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Billboard in front of the gate of SMPN2 school in Solok showing the principal in a long hijab, smiling, with the words “Selamat Datang di SMPN 2 Kota Solok. Kawasan wajib berbusana Muslim untuk Kota Solok Serambi Madinah” (Welcome to Public Junior High School 2 Solok City. Mandatory Muslim clothing area for Solok City, Veranda of Medina), August 2018.  © 2018 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government should actively enforce a new decree that bans abusive, discriminatory dress codes for female students and teachers in Indonesia’s state schools, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 3, 2021, Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, and Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas signed a decree that allows any student or teacher to choose what to wear in school, with or without “religious attributes.” The decree orders local governments and school principals to abandon regulations requiring a jilbab, commonly referred to in Indonesia for a head, neck, and chest covering, in thousands of state schools in the country.

“The new decree is a long overdue step to end discriminatory dress codes for girls and women in state schools across Indonesia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “For two decades many state schools have required schoolgirls and female teachers to wear the jilbab, leading to bullying, intimidation, and even expulsion or forced resignation. Students and teachers should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear a jilbab without any compulsion or pressure.”

Since 2001, more than 60 local and provincial ordinances have been adopted to enforce what local officials claimed to be “Islamic clothing for Muslim women.” Most of Indonesia’s almost 300,000 state schools, particularly in the 24 Muslim-majority provinces, require Muslim girls to wear the jilbab beginning in primary school. Even when school officials have acknowledged that a 2014 national regulation does not legally require a jilbab, the existence of the regulation adds to schools applying pressure on girls and their families for the girls to wear one. Human Rights Watch has found cases in which Christian and other non-Muslim students and teachers were forced to wear a jilbab.

The new decree states that students and teachers may choose to wear a long skirt and a short- or long-sleeve shirt with or without a jilbab. The decree covers only state schools (sekolah negeri) that are under the management of local governments and the Education and Culture Ministry. It does not affect Islamic state schools and universities under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It also excludes Aceh province, which under a special arrangement has greater autonomy than other provinces and is the only province that officially follows a version of Sharia, or Islamic law.

Local governments and school principals are required to revoke any mandatory jilbab regulation by March 5. Sanctions will be imposed on any local government head or school principal who does not comply with the decree. Mayors, regents, and other local government heads are authorized to impose sanctions on school principals who do not enforce the decree. Provincial governors may sanction regents or mayors, and the home affairs minister may sanction governors. The education minister is empowered to withhold education funds to schools that ignore the decree.

The Education Ministry also set up a 24-hour hotline service to receive complaints and to ensure the regulation is fully enforced. The government video announcing the decree received many positive comments, especially from women.

Makarim said that schools have “misinterpreted” the 2014 ministerial regulation on public school uniforms in which a picture depicts “Muslim clothing” with a long skirt, a long sleeve shirt, and a jilbab, suggesting it was the only option for Muslim girls. Makarim said it was only a “template” and the new regulation should correct that misinterpretation.

The new decree followed reports that Elainu Hia, a Christian, had recorded a teacher in a public school in Padang, West Sumatra asking him to make his Christian daughter wear a jilbab. Hia uploaded the video on Facebook, prompting Indonesian media and national television to pick up the story. The school later admitted that it had forced its 23 Christian female students to wear jilbabs. The school principal apologized after Makarim had criticized the abuse, perhaps prompting the three ministers to speed up drafting the decree.

Religious affairs minister Qoumas noted that the Padang case was “the tip of the iceberg.” He said the mandatory jilbab regulation has been used “to discriminate, to intimidate and to pressure schoolgirls.”

International human rights law guarantees the right to freely manifest one’s religious beliefs and the right to freedom of expression, and the right to education without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. Women are entitled to the same rights as men, including the right to wear what they choose. Any limitations on these rights must be for a legitimate aim, applied in a non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner. Mandatory jilbab rules, including those in Aceh, undermine the right of girls and women to be free “from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever” under Indonesia’s Constitution.

“Rights advocates and women will be watching closely to see if the government enforces the new decree,” Adams said. “Reforms announced by President Jokowi’s government are frequently abandoned when met with opposition from conservative political and religious forces. It’s critical for the government to hold firm to protect the rights of girls and women.”

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