Two Islamic universities in Indonesia are pushing for females to stop wearing niqab face veils as concern grows over the rise of fundamentalism in the country. One university has even threatened the students with expulsion if the ban is not complied with.
The niqab is a full veil with a small slit for the eyes and is common in the more conservative Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. However, in Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest Muslim majority nation, 90% of its 260 million people have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam and for many Indonesians the niqab is associated with radical faith.
Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University is one of the universities imposing the ban. Based in Indonesia’s cultural capital Yogyakarta, it has some 10,000 students.
The school’s chancellor Yudian Wahyudi said: “We are a state university… we’ve been told to spread moderate Islam.”
The university issued the edict to more than 30 niqab-wearing students who will be asked to leave the institution if they refuse.
Another Yogyakarta-based institution, Ahmad Dahlan University, has also introduced a new prohibition on the niqab. They have stated though that there will be no penalty for any student that refuses.
We are a state university… we’ve been told to spread moderate Islam
“But during exams, they cannot wear it because officials have to match the photos on their exam ID with them, which is hard if one is wearing the niqab,” University Chancellor Kasiyarno added.
The niqab has been at the centre of a global debate over both religious freedom and women’s rights, with France being the first European country to ban it in public spaces. Last year, a private Islamic high school in Java was reprimanded by local officials after images went viral online that showed a classroom of sitting female students wearing niqab, which violated a national regulation on acceptable school uniforms.
As a nation, Indonesia mostly has a reputation of progressiveness and of religious tolerance. Recently though, this has been tested as once-fringe Islamic political parties move into the mainstream. The government’s push to outlaw gay and pre-marital sex, for example, has been seen as a sign of their more conservative ideals.
Some people have backed the new ban of the niqab on the grounds that it is not a religious obligation to wear one.
“Education should be about dialogue – open and progressive – and if you wear a niqab it interferes in that dialogue and the teaching-learning process,” said Zuhairi Misrawi, head of the Jakarta-based Muslim Moderate Society.
On the other side of the debate, some saw the anti-niqab appeal as a violation of individual rights.
Fadlun Amin, a spokesman for the local chapter of the Forum Ukhuwah Islamiyah, part of top clerical body the Indonesian Ulema Council, said that it is “a matter of personal preference and the university has to respect that”.