JAKARTA - The Indonesian government has banned schools throughout the vast country from forcing students or faculty members to don a tudung (Muslim headscarf) or any other religious attribute, saying the prerogative for such lies with the individual not the institution.
A joint ministerial decree on this was issued on Wednesday (Feb 3) following a recent uproar after a vocational school in Padang run by the provincial government in West Sumatra province required all female students, including non-Muslims, to wear the Muslim headscarf.
"This is an individual's right. Teachers, students - with parents' consent - have the right to choose. It is not the school's decision," education and culture minister Nadiem Makarim told a virtual media briefing on Wednesday.
"Schools should promote Indonesia's religious pluralism ideology, nurture the nation's unity and religious harmony," he added.
Mr Nadiem along with home affairs minister Tito Karnavian and religious affairs minister Aqut Cholil Qoumas signed the ministerial decree.
Any existing by-laws issued by regional administrations or rules by schools across Indonesia that go against this new decree must be revoked within the next 30 days, Mr Nadiem said, or face sanctions.
The sanctions may include a cut in funding.
Last month, a non-Muslim female student in the Padang school was punished after she refused to adhere to the rule requiring all female students to wear a tudung during an online class session.
Later, a Facebook video posted by the mother of the student who went to the school to file a protest went viral and was picked up by the national media.
The ensuing outcry prompted the school to apologise and revoke the punishment.
The school's controversial rule however was based on a by-law in West Sumatra province issued in 2005 that requires all female students to wear a tudung in school, regardless of their religion.
Jakarta-based human rights group Setara Institute said that many schools across the country have been applying similar rules for a long time based on what they claim to be local customs and traditions.
Mr Aqut, the religious affairs minister, on Wednesday acknowledged that the Padang incident was the tip of an iceberg, saying that data at his ministry showed there were many schools applying such controversial rules.
"We are sure religions and all their respective teachings indeed promote peace, (encourage worshippers) to resolve differences well and respect each other. Religions do not promote conflict, neither do they justify acting unfairly against those who are different," he told the media briefing which members of Parliament from the education committee attended as well.
"We urge people to practice their religion in a substantive manner. Forcing others who have a different faith to wear certain religious attributes amount to practising a religion in a symbolic manner," Mr Aqut added.
Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, who was also at the briefing, said: "Indonesia is endowed with people who come from diverse backgrounds, races, religions, dialects… This is an extraordinary asset, but we sometimes take it for granted."