ningtyas says.
Other communities, such as the Veiled Indonesian Women (Wanita Indonesia Bercadar – or WIB), have also garnered hundreds of members across Indonesia, but have not gained the same level of exposure as the Niqab Squad.
The name Niqab Squad was chosen deliberately to give the group a “modern twist” and make it easily identifiable, says Indadari.
Sumanto Al-Qurtuby, an anthropologist in Islamic studies at King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia, says the increasing number of Muslim women choosing to wear the niqab is not only a sign of increasing conservatism in Indonesia. It is also a fashion statement.
“It illustrates the current trend here. Just like previous trends of Indian or Korean culture, now Indonesians like Arabic culture,” he says.
He says that in Saudi Arabia the wearing of a full-face veil is considered a cultural habit, rather than being associated with Islamic doctrine.
“We have to remember, there are some Jewish and Christian communities in which women also wear the veil,” he says, including Yemenite and Haredi Jews, and the Coptic Christians in Egypt. “But even in Saudi Arabia, most women don’t wear the niqab, only in certain parts of the region.”
The Niqab Squad held its first gathering in March 2017. Indadari told her close niqab-wearing friends about the event and expected to welcome about 50 women. To her surprise, more than 150 women wearing the veil turned up.
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Indadari had wanted to prove that women who wear the niqab are not an exclusive group who only stay at home. Besides organising gatherings and pengajian (Koran recitation sessions), the Niqab Squad also holds workshops and classes in horse-riding and archery – two activities said to have been encouraged by the Prophet Mohammed – and arts and crafts classes.
According to Tri Ningtyas, this is partly what makes the community popular among other Muslim women who have – so far, at least – chosen not to cover their face.
“Some of our members only wear the hijab. They are interested in the idea of wearing the niqab but are still hesitant because their family do not allow it … We are here to support them,” she says.
Indadari decided to cover her face after an unpleasant experience on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2014.
She was pregnant at the time and wearing a hijab. A man catcalled her on the street, even though she was with her husband. To Indadari, this showed how vulnerable women can be to fitnah (slanderous comments or gazes) when they do not cover their face.
“Only my husband should be able to compliment me. To avoid fitnah, or looks from men, I chose to wear the niqab,” she explains.
Even after the couple divorced in 2017, Indadari continued to wear the garment.
Ultimately, what a woman wears may be decided by her husband or other family member. Tri Ningtyas and Indadari only began wearing the niqab after gaining the approval of their spouses.
Siti Musdah Mulia, an Islamic scholar from Indonesia’s Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University and a women’s rights activist, insists it is not compulsory under Islam for women to wear the hijab, although she chooses to wear one.
Siti Musdah is a controversial figure in the country. In an interview with Indonesian online magazine Magdalene, she said the country was moving away from the moderate Islam it has been known for. This, she said, should be seen as part of a global phenomenon linked to injustices suffered by Islamic countries, which had left many Muslims questioning the values of Western countries, including the United States.
Women may have other reasons for wearing the niqab. Consider the case of Sacha Stevenson, a Canadian who has lived in Indonesia for 17 years, converted to Islam and manages a popular YouTube channel. For Stevenson, the niqab became a symbol of rebellion when she decided to wear the full-face veil shortly after arriving in the country.
“It’s really interesting to live in a world where you see everybody but they don’t see you. I don’t know why [other women] are wearing it, but I know why I was,” she told the Post.
Stevenson says she practised conservative Islam, but in 2008 decided to take off her niqab and hijab because she felt the way of life she had chosen was too limiting.
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She agrees there seem to be more women choosing to wear the niqab these days. “I used to live in a village in Pangandaran, West Java. Back then, I was the only one wearing the niqab. Now, when I go back, I can see maybe six women wearing it,” she says.