Being Fashionable in the Land of Sharia

Islands of Home is the second series in Centre for Stories’ collection, The Indian Ocean. Written by Agustinus Wibowo, they bring to life intimate and telling moments of contemporary Indonesian society in five parts. In them, we reflect on history, ritual, politics, fashion and culture, all told in a perceptive and approachable voice. This is story three, Being Fashionable in the Land of Sharia.

“The more a woman is covered, the more dignified she becomes. The more revealed, the cheaper,” said Fansari, an Islamic fashion designer from Banda Aceh, the capital of the westernmost Indonesian province of Aceh.

Fansari wrapped her body in a loose-fitted, long dress that reached her ankles and wrists. She covered her head with a large garment that completely covered her chest and bottom. With such a dress, it seemed that she was ready to pray to Allah at any time. Fansari believed that this covering was the perfect outfit to to please God. In contrast those women whose clothing is not perfect will never enter Paradise or even smell its heavenly fragrance.

Looking at Fansari today, at her age of 35, it’s difficult to believe how she described her looks in her youth. Ten years ago, she was a photo model with thick makeup, a cutting edge hairstyle, tight you-can-see shirt that highlighted the curve of her breasts, and a miniskirt. She used to be a party girl and hang out with men from motor-racing gangs. Describing her past from today’s perspective, she emphasizes one word: frenzy. Her life has changed drastically.

“The more a woman is covered, the more dignified she becomes. The more revealed, the cheaper,” said Fansari, an Islamic fashion designer from Banda Aceh.

After she studied Islam more deeply from the communal Koran reading circle she attended, she began to cover her hair with hijab. But this was only the beginning. The Islamic teaching of modesty for women suddenly gave her a feeling of dignity. She found that men no longer teased her, that her tortuous anxiety gradually dissipated. Although it started merely as a piece of cloth covering her head, Fansari’s hijab grew bigger and longer until hiding the entire shape of her body. This more orthodox version of the hijab is specifically named as Syari hijab in Indonesia. The term Syari literally means “in line with the Sharia”—the Islamic canonical law. At the time this model of fashion was not popular in Indonesia and Fansari found much difficulty in buying her clothing in the shops. And so she began to design by herself, experimenting with different materials from woolpeach, silk, batik, and also combining a variety of motifs and colors. That was the beginning of her career as a Syari hijab designer.

Fansari’s dramatic change reflects the changes of Indonesia. Although Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world, the mass wearing of hijab is actually a new phenomenon. Before the 1990s, it was very rare for Indonesian women to wear hijab. Suharto’s New Order regime even banned the wearing of hijab in schools and workplaces. Hijab became popular very recently, just in the 2000s, as the religious spirit grew stronger among the public. Nowadays, in many cities of Indonesia, there are more Muslim women wearing hijab than those who don’t. They also tend to adopt a more conservative definition of clothing. Middle-Eastern styles of clothing are increasingly prevalent among both women and men.

The Syari hijab became a new trend in Indonesia three years ago. For Fansari, the Syari hijab is a medium of preaching as well as business opportunities—especially that Indonesia targets to be the world’s Muslim Fashion Capital in 2020. She wanted to promote her hijab designs, to convince women that they can be pious and look beautiful at the same time. For that purpose, Fansari uses social media as her communication platform, collaborating with models, hairdressers, makeup artists, and photographers.

Nowadays, in many cities of Indonesia, there are more Muslim women wearing hijab than those who don’t. They also tend to adopt a more conservative definition of clothing.

The model who is going to represent her design today is Wiwik, a famous model in Aceh. But the tall and slender twenty-one-year-old girl has never dressed in Syari hijab. On the contrary, she was often photographed with uncovered hair—which is already considered “sexy” in Aceh. Last year, Wiwik represented Aceh in the national modeling competition in the capital Jakarta, where she appeared on the stage without hijab. She won a title, but also received fierce condemnation, mostly from other fellow Acehnese who steamed: How dare she represents Aceh without wearing a hijab?

Aceh is the first region in the Indonesian archipelago where Islam came, and therefore known as “the Verandah of Mecca”. Aceh is also the only Indonesian province implementing Sharia, which was introduced in 2001. The most obvious aspect of Acehnese Sharia is the obligation of hijab. Since them, stricter and stricter rules on women’s clothing have being issued, based on different interpretations of various Islamic scholars. Traditional costumes had also to be redesigned to incorporate hijab, and so the numerous unique Acehnese traditional women’s buns have disappeared. Even many newborns are now already veiled in hijab. Not only do they hijabize the present and the future, they also hijabize the past: some people attempt to redraw the portraits of Acehnese female freedom fighters against the Dutch colonialism centuries ago—most of them were not wearing hijab—to be wearing hijab.

At the beauty salon where Wiwik will model, a visitor would see a big picture of a man in skullcap and a woman in hijab reading the Holy Quran together. It has replaced a poster of women with beautiful hair,. It was only inside the salon that one could see the rows of small photographs displaying various hairstyles on smiling Western women’s faces. One day, the Sharia police patrolled to this very salon, and were outraged to see the photos of the unveiled women. The salon owner, an effeminate male hairdresser, defended, “But, Ma’am, we’re here selling hairstyles, not textiles.”

Wiwik didn’t really care about the Sharia police, who often patrol the streets apprehending women not wearing clothes they regarded as proper. Today, while waiting for the arrival of the Syari hijab of Fansari, Wiwik was sitting outside the salon’s entrance, on the side of busy street. She let her blond-dyed hair blow freely, and she was wearing a skirt that barely covered her knees. It was a statement of rebellion. “Wearing hijab is good,” she said, “But it must come from your heart, not by force or by threats of the police.”

Wiwik’s face was beautified with fake eyelashes and gleaming pink lipstick. When Fansari’s hijab arrived, Wiwik changed her short skirt with a long plain black dress, then wrapped her head in a supersized garment to cover her torso, total black only dotted with little embroidered gold thread along the edges. Instantly, she resembled an Iranian woman draped in black chador during the height of the Islamic Revolution. She continuously blinked in front of the mirror, as if she couldn’t believe that she was still as beautiful.

Today’s photoshoot session took place on a busy road. Dozens of photographers, who were all men from a local photography club, couldn’t wait for the model to come. The shattering noise of their big cameras made them looked more like passionate hunters. “Hey cutie, look here!” “Come on, give us a sweet pose!” The photographers yelled one after another. Several times Wiwik spun herself, making her supersized veil flutter like a flag, sometimes covering her face, sometimes revealing her mysterious hidden beauty. Many drivers and motorcycle riders slowed down their vehicles, just to take a glimpse at her. No matter where, no matter in which outfit, she is always the star.

Wiwik’s photographs wearing the Syari hijab were a surprise to her 15,000-ish Instagram followers. She got 2,000 likes for four photos she uploaded. Many netizens praised her to look more beautiful with hijab, and prayed to God wishing that their idol may keep wearing hijab for the rest of her life. An overseas netizen, apparently a Pakistani man, commented in English, “A girl in hijab is like a pearl in its shell.” And in another photo, the same man left a message, “Can I get your phone number, pls?”

This story is also available as a PDF in both English and Indonesian.

Image: Agustinus Wibowo

Voice: Grace Gilbert

Copyright © 2017 Augustinus Wibowo

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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