More Indonesian women see a face veil as vital

In a photo from Nov 25, 2019, women ride a motor bike in Temboro, Indonesia. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TEMBORO, INDONESIA (NYTIMES) - Only the rider's eyes were visible from behind her black face veil. With a bow in her left hand and an arrow in her right, she cantered her horse toward a target, aimed quickly and let fly. The arrow struck home with a resounding pop.

The rider, Ms Idhanur, who like many Indonesians uses one name, is a 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school in East Java who says that firing arrows from horseback while wearing her conservative veil, or niqab, improves her chances of going to heaven.

Ms Idhanur is part of a growing, peaceful movement of Muslim women who believe they can receive rewards from God through Islamic activities like wearing a niqab and practicing sports that the Prophet Muhammad is thought to have enjoyed.

Many also say it offers protection from prying eyes and harassment by men in a country where unwanted sexual advances are common.

Ms Idhanur, who teaches at Al Fatah Islamic Boarding School of Temboro, part of the revivalist Tablighi Jamaat movement, has an answer for Indonesians who fear that conservative Islamic dress is a troubling step toward extremism and the marginalisation of women.

"Even though we are wearing a niqab like this, it doesn't mean that we become weak Muslim women," Ms Idhanur said after dismounting. "We can become strong Muslim women by participating in archery and horseback riding."

Indonesia, a democracy that has the world's largest Muslim population, is officially secular and has long been known for tolerance. But in the 22 years since the dictator Suharto was ousted, the country has turned increasingly toward a more conservative Islam.

Conservative clerics, such as Indonesia's vice-president Ma'ruf Amin have gained a more prominent role in public life. And local governments have enacted more than 600 measures imposing elements of Syariah, or Islamic law, including requiring women to wear hijabs - a catchall for headscarves - to hide their hair.

A small minority of Muslims have embraced extremist views and some have carried out deadly bombings, including the 2018 Surabaya church attack that killed a dozen bystanders. One suicide bomber was a woman, prompting many Indonesians to be wary of women who wear niqabs, a more conservative face veil where the only opening is a slit for the eyes.

In a photo from Nov 23, 2019, women gather to practice horseback riding and archery at a sports club in the compound of an Islamic school in Depok, near Jakarta. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Concern that the niqab is associated with terrorism prompted Indonesia's religious affairs minister, Mr Fachrul Razi, a former army general, to call for a ban on employees and visitors wearing niqabs in government buildings.

He fears that some government workers are being attracted to extremist thought and sees the niqab as a sign of radicalisation. His regulation has yet to be adopted. A 2018 ban on niqabs at a university in Central Java lasted only a week before opposition compelled the university to rescind it.

But Ms Sidney Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in South-east Asia, said it was important to distinguish between radical Islamists who pose a threat and followers of conservative Islamic groups who promote a traditional Islamic lifestyle, such as the proselytising Tablighi Jamaat sect.

"Because of their dress, they are often confused with extremists," said Ms Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. "But they are against violence. It's a great example of a movement where dress can be totally misleading."

Unlike at the male-dominated Al Fatah school, where women and girls as young as 5 are required to wear the niqab, thousands of mainly urban, middle-class women have made that choice for themselves.

A photo from Nov 26, 2019, shows the male section of Al Fatah Islamic Boarding School in Temboro, Indonesia. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Leading the way is Ms Indadari Mindrayanti, a clothing designer, who founded the Niqab Squad four years ago to promote wearing the veil. It now has nearly 6,000 members with chapters across Indonesia and in Malaysia and Taiwan.

"We really want to go to heaven, and so we sacrifice," Ms Indadari explained at a Niqab Squad equestrian and archery event near Jakarta. "Part of our sacrifice is not showing our beauty and covering our body in an Islamic way."

Many are followers of a movement known as Hijrah, which embraces self-improvement through adopting a traditional Islamic lifestyle.

The peaceful, born-again movement, named Hijrah after the Prophet Muhammad's seventh-century exodus to the city of Medina, is propelled today by social media, where popular actors, actresses and other celebrities post about joining Quran study groups and becoming more religious in their daily lives.

The reach of Indonesia's born-again Islamic movement is evident in the hot, dusty town of Temboro, about 531km east of Jakarta.

The Al Fatah school, with eight campuses and 25,000 students from first grade through university, dominates the town.

A photo from Nov 26, 2019, shows Al Fatah's elementary school for girls, where all 660 students wear niqabs, in Temboro, Indonesia. PHOTO: NYTIMES

When classes let out, the streets are filled with thousands of young people in traditional Islamic garb - men and boys in high-cuffed trousers or loosefitting robes and women and girls in shapeless gowns, headscarves and niqabs.

Temboro is often called Indonesia's Medina, after the city in Saudi Arabia where Muhammad is entombed. One school mosque is modelled after Medina's famous green-domed mosque. The town shuts down five times a day at prayer time.

"Here we implement Islam in our daily lives," said Ainul Hadi, a doctor who moved to Temboro in 1996 and has seen Islam's influence grow. "People can feel the atmosphere of Medina here."

At Al Fatah, the height of academic achievement is memorising the Quran. The most successful students become teachers and open schools themselves.

A photo from Nov 26, 2019, shows a class at Al Fatah Islamic Boarding School in Temboro, Indonesia, where girls as young as 5 are required to wear the niqab. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The school disdains contemporary dress and vaccines. But there are some concessions to modernity.

Some women wear glasses over their niqabs and sneakers on their feet. Cellphones abound and motorbikes are popular with both women and men.

Ms Idhanur, the rider and archer, first came to Al Fatah when she was 13 and began wearing a niqab then. She hasn't stopped since.

"When I started here, it was really rare to see women and girls wearing a niqab," she said. "But now there are many of us."

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