When I was 18, after I had made my debut as a writer, I used to go to the Jakarta Arts Center Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) where I met artists and intellectuals just as weird as myself —which made me feel right at home!
One day, in the outdoor café where we used to hang out, out of the blue, Nashar, a well-known painter asked me, “Who are you?” Understanding immediately that he was testing me, an upstart young writer, I replied, “Hmm, even I don’t know who I am”.
He nodded vigorously. Apparently my answer satisfied him, as he realized that I had interpreted his presumably factual question as an existential, philosophical one.
Indeed, “Who am I?” is one of the most basic questions in life, certainly when one embarks on a path of spirituality and self-awareness.
In these days of identity politics, I reckon most people are clueless as to who they really are. They think they are this or that, but often their identity is socially imposed through brainwashing by authority figures, the family or other social institutions, whether religious or secular.
Nadya Karima Melati, a 27-year-old Indonesian post graduate student in Bonn, Germany, was forced to adopt an identity she felt was not hers. For seven years, from 2008 to 2015, from the time she was in high school to university, she had to wear the jilbab (Muslim headscarf) as it was the required school uniform.
However, internally, she revolted against it. As it made her feel mentally and emotionally disturbed, she kept on going to a psychologist, who diagnosed her with a range of mental conditions from depression to bipolar disorder. Eventually, the psychologist identified her as having body dysmorphia, an obsessive mental disorder that has the sufferer view their own body as severely flawed or distorted.
Nadya recounted, “I felt repulsed whenever I saw myself in the mirror, to the point of wanting to throw up. Once, I hated the image I saw so much, I punched the reflection so hard, I smashed the mirror, cutting my hand, causing it to bleed.”
At the end of her last semester at university, Nadya mustered the courage to remove her jilbab and only engaged with people who could accept her without the headscarf. It was tough. She was branded immoral and intimidated and ostracized by friends, her teachers, the adults in her life and worst of all, her family. Her mother was the most merciless: She expelled Nadya from her extended family as she considered Nadya no longer a Muslim. She got barred from family weddings and even Idul Fitri, the celebration of the end of the fasting month.
Just because she took off the piece of cloth covering her head, the same piece of cloth the Quran says is not obligatory? How misguided they, and many Muslims are!
Even after the report was released, new cases kept on being submitted. Women have also posted their plight on Facebook, such as Tati (not her real name), whose husband beats her because of her refusal to wear a jilbab. As a result, she doesn’t leave the house and says she’s just waiting for the time she dies. How sad!
Ifa Hanifah Misbach, a 45-year-old psychologist who was one of the speakers at a webinar on March 18 to launch the HRW report, was constantly bullied. She said she got fed up with being like Batman, the jilbabed, i.e. caped crusader, of having a double life, and at one point decided she had had enough.
An estimated 75 percent of Muslim women in Indonesia now wear a jilbab. I wonder, how many of them are suffering mental distress and extreme unhappiness like Nadya and “Tati” from forced jilbabization?
The case studies in the report were shocking to read, as was the extent of the suffering and abuse inflicted on the women. On the other hand, it was not surprising. This shariaization by stealth has been going on since the beginning of the Reform Era, with its regional autonomy that gave leaders the authority to issue bylaws (Perda) that were often sharia-based, including dress codes for women.
In 2008, the Pornography Law was passed. It was in fact Perdas writ large on a national scale — a (symbolic) victory for political Islam influencing national policy, identity and ultimately, state character.
Feminist are spot on in pointing out that “the personal is political”, whereby women are socially constructed to serve the interests of the state or society at large. In fascist Germany (1933-1945), there was Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church), around which women’s lives were supposed to revolve. In early capitalism in the industrial West, there was housewifization, whereby women provided unpaid domestic work for their husbands and children for the needs of capitalism.
In Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, sharia law was imposed, the hijab for women was made mandatory and the failure to wear one was punishable by law. In Soeharto’s New Order (1966-1998), the notion of state ibu-ism — which defined women primarily as wives and mothers, as well as vote-getters for the ruling Golkar Party — was the norm.
Now we have an Islamic ibu-ism whereby wearing the jilbab is mandatory or where the social sanction is so heavy, women succumb. It’s all part of the shariaization by stealth.
The “Who am I?” question should be posed to both Islam and Indonesia. Is Islam becoming a vindictive form of morality where a group decides it is morally superior, and everyone else is wrong and ought to be punished if they don’t follow the rules that this group imposes on them? This is called totalitarianism, which is oppressive and against the true peaceful and democratic spirit of Islam. Prophet Muhammad would turn in his grave witnessing the trend.
Is Indonesia going to surrender its pluralistic principle of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), which has held together the “imagined community” of Indonesia since 1945, to this fascistic version of Islam?
And are we going to continue to allow the rape of Indonesians through jilbabization? Yes, it’s rape: of women’s rights, their freedom to choose and their mental and social wellbeing. *
The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad. It is published here with the permission of the author.