Most of you know that when I first arrived at my Peace Corps site I agreed to wear a jilbab (Muslim head covering basically) to school.
In spite of a lot of time spent thinking abut it, I’m not exactly sure how this came about. This is primarily because it happened at a time when I was fairly overwhelmed with new things, and my language skills were just barely adequate.
I know I asked if I should wear it, and I received the impression that, while no one would require me to wear it, it was much better and fitting that I do so. It’s really hard to tell sometimes, especially on Java, what is “fitting” and what is “required”. There tends to be a lot of overlap; so i wore a jilbab for a year and a half.
During this time period several things became clear to me;
1) this is Indonesia, and people here are, for the most part, very tolerant of religious differences- for the most part they just don’t talk about them too much. This is not a country where all women must be muffled from head to foot. Here, in most places, it is a personal (or family) decision.
2) There are not, to the best of my knowledge, any non-Muslims (besides myself and Oma) who wear jilbabs on a regular basis. I don’t even know of any who wear it occasionally unless they have to go into a Mosque. It just isn’t really done.
3) Wearing a jibab in Indonesia is partially a modesty thing, but even more so it seems (in my opinion of course) to be a declaration of faith for the wearer.
So how did I end up wearing one a daily basis?
This is the question I had been asking myself with greater and greater intensity over the last few months. I tried seeking advice from people and my community and other teachers, but it seemed that I had at last stumbled onto a touchy subject (whereas all sorts of things I think are awkward to talk about are openly discussed lol)
Through very pointed questioned I finally came to the conclusion that opinions were mixed (helpful for making decisions that…). Some people thought I should do whatever I needed to. Others thought that since I had started out wearing a jilbab I should see it through to the end.
I started out in the latter camp, but the sheer mental weight of it was getting to me. So, I let some key people know what I was planning to do and, with moral support from Peace Corps, I stopped wearing it. I started out with a few extra-curricular activities, and then progressed up to going to school without it. Thus far it is going well.
There have been a number of double takes, questioning looks, and flat questions, but having thought about this for so long before making the decision to take it off I feel very comfortable answering. “I am not wearing a jilbab because I am not Muslim, and usually in Indonesia non-Muslims (and many Muslims) don’t wear jilbabs. Right?” People have understood pretty easily I think. The kids mostly just want to ask me how I wash my braids.
I do want to be very clear that my decision not to wear a jilbab is not a negative reflection on my many beautiful friends, colleagues, and students who choose to wear one daily as an expression of their faith. That is certainly their perogative, and I respect it: however, after a year and half is is clear to me that it is not for me. No big deal, and enough said.