Twenty-four of the 34 provinces in Muslim-majority Indonesia impose repressive dress codes for women and girls, including Christians. Many who do not comply face consequences and bullying, according to women who spoke with an international human rights group.
"Nearly 150,000 schools in Indonesia's 24 Muslim-majority provinces currently enforce mandatory jilbab (hijab) rules, based on both local and national regulations. In some conservative Muslim areas such as Aceh and West Sumatra, even non-Muslim girls have also been forced to wear the hijab," reads a recent report from Human Rights Watch.
Millions of girls and women in the Southeast Asian archipelago have to wear hijabs, the female headdress covering hair, neck and chest. Hijabs are typically worn with a long skirt and a long sleeve shirt.
"The officials who issued the decrees contend the jilbab is mandatory for Muslim women to cover intimate parts of the body, which officials deem to include the hair, arms, and legs, but sometimes also the woman's body shape," the report says.
HRW interviewed more than 100 women who have experienced abuse and often long-term consequences for refusing to wear the hijab. The dress codes, inspired by Sharia law, have impacted not only schoolgirls but also teachers, doctors and other professionals.
Two of the women interviewed say they received death threats on social media.
"Since grade four, my stepmother forced me to wear the jilbab," Sheilana Nugraha, a 25-year-old Christian and graduate student at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, said.
She told HRW that she entered high school in 2012 and was asked to wear a headscarf. In 2013, she was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and went to live with her biological mother, a Christian.
"My birth mother is Christian. My father is Muslim," she said. "I took off my jilbab, wearing short-sleeved shirts to school, although my mother still took me to Islamic prayer and study sessions. I was the only Muslim student who did not wear the jilbab at the school. There were Christian students, the number was small, fewer than 10 people in the school, and none of them wore headscarves."
"Once [in first year of high school in 2012], I was approached by a history teacher, a woman wearing a headscarf, who was also my neighbor. She scolded me, swearing that I 'wouldn't be successful without the jilbab and would go to Hell.' I cried, felt humiliated, and this was witnessed by many students, since it took place in front of the class near the whiteboard and the classroom door. I was shamed. I was crying, depressed."
Nugraha said that for four days in a row in 2012, three female teachers and a male Islamic teacher "bullied" her.
"The Islamic religion teacher did not make me cry, but he was sarcastic. The math teacher was also my homeroom teacher. My grades were affected, screwed up [by the resulting psychological distress]," she said. "The principal did nothing to protect me."
HRW urges Indonesia's Interior Ministry, which oversees local governments, to invalidate the more than 60 local dress code laws nationwide. While Indonesia's central government doesn't have the authority to repeal local laws, the Home Affairs Ministry can nullify local executive orders that contradict national laws and the Indonesian Constitution.
"President Joko Widodo should immediately overturn discriminatory, rights-abusing provincial and local decrees that violate the rights of women and girls," said HRW's Acting Asia Director Elaine Pearson. "These decrees do real harm and as a practical matter will only be ended by central government action."
Indonesia, which is home to the world's largest Muslim population, has 20.4 million Protestants and 8.42 million Catholics. Together, these two groups comprise 10.58% of the total population of 272.23 million, according to the latest data from the Directorate General of the Department of Population and Civil Registration of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Indonesia's Constitution is based on the doctrine of Pancasila — five principles upholding the nation's belief in the one and only God and social justice, humanity, unity and democracy for all.
But many extremist groups in Indonesia oppose Pancasila and target the Christian minority.
Churches often face opposition from groups that attempt to obstruct the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship. HRW previously reported that more than 1,000 churches in the archipelago had been closed due to pressure from such groups.