Indonesian school cancels program to counsel students who wear a niqab as plan to weed out radicals sparks national ire
Women from the Jember chapter's Niqab Squad are shown at a meeting in East Java, Indonesia in this file photo. (Photo supplied by Syafira Amalia)
A university can offer counseling services to students who cover their faces with a niqab in a bid to limit extremism but it does not have the right to demand they take it off, according to Syafira Amalia, who has been subjected to all the "suicide bomber" jibes associated with the veiled headwear.
Amalia, who attends the University of Jember in East Java, accepted that such a counseling program could be useful in weeding out those with potentially dangerous, radical views, but said it should not be taken too far.
"It's good to see whether or not they have radical views," she told ucanews.com. "But they have the right to dress how they wish."
This issue came to the fore after the Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta issued a letter on Feb. 20 revealing its plan to make students who wear the headscarf and face veil attend a counseling program to prevent radicalism on campus, as extremism grows in the country.
According to Yudian Wahyudi, the university's rector, at least 41 niqab-wearing students had enlisted for the program, which was scheduled to be managed by a special team including experts in psychology, Islamic studies and social issues.
Those who refused to take off their niqab after the program concluded would be asked to leave the campus, he said.
The program was part of the university's commitment to moderate Islam but stoked controversy in Indonesia. About 85 percent of the country's 260 million people are Muslims.
Within a month of floating the idea, the university had canceled it in order to maintain "a conducive academic climate." It said the decision was taken following a meeting on March 10.
Amalia said she began wearing a niqab in 2016 to deepen her faith. At first she struggled amid a barrage of questions from lecturers and classmates about why she chose to wear the full-face veil.
At times, strangers on the street would mock her choice of clothing, calling her a terrorist and warning others she might be carrying a bomb.
"I never take those kinds of comments seriously," said Amalia, who serves as chairwoman of the Jember chapter of the Niqab Squad, a community of niqab-wearing women. "It's fine as long as they don't hurt me physically."
Said Aqil Siroj is the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the largest Islamic organizations in the country. He told reporters the plan was a part of university policy and should not be interfered with.
But Azman Latif, deputy chairman of the Yogyakarta chapter of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Islamic organization, called it short-sighted and said the university was correct in backpedaling.
When contacted, officials from the university refused to comment on the matter.
Cholil Nafis, chairman of the dakwah (preaching) commission at the Indonesian Ulema Council, the nation's top Muslim clerical body, welcomed the decision to axe the controversial program.
He described it as "a gentle and brave stance to end the debate and create a more peaceful society."
"A leader must know what is substance and what is symbolic," he told ucanews.com. "Preventing radicalism is substantial, something that must be fought against by showing an understanding of wasathiyah [moderation]. In contrast, the niqab is a symbol [of religious faith] that cannot be generalized or ascribed to radicalism."
Wearing a niqab is not an obligation according to traditional Islam but there is increasing social pressure on Indonesian Muslim women to wear one and keep their bodies covered, said Badriyah Fayumi, a female cleric.
"In fact, the obligation is to cover the aurat [intimate parts of the body]," she said.
"Indonesian people are friendly. They like to greet one another. But the niqab can get in the way of that because it isn't easy to recognize a person."
She suggested the university seek alternative methods of curbing radicalism on campus.
Beka Ulung Hapsara from the National Commission on Human Rights said a university should thoroughly discuss security, social order, public morality and religious teachings before issuing a policy on the use of the niqab.
"There must be mutual consent between a university and its students," he said, adding that getting rid of the niqab would not put an end to radicalism.
"You can't relate radicalism to how Muslim women dress," he said.
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