Australia Awards in Indonesia

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06 Apr 2016

Embodying the True Islam: Face-veiled Women in Contemporary Indonesia

Eva Fahrunnisa AMRULLAH, 2011
The Australian National University

Indonesian Muslim women who choose to wear the strictest type of women’s dress, cadar (full face-veil), have become increasingly visible in Indonesia. This practice is often misunderstood in both popular media and scholarly works on Indonesian Islam: cadari (the wearers) are frequently stereotyped as terrorists or militants belonging to violent groups. The trend of face-veiling is viewed by some scholars as an aspect of the Arabisation of Indonesia. It is also frequently assumed that the cadar symbolises the oppression of Muslim women. Throughout Indonesian history it has often been regarded as a symbol of religious fanaticism. This thesis takes an ethnographic approach to investigate two different categories of women who wear the cadar belonging to two contrasting Islamic revivalist movements—Salafi groups on the one hand and Tablīghī Jamā‘at on the other. The first group, who I term ‘passionate cadari’, makes a strong commitment to changing their lives to embody the norms of their religious groups. The second group I study consists of women attending an Islamic residential school where the cadar has been standardised. The thesis is based on 12 months of fieldwork in three large cities in Indonesia (Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Makassar) from 2007 to 2008, with a return visit for five months in 2009.

This study draws on the literature on women’s agency in Muslim societies and sociological literature on embodiment and subjectivity to provide an interpretive analysis of women’s experiences and understandings of their chosen lifestyle. This is the first study on face-veiled women in Indonesia and also the first thorough study on face-veiled women within two Islamic revivalist movements, Tablīghī Jamā‘at and Salafi factions. Whereas much has been written about head-covering in Indonesia (especially the jilbab), little research has been done on the cadari. Studies on the Tablīghī Jamā‘at and Salafi movements in Indonesia have neglected the face-veiled women, who are the main female constituents of such groups.

Focusing on the adoption of cadar and ways of being true Muslim women, this study demonstrates how religion shapes the formation of religious subjects, and how the agency of such women is expressed through discipline and docility. Their life experiences and the process of negotiating and renegotiating the wearing of their attire, the cadar, reveals their long struggle to construct their distinctive religious lifestyle and their capacity for agency. Previous scholarly accounts of women in extreme Islamic milieus obscure their capacity for self-creation, and gloss over the complex dynamics of their lives—especially their agency in relation to their aspiration to embody the concept of being true Muslimah (Muslim women), and their zeal to be active agents in their communities. These women’s efforts to embody their religion need to be understood with reference to the religious ideology that governs their life. Cadari are exercising compliant agency in creating themselves as a particular kind of Islamic subject through the performance of obedience towards authority figures, and embracing the constraints their choice entails.

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