The polarised headscarf debate has been long standing between secular and Islamic commentators. Both sides have looked at the headscarf as a significant symbol of threat. On the one hand, the headscarf threatens the secular notion of freedom. On the other, its critics threaten the traditional Islamic notions of honor and respectability. Askarina Sumiran proposes an alternative discourse on the headscarf which respects the voices of Muslim women.
Western discussions around the headscarf often imply a monolithic understanding of Islam and the Muslim community. It seems that there is a fixed assumption of Muslim community that centres on the specific cultural context of the Middle East. This should not be the case. Having been born and raised in a country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia, I resist this simplified understanding of Muslims by offering an Indonesian perspective.
Before going further, I want to point out that my choice of the term “headscarf” instead of “veil” is intentional. There is a significant difference between the two which has been obscured within the debate. While headscarf refers to a form of clothing that covers the hair and the neck, the veil is an umbrella term used to refer to the act of concealing the hair and the face with a piece of clothing making the wearer difficult to identify. I refuse to conflate the two to avoid the same kind of generalization that supports a monolithic understanding of Muslim community.
Resisting a monolithic assumption of Muslim community is important in my argument as states’ preoccupations on the headscarf rely heavily on it. Both sides of the debate employ a body/mind dualism which separates the body and the mind as mutually exclusive. In the case of Muslim women, the body/mind dualism also reduces their autonomy to their body and what they wear on their head. In other words, what Muslim women wear to cover their hair is used to define them as a person. This is where the problem lies and I intend to challenge this dualism by looking at Muslim women in headscarves as embodied selves.
As a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia does not regulate nation-wide compulsory veiling for Muslim women (except in Aceh province). This means that the headscarf does not limit women’s freedom and autonomy in Indonesia, nor does it serve a sole purpose in keeping the society’s honor and respectability. This already invalidates the secularist assumption that all women are forced into wearing headscarves. Evidently, this is not the case in Indonesia. Although patriarchal Islamic teaching and social pressures remain the main reasons why women wear headscarf in some areas, a large number of Indonesian Muslim women choose to wear a headscarf out of their own free will.
Indonesian women who choose to wear the headscarf challenge this body/mind dualism by exercising their autonomy as citizens through their choice of dress. As I am proposing an understanding of Muslim women as embodied selves, I am not arguing, however, for a conflation of the self and the mind which keeps the body inferior to the self and the mind. Instead, I am arguing for an embodied self which sees the self, the mind and the body as a whole bodily integrity. In contemporary Indonesia, Dian Pelangi – a renowned Indonesian modest fashion designer – represents an example of the Muslim woman as an embodied self.
Pelangi pioneered the combination of color and bold prints within the typically subdue-toned Muslim dresses and headscarves in Indonesia. Her work has changed the landscape of modest fashion brands in Indonesia and demonstrated her agentic capabilities in turning the headscarf into a medium for empowerment. Through her work, Pelangi contradicts the assumption of women in headscarves by representing them as autonomous subjects. Her autonomy is most clearly shown through her fashion work which also resists the Western notion of autonomy manifested through a choice/no choice binary. A binary that assumes Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf as not having autonomy and those who choose not to wear it as having autonomy.
This is where the deconstruction of body/mind dualism becomes crucial as it enables Muslim women to reclaim their autonomy and agency based on their lived experience. It problematizes a singular understanding of autonomy and shows that the choice of wearing a headscarf is also a form of autonomy. The case of Dian Pelangi demonstrates that Muslim women do not merely submit to religious teachings forced upon them, but also become active participants in interpreting their own versions of religious teachings which might further their own interest.
By deconstructing the body/mind dualism, we can then see Muslim women as complex embodied selves with different lived experiences instead of as one monolithic group. I believe that we need to look at each Muslim woman in a headscarf as a whole bodily integrity, an intertwined relation of her embodiment and her mind. These embodied selves can help reclaim the notion of headscarf which has been long pathologized within the debate, resulting in the further spread of Islamophobia. On the other hand, I also acknowledge the implication of romanticizing the wearing of headscarf, which can aid patriarchal Islamic teaching in Indonesia.
Nonetheless, I present my argument as an intervention to the body/mind dualism rhetoric that renders Muslim women passive and keeps them in their place, in an attempt to propose an alternative that allows them to speak for themselves.
About the author
Askarina Sumiran is an Indonesian feminist whose work focuses on social media representations and gender-related issues. She studies Gender, Media & Culture as a Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics & Political Science. Read more of her articles: https://medium.com/@askarinabintari
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.