Public Schools in Indonesia Feel Islamic Pressure

When Lies Marcoes heard that her daughter’s high school, in Bogor, Indonesia, required all female Muslim students to wear a head veil once a week, she was furious. Although she herself was a Muslim and a graduate of an Islamic university in Jakarta, she went to the school to object to the imposition of the religious uniform in a state school.

As a result of her protest, she said, the order was rescinded — though her teenage daughter decided to wear the head scarf anyway to fit in with her friends.

About 400 kilometers, or 260 miles, away, in Yogyakarta, central Java, another parent, Tri Agus Susanto Siswowiharjo, says he would like to send his daughters to a public secondary school, but he, too, is worried that they would have to wear Islamic dress.

Mr. Tri Agus, a political communications lecturer at a rural-development college whose wife is Catholic, now sends his daughters to a private Catholic primary school. Although he is a Muslim, he said he believed that religion belonged in the private sphere and should not be imposed.

“If they want to learn about their religion, they can learn about it at home,” he said in an interview.

Many parents like Ms. Lies and Mr. Tri Agus say they expect public schools to be neutral and to reflect the multicultural heritage of a country that recognizes six religions.

But, in the past 10 to 15 years, schools have increasingly adopted policies that favor Islam, the majority religion, ordering Muslim students to wear Muslim-styled uniforms either every day or at least on Fridays, when Muslims go to mosque. Some schools also require Muslim students to recite verses from the Koran every morning before the lessons begin.

The rise of Islamic practices in public schools, mirroring a rise in fundamentalism across the country, makes parents like Ms. Lies and Mr. Tri Agus uneasy.

“I sent my children to public schools, so that they could learn universal values, have different kinds of friends and learn pluralist ideas,” Ms. Lies said.

The rise in such practices has affected teachers too. Henny Supolo, head of Yayasan Cahaya Guru, a teachers’ nonprofit foundation, said that from 2007 to 2010, the organization provided training to 4,500 teachers from 2,000 schools, an overwhelming majority of whom were female teachers from public schools. “We noticed that almost all of them wore jilbab as uniform,” Ms. Supolo said, referring to what Indonesians call the Islamic head scarf. “Jilbab has become part of uniform for female public school teachers whom we met.”

This is alarming, she said: “If jilbab has become part of the uniform at public schools, then the function of public schools as a place to sow plurality to our children will disappear.”

Retno Listyarti, secretary general of the Indonesian Teachers’ Union Federation, put the issue bluntly: “Public schools have become religious schools,” she said.

Some schools now hold a daily mass recital of the Koran before formal classes begin. In one school in eastern Jakarta, Muslim students spend 15 to 20 minutes reading the Koran every morning, guided through a public address system, said a teacher at the school, speaking on condition that neither she nor the school be identified, for fear of professional repercussions.

Christian students sit together in one room, within hearing of the Koranic recital, to read the Bible, the teacher said. Hindu and Buddhist students, who don’t have their own religious teachers in the school, read their religious texts while sitting in the same rooms as their Muslim classmates reciting the Koran.

“This shows that the majority is always right, while the minority has to adapt,” the teacher said.

Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population — more than 200 million, or nearly 90 percent of its citizens profess the Islamic faith — is often praised as a model of moderate Islam.

But in recent years, the country has faced a rise of Sunni radicalism and religious intolerance. The Indonesian Children Protection Commission has warned that radical tenets are being increasingly being taught at every age level, from kindergarten to university.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has consistently been among the worst performers in the Program for International Student Assessment — the triennial test given to 15- and 16-year-old students from 65 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development. In the PISA rankings, Indonesian students’ scores in math, reading and science lag behind the average of their peers.

Despite this, Indonesia’s most recent curriculum overhaul, rolled out last year, gave more emphasis and time to religious education, while merging science and social studies with other classes.

Educators like Ms. Supolo have urged the Education Ministry to take action against the spread of Islamic uniforms and other religious distinctions. But the ministry’s spokesman, Ibnu Hamad, says the central government does not have powers to intervene. Such issues “are largely under the jurisdiction of local governments, in the framework of regional autonomy,” he said.

Emboldened by decentralization, which began after the fall of the authoritarian regime of former President Suharto in 1998, local politicians have often pushed a populist, religiously inspired agenda, saying that it could counter social problems including teenage pregnancy and drug abuse.

“We are so nervous in facing social and moral problems like teen delinquency that we are turning to irrational religious teachings,” Ms. Lies said.

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, who is doing a field study on women’s rights in several provinces, says the imposition of Muslim dress code on public-school students and teachers is now widespread, “from kindergarten to high school.”

Implementation can vary: “Sometimes it’s based on the school’s own decision, sometimes it’s the district head’s decree, the mayor’s or the governor’s,” Mr. Harsono said. But in each case, “the central government, in this case the Ministry of Education, just lets it happen.”

Jilbab, which has become so ubiquitous in Indonesia, became popular only in the post-Suharto years. Before then, public school students and teachers were banned from wearing head veils on school grounds and those who did so could be expelled. For some female activists like Ms. Lies, wearing a jilbab was a symbol of resistance to Mr. Suharto’s iron-fisted rule.

In those years, the head veil “was the case of Islamic schools versus state- owned ones,” said Dewi Candraningrum, editor of the feminist Jurnal Perempuan (Women’s Journal) and author of the book “Negotiating Women’s Veiling.” The Islamic uniform — a long skirt, a long-sleeved shirt and a jilbab for girls — was worn only by students of schools run by Islamic organizations like Muhammadiyah every Friday.

But as the government loosens up, allowing students and teachers to wear the head veil — should they choose to do so — has become a mark of religious difference even within schools. “Muslim schoolgirls now have to wear a jilbab,” Ms. Dewi said. “Jilbab has become a symbol of Muslim girls, who are supposed to look different from non-Muslim girls.”

Ms. Retno, the teachers’ union official, says nobody should be prohibited from wearing a head veil but no one should be forced or coerced to wear one either. “Wearing a jilbab should be voluntary,” said Ms. Retno, who wears one.