One Man's "Flower" Is Another's "Jewel"

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

Muslim girls in traditional veils in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Women, explained the elegantly dressed Indonesian cleric, are like jewels. TIME's Indonesia stringer, Tatap Loebis, and I smiled. We are both women. Being compared to jewels is nice. Muhamad Ikhwan, who runs a conservative Wahhabi-style Islamic boarding school in the eastern Indonesian city of Makassar, continued. "Westerners treat women like flowers. They bloom, and everyone can see they are beautiful. But then they fade quickly and die." The Wahhabi treatment was different: "Women are like precious jewels," Ikhwan repeated. "They should be kept in a box, where only a special few can see them and cherish them. Then they will last forever."

The notion of immortality certainly beat Botox. But Ikhwan was using his jewel vs. flower analogy to explain why it was preferable for female students at his Islamic boarding school to wear the chador, a flowing black dress that covers everything but the eyes. Indonesian women, though living in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, have traditionally worn somewhat sexier garb: a loose, lacy veil, a cleavage-hugging blouse and a tight sarong. But over the past few years, as Southeast Asia's moderate forms of Islam have struggled to hold sway against the challenge of a more conservative, Middle Eastern-influenced version of the faith, many Indonesian women have begun to cover themselves up. Many who once wore short skirts now worry about showing a glimpse of ankle.

In cities like Makassar, at least half the women wear the jilbab, a sturdy veil that covers the head and the neck. The preferred dress at Ikhwan's school, which opened in 1999 and now boasts 1,000 students, was unusually conservative for Indonesia. But it pointed to how quickly the Wahhabi influence could take root. "I don't remember any girls wearing the jilbab when I was growing up," says Syamsurijal Ad'han, a sociologist in his mid-20s who helps run a moderate Muslim NGO in Makassar. "Now, where I come from, it's mandatory for girls to wear it in school."

Ikhwan's jewelry-box lecture was directed, albeit politely, at Tatap and me. Both of us were wearing long shirts and trousers. But our necks were showing and our hair was uncovered. Truth be told, we were showing considerable wrist. The journalistic dress code is tricky in such situations: I don't show up for interviews in miniskirts, as a rule, and I try to be sensitive to indigenous customs. But what if local tradition means ignoring my presence altogether? I once conducted an interview in northern Afghanistan with a formerly Taliban-aligned warlord, who refused to speak directly to me, forcing my male colleague to repeat my questions on my behalf. (Conversely, talking to women in conservative Muslim societies is easier for me than it is for male reporters.)

Last fall in Malaysia — a moderate Muslim nation, like Indonesia, that is battling radical Islam — the leader of a top political party refused to meet with me because of my gender. A more liberal underling was sent in his place. He declined to shake my hand but was intellectually curious and appeared to relish the occasional tough question. "She's a feisty one, isn't she," he commented to TIME's Malaysia stringer, a male. Our stringer gave a noncommittal shrug. Back in Makassar, Tatap and I took Ikhwan's sermon without protest. Sometimes even flowers have to pretend they are jewels.