West Sumatra Ombudsman warns school and Regional Education Board that mandatory hijab in public schools is illegal

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(Photo: Septiawan/IDM)

IO – Yesterday, on the 15th of June 2021 the West Sumatran Ombudsman, announced that it had delivered a final recommendation to a government school in Padang which forced a non-Muslim student to wear a hijab and to the Regional Education Board there, stating that schools have an obligation to respect the rights and freedoms of students which provide them with the freedom to choose to wear or not to wear Muslim attire. Schools must respect that right and not try to coerce students either into wearing or not wearing such attire.

The head of the West Sumatra Ombudsman, Yefri Heriani  said that despite the Supreme Court having recently revoked a joint ministerial decree regarding freedom of attire in schools regarding school uniforms Regulation of the Minister of Education and Culture number 45 of 2014 remains in force and provides that the use of uniforms with religious attributes in state schools is a choice and that schools must respect the right of its students to freedom of religion. Those who wear Muslim attire must do so based on their own religious beliefs.

The Regional Education Board said that it accepted the decision of the Ombudsman and has begun to implement its advice in West Sumatran schools. The school, SMKN 2 in Padang which is a well-respected school there with international students has said that it has already informed its non-Muslim students that they are no longer required to wear hijabs or other Muslim attire. However, with regard to the rights of Muslim female students not to wear Muslim attire, the school has said that it will first request guidance on the matter from the Regional Board of Religious Affairs.

What led to the Ombudsman’s decision was state school SMKN 2 in Padang forcing its Christian female students to wear a hijab despite the protest of non-Muslim parents. Matters reached a climax when in January of this year Elianu Hia the father of a Christian girl recorded his meeting with a teacher at SMKN2 where he asked the teacher whether the wearing of a jilbab by a Christian student was an order or an advice. After the teacher responded that it was a mandatory regulation Mr Hia placed the video on Facebook and pandemonium broke loose as the video went viral and was reported on by the media and netizens rained the Regional Education Board with protests.

This was followed twenty-three days later by a videoed statement from the Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Anwar Makarim stating that all regulations requiring mandatory wearing of jilbabs at any state school in Indonesia contravenes the Education Law, Education Ministerial Regulation number 45 of 2014 on school uniforms as well as being unconstitutional. He instructed the Padang regional government to instruct the SMKN 2 of Padang to change its school regulations.

In line with this on the 3rd of February 2021 Joint Ministerial Decree of the Minister of Education and Culture, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Religious Affairs number 02/ KB/2O2l jo 025-199 of 2021 jo 219 of 2021 was issued. The joint decree provides students, educators and those involved in the education process the right to decide whether to wear attire with religious attributes or not and that schools are required to respect this right. The schools are also required to revoke any regulations, decrees, instructions, policies or advice that they may have issued in the past that contravene the Joint Ministerial Decree.

Before the school in Padang could however, be forced to comply with the Joint Ministerial Decree there was an application to the Supreme Court by the Minangkabau Customary Institution (LKAAM), a West Sumatra administration-sanctioned organization that protects the local culture, for a judicial review of the joint decree. On the 3rd of May 2021 the Indonesian Supreme Court issued a decision in favour of the petitioners and revoked the Joint Ministerial Decree.

There were a number of irregularities surrounding the Supreme Court decision. The decision was issued extremely quickly. Dewi Kunti who is a member of KOMNAS Perempuan or the National Commission for Women says that the Commission was not expecting the court to come out so quickly with a decision as such decisions usually can take several months or more. Consequently, KOMNAS Perempuan had not yet sent a report to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also did not immediately make its entire decision including its considerations and legal basis for the decision, public. They took quite a long time to do so. It is the obligation of the Supreme Court (or any court for that matter) to provide the written considerations and legal base for their decision which are needed before any legal opinion can be made or further legal steps taken.

On the 5th of June 2021 various women’s and civil rights groups sent a declaration to the President of Indonesia as well as the ministers of education, religion and the interior regarding attire for women at government schools. The declaration known as Seruan Indonesia: Hentikan Perundungan dan Intimidasi lewat Aturan Busana or Indonesia Demands: A Cessation of Harassment and Intimidation with regard to Attire. The demand had over 800,000 signatures and was a reaction to the Supreme Court decision regarding the revocation of the Joint Ministerial Decree banning public schools from prescribing mandatory religious attire.

During the Soeharto regime few women wore hijabs. Now nearly 75% of Indonesian women wear them. How did this whole issue come about?

On the 30th of March 2005 the regional government of West Sumatra passed a regulation making it mandatory for girls at state schools to wear Muslim attire. This was followed on the 15th of August 2005 by Aceh becoming a province based on Sharia law which requires all women in Aceh whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, to wear hijabs. This was followed by similar regional or city regulations in parts of Java, Sulawesi and Kalimantan. The  KOMNAS Perempuan says that there are around 64 Sharia based regulations issued by the regions and districts in 20 out of 34 provinces of Indonesia. Most of these laws effect women’s rights including the right to wear or not to wear religious attire.

The effect has brought great difficulties for many young girls and women not only of other non-Islamic religions but also for Muslim women who interpret the Qur’an in a different way with regard to Muslim women’s attire. At a webinar held in support of the Indonesia Demands declaration a young Muslim school teacher from Jogjakarta recounted the story of how at her induction ceremony as a civil servant she had to wear her regional costume but that the moment she entered her school to teach she was asked where her hijab was. She tried to wear the hijab but after 6 months found herself growing increasingly depressed. Her fellow teachers did not like her attitude and she was given a scolding by the head of the school. Finally, having decided to tender her resignation she asked some friends on a chat group how to write a courteous letter with a good reason explaining why she was resigning. Someone photo shopped her comment and up-loaded it to the internet where it went viral. The teacher was then criticized for slandering the school’s name. She says that the psychological burden has been very hard to bear.

A Muslim mother in Lampung gave testimony of how both her daughters experienced harassment and intimidation when they refused to wear hijabs at their state school. She says that she asked for the school regulations and noticed that there was no requirement for girls to wear hijabs. However, she noticed that they were all wearing hijabs and suspected that there was probably pressure and intimidation to do so. She instructed her daughter not to wear a hijab and to show the school regulations if asked to do so. Her daughter returned home in tears because of the harassment of the older children who said she was without morals and who promised that the harassment would continue each day. The mother asked the teacher if there was a regulation about hijabs and when she was told that there was not she asked for a meeting with the head of the school, the teachers and the student organization and she argued her case which surprisingly was accepted. In her second daughter’s school however, matters did not rest there. Her child continued to be harassed and ill-treated and when her mother complained to the Ministry of Education and Culture her daughter was condemned by the school which said that she had bad mouthed the school. To this day the matter has not been settled and her daughter is now suffering psychologically from depression and stress.

There are many, many cases like this all over Indonesia. Taking away the right of Indonesian women to choose their attire is contravening a basic right that Indonesian women have had for centuries. It is also a contravention of women’s basic right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution. When we add to this the intimidation and harassment that women face at school both as teachers and education employees as well as students, as civil servants and in certain government offices and places when not wearing Muslim attire, then perhaps it is time to question whether there is not any protection for them in the Criminal Code.

Many women think that wearing the hijab, long sleeved blouses and long skirts is not suited to the damp and hot Indonesian climate. They say that the heat when covered from head to toe can be unbearable. They are also of the opinion that it prevents women from getting enough sunlight from which to make vitamin D. This is especially important for older women, children and young girls whose bones are still growing or are at a stage when their bones are beginning to become brittle from loss of calcium as they age. Vitamin D also plays an important role in the health of the immune system, gums and teeth and the brain as well as other health issues. However, it is not just a matter of comfort and health. Wearing such garments can actually endanger women’s lives as for example the danger of long skirts of women on motor-cycles becoming entwined in the wheels of the motor-cycle and causing an accident especially, if the women are sitting sideways as is required in Aceh. There is also the case of twelve girl scouts drowning in a river on an outing in Jogjakarta when their long skirts dragged them down making it difficult for them to save themselves.

It is at this point that the Ombudsman of West Sumatra courageously stepped in and took up the ball that for the moment the Ministry of Education and Culture were forced to drop. Jefri Heriani who heads the West Sumatran Ombudsman commented at the webinar held on the 4th of June 2021 that under Law number 25 of 2009 regarding services to the public, society has a right to guard the standards of public service provided by the government. In this it is the task of the Ombudsman to receive and investigate public complaints about maladministration. The Ombudsman is the official government channel for such complaints and it includes accusations of government officials over-extending their legal authority. She says that in the case of SMKN 2 in Padang the school officials were allowed to issue school regulations however they were not allowed to over-extended their legal authority which they did when they forced students who were unwilling to do so, to wear uniforms with religious attributes. That is in contravention with our Constitution as well as the Law on Human Rights and the Law for the Protection of Children.

Meanwhile, Minister of Education Nadiem Makarim has promised that he will take up the ball again and that the government will continue to pursue ways of protecting Indonesian women not only from harassment and intimidation but also their right to freedom of religion. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read by the same writer: http://observerid.com/the-struggle-for-womens-right-to-freedom-of-religion-and-freedom-of-attire-continues/