Indonesian Islam, Pesantrens, and Hijab: Educating Society’s Majority Population

In my experience, Islam can be a touchy subject in America. In Indonesia, it’s one that none can avoid. The majority of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, and that was certainly evident when we visited Java. One of the first signs of a huge Muslim presence was the sound of the calls to prayer ringing through homes and streets. The second was the majority of women wearing hijab. The fact that hijab-wearing Muslims make up the bulk of the population in Java makes it difficult to look at them as “different” or “other.” In fact, I am newly aware of my otherness in Java when I wander around without hijab.

Female SIT Students and Some Staff

But as a feature of the majority population, hijab has an interesting cultural competent that, in my opinion, sometimes extends past religious practice. During our last week in Java, we stayed at a couple Pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), and all of the females in our group (staff included) were required to wear the hijab while out in public, regardless of our religious beliefs. This requirement did not connect with my previous understanding of the hijab and of religion. I am still under the impression that the hijab should only be worn by those who practice Islam. However, despite the fact that most of our SIT group does not practice Islam, we were still required to wear it.

Even in the less conservative areas in Java, namely Yogyakarta, we were told that it would be no problem if we decide to wear a hijab out on the town. Even admitting that we do not practice Islam while wearing a hijab is not considered a social taboo in the places that we have visited. My understanding of who can and cannot wear hijab is far more rigid than this other perspective. After a particularly striking lecture from a Muslim woman about Indonesia’s history with the hijab, as well as my own musings, I have come to view this flexibility over who can wear hijab as a result of the fact that Muslims are a cultural majority in Indonesia. According to the lecture, the hijab has become more than a religious symbol but a common Indonesian one, so much so that it might not quite possess the same strict quality to differentiate that it might have in America—in which the hijab might signify religious difference from the majority of a non-hijab-wearing population. Because of such, that might make hijab more acceptable to wear even if one is not a strongly practicing Muslim.

Opening Speech at Male Pesantren

Let me shift this blog post in the direction of another popular Indonesian Islamic subject: Pesantrens. As I mentioned briefly, Pesantrens are Islamic boarding schools—which include both grade schools and college universities—and our SIT group visited two campuses, one all female, the other all male. While I could not even begin to describe the innumerable experiences I’ve gleaned from staying at these Pesantrens, I can try to give a brief overview of the Pesantrens’ principles that I notices and how it reflects back upon American schooling.



Dinner with Male Students

During many lectures and informal discussions with the students, a common perception voiced was that males are perceived to be essentially more logical and females more sensitive. The classes and activities available to them in each campus supported that view. The courses actively prepared the males to serve as leaders post-graduation by offering many opportunities to practice public speaking and by fostering discussion about major international issues such as governmental politics and climate change. On the other hand, the courses on the female campus geared them to take a supportive role to the men, with a significant focus on domestic responsibility. The women I spoke to mentioned that in addition to their courses for their major they all also participated in sewing classes and cooking classes. With this in mind, I observed an incredibly strong consciousness of gender roles in the Pesantrens.


Group Photo at Female Pesantren

And therein lies one very important motivation behind the Islamic Pesantren philosophy: They are very focused upon community. Each gender has their role to support and improve the whole, but those roles are gender-locked and not taught as fluid. Such social philosophies at play in the Indonesia-Islamic schooling systems are just as present in the US. A common American philosophy is a belief in individualism, and thus, school systems in America may attempt to foster individuals, which can lead to our own problems with communal coherency and communal values. Despite the many differences between the Indonesian Pesantrens and American public schools, it is important to recognize that both hold monumental power to indoctrinate students into society.

Thank you, and until next time!

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