Indonesia Muslim Dress Code Controversy as State University to ban female students from attending class in a niqab

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SHAFAQNA – A state university in South Kalimantan has drawn the ire of one of Indonesia’s Islamic political parties for its decision to ban female students from attending class in a niqab, a full face covering similar to a burqa that is rare in Indonesia but nonetheless promoted by some Islamic teachers as a requirement for Muslim women. Late last month, Lambung Mangkurat University instructed female college students that they were not permitted to wear the niqab to campus. “If there’s a student wearing a [face-covering] veil, we will reprimand them,” said Sutarto Hadi, rector at Lambung Mangkrat University, as cited by news portal MediaIndonesia.com. “If they insist [on wearing it], we advise them to find another institution.”

Lambung Mangkurat has 8,200 students enrolled across its 10 faculties. It is the largest state university in South Kalimantan, with campuses in Banjarmasin and Banjarbaru.

Sutarto said a niqab would make it difficult for university staff to identify students. He added that the full-face cover was not typical to Indonesian culture.

Reni Marlinawati, a lawmaker from the United Development Party (PPP), condemned the regulation, however, and requested the university withdraw the ban.

“The regulation is against human rights principles, as based on Article 28 of the country’s 1945 Constitution, which states that everyone has the right to express their beliefs, opinions and stance of what they really believe in,” Reni said earlier this week.

Reni said the university’s underlying argument for the regulation, to aid staff in identifying students, could be addressed without issuing a blanket ban.

“Universities should focus on their main role as an agent of change by enriching their students’ knowledge, strengthening their research skills and becoming the center for various studies,” Reni said.

Reni emphasized that a full-face cover was not a threat to Indonesian culture or its largely tolerant observation of Islam.

“Wearing a burqa should be seen as the implementation of one’s belief. Why should we make a problem out of this?” she said.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.

According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), over 95 percent of the population of South Kalimantan identify as Muslims.

The niqab is common in Saudi Arabia, which contributes significant private education funding in Indonesia as a way of exporting its conservative Wahhabi understanding of Islam. A jilbab, which only covers a woman’s hair and neck but leaves the face exposed (and is often called a hijab in North America and Europe), is common across the archipelago.

The wearing of a jilbab was the subject of a brief but lively social media trend last year after the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa against what it termed “jilboobs.” The MUI, which is composed of clerics from Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, including Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, decried Indonesian women who covered their hair but dressed slightly less modestly below the neck.

The issue has since died down despite the MUI’s protestation of its “vulgarity.”

“Burqa bans” have been the subject of emotional debate in some European countries, most notably France, which introduced a national prohibition in 2011. French Muslims took the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, but the court found in favor of the French government’s ban and it remains on the statute books today.

Women in France are still permitted to cover their faces in private or when at a mosque and the ban is not unique to Islam. It also prohibits the wearing of motorcycle helmets or balaclavas in public places. The ban continues to be controversial.

The niqab is, however, controversial in Indonesia. Many regard the niqab as an unappealing cultural import from the Arab world, while its lack of popularity is compounded by incidents of Indonesian domestic workers having faced abuse while working in Saudi Arabia for not conforming exactly to the required dress code.

Indonesian law does not require Muslim women to wear a jilbab, except for the semi-autonomous province of Aceh, which requires women to cover up under its Shariah-inspired statutes. Shariah-inspired bylaws in a number of regions also require women to wear the veil on certain official occasions or in schools.

It was unclear on Thursday whether the university was prepared to maintain its position as it risked being drawn into a political row. It was not certain, either, whether anyone more sympathetic to female face covering would seek to take the matter to court.

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