rumah kitab

Seizing the Interpretation: The Value of Women’s Clothing

Yesterday, I had an accident, I slipped and fell in the bathroom. That was because the floor was wet. I was in my house-dress, the abaya-model that went down to my ankles and wearing hotel sandals with no serrated soles. I lost my footing, tripped over my abaya, and fell with a loud thud, bruising two of my toes as they hit the bathroom wall. Luckily, it was just that. My late mother-in-law had a worse experience. She suffered a broken arm and bleeding temple. She stepped on and tripped over her long dress, as she was walking hastily out of the bathroom.

I often hear women have accidents tripping on their own garb. Lately, we even heard more single accidents where a motorbike rider got her long dress or dangling hijab caught on the running wheels.

A study on tsunami and gender in Sri Lanka concludes that a tsunami disaster has more hazardous impacts on women because they wear two layers of the sari: the fully-pleated long skirt, entangling the feet when they have to run, and the long, dangling upper-body shawl, enwrapping the face or head when engulfing tsunami waves struck.

I do not know whether there are specific studies on Aceh women’s clothing that affect their level of survival as tsunami victims. But I remember a story told by a judge, a participant of training on the empowerment of judge capacity in terms of gender sensitivity in Banda Aceh. That day, when the (2004) tsunami waves went crashing onto the higher ground, the man tried to help to push his wife up a palm tree on the side of a football field in downtown Banda Aceh. He said that the effort almost failed as she could not free her hand from holding up her sarong/ ankle-long skirt and headscarf. Women do not know how to climb up an upright-trunked tree, such as a coconut tree, with one hand holding part of her long-dress that restricts their foot maneuvers.

It might be for the same reason that a kindergarten teacher that I met during my research on PAUD (the early childhood education programs) in Meulaboh, a town in West Aceh severely damaged by the tsunami, required her female pupils to wear trousers instead of ankle-long skirts so that she could teach them tree climbing and pioneering practice.

The HRD of a garment factory in the border of Bogor and Sukabumi never forbids the female workers from wearing headscarves or hijabs but requires them to insert the tails of their hijabs under the collars of their blouses. This is to avoid work accidents as the hijab tails could easily get caught and dragged into the high-speed sewing machines. I have heard a similar requirement on hijab wear imposed by a college rector on the female students and lecturers to ensure their safety when they work in the labs – despite their reasons for wearing such garb.

Clothing, in anthropological terms, reflects many symbols. It signifies appropriateness, status, social class, ethnicity, and religious values. Within the religious values, there are views on the role, status related to gender, also the concepts of politics and identity.

In Islam, women’s clothing is regulated based on the concept of aurat (private parts of the body) in public space. Actually, there are many concepts of aurat restriction, according to Fiqh scholars. It is never a single, absolute concept. However, the interpretation of such a concept is often related to the view that women are “sources of slander” (fitnah) in public space. At the same time, women’s apparel is the political identity reflected through the woman’s body and appearance.

Right after the Iranian revolution, the women going to public places should wear black, covering-all abayas and headscarves, which end could be bitten to cover half of the face. It means the concept of clothing is interpreted in line with the social, political, and time developments.

In the independent era, Indonesian Moslem women wear kebaya as the nation’s, as well as religious identities. As the nation has various ethnicities, there are so many styles of Kebaya in line with the local interpretations of ethnicity in Indonesia. Kebayas come in various styles of Solo, Yogyakarta, Madura, Betawi, Sunda, Bali, Ambon (Molucca), Minahasa, Minang, Batak, Aceh, even Encim (Ladies of Peranakan Chinese) and so on. For the sake of religious identity, women wear kebayas combined with various styles of hijabs.

Now, in line with the recent development and very strong religious views, our Moslem women’s fashion, at least the silhouette, becomes quite homogenous. Long dresses, with the lower hems covering the ankles and wiping the floor or various designs of abayas. If we think about it, that is truly the designers’ interpretation of the view on “aurat”.

A study by Rumah Kitab (House of Books) in Bandung, Solo, Depok, Bekasi, and Jakarta reveals that boutique owners and the garment industry have competed in designing dresses with religious identity based on their “reading” of the trend: “Artis Hijrah” (“Migrating Actresses”).

The funny thing is, along with that, there come levels of women’s piousness. Women wearing headscarves covering just the head are in a different (lower) level of piousness compared to those who wear their hijabs over their chests, or the ones wearing very long hijabs below their hip lines. Then comes the market’s term “Jilbab Syar’i” (Hijab wear according to Sharia). This means there are “classes” of women according to their levels of religiousness reflected in their clothing. That is a very absurd reduction of piousness.

Eventually, considering the religious views that are never solitary, nor free of identity politics, it is more important for the women that their clothes are comfortable, appropriate, and safe. They integrate how we assess and respect our own body as the most beautiful gift from Allah. Is our body a source of slander? For me, it is NOT!

Lies Marcoes
December 26, 2020 Translated by By Nining Tri Hafinungsih

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