Disclaimer: This article was first published on ISRSF.
The expression of piety in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population, has been gaining immense popularity in recent decades. The rise of religious expression is notably reflected in the mainstreaming of hijab (interchangeably called as jilbab or kerudung), the headscarf covering all but the face and hands of Muslim women, among Indonesian society (Dewi, 2017). Gone are the days where hijab was stereotyped as uncomfortably foreign. After the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, the stigma of extremism and difficulty in job-seeking attached to hijab gradually dissolved (Rinaldo, 2008). With the peaking fame of hijab, hijab-wearing women dominate public space in urban areas of Indonesia.
At the same time, sexual harassment in Indonesia remains persistently high (Reuters, 2017). In 2015 alone, Indonesia’s Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) listed 321,752 cases of violence, including sexual harassment, against women. As happened with other countries with a high occurrence of sexual harassment, street harassment in Indonesia is one of the most prevalent yet trivialized cases among the wide range of sexual harassment. With the ‘conventional’ street harassment of sexual innuendos commenting on body parts of the victim, one would think that the rising popularity of modest fashion in Indonesia will moderate the regularity of street harassment. However, this is not the case. While the organic plummeting of street harassment remains a far-fetched dream, rather vernacular street harassment has emerged from the rise of hijab fashion in Indonesia. This type of street harassment abandons all physical and body-related remarks and use one particular tool, the universal Islamic greeting ‘assalamualaikum’.
Arguably the most significant form of greeting in the Islamic socio-religious practice, assalamualaikum is incorporated in both social interaction and religious observation rituals of the global Muslim community. Despite abundant personal accounts on Indonesian women’s experience of feeling publicly harassed by the misusing of assalamualaikum, as notably showcased in women-only internet forums (Arif, 2017; Kushardini, 2015; Mahita, 2016), serious discussion about the usage of socioreligious subculture as street harassment remains largely absent among Indonesian society. Not surprisingly, there has not been any empirical data on the scale of street harassment where assalamualaikum is involved.
This essay aims to show that language of gender-based repression could stem from religious symbols and expressions, proven by how assalamualaikum has become a popular way for the street harasser to target hijab-wearing women in Indonesia. This essay explores the issue in three parts. First, it introduces the current state of street harassment issues in Indonesia. Second, it scrutinizes the context in which assalamualaikum is used as an effective medium of street harassment. The writing attempts to investigate the specific sociocultural context that shapes this practice into a vernacular form of street harassment and how it traps Indonesian women in a paradox of piety expression. Through the following analytical works, the essay attempts to uncover the terra incognita of Islamic greeting as a form of verbal sexual harassment in Indonesia.
Street harassment in Indonesia
Street harassment is understood as a ‘highly symbolic form’ of violence experienced by someone in public spaces in verbal and non-verbal, physical and non-physical actions, ranging from a whistle, leer, suggestive noises, sexual remarks, suggestive stares, to touches in certain body parts (Peoples, 2008). Benard and Schlaffer (1996) in their study of street harassment listed three most popular functions of street harassment in the eyes of the harasser: a quick entertainment in a male group, a boredom reliever, and personal enjoyment. Sexual harassment, regardless of its form, has a universal effect of making the victim feel violated and humiliated. Street harassment is believed to be a rather elusive issue since the harassers can easily blend into anonymous masses. Hence, the victims struggle to get confessions or proofs. Studies of street harassment, notably from Bowman (1993) and Peoples (2008), suggest that street harassment is a symbolic practice and evidence of male perpetrators trying to reclaim their masculinity in public. On-the-spot harassment enables the harasser to exert their ‘power’ in public space, effectively repressing victims to retreat into their private space by rendering them uncomfortable and humiliated.
In 2016, there were 268 reports of street harassment across Indonesia recorded by the Women’s Commission (The New York Times, 2017). This number accounts for the reports only from the police, non-governmental organizations and the Women’s Commission itself. Considering the nation’s strong victim-blaming norm (Amiruddin, 2013) and the low encouragement for women to self-report, the number may reflect only a small fraction of the actual prevalence in Indonesia.
Concurrently, with the rise of digital media, victims of street harassment are more outspoken online. Hollaback Indonesia, a local branch of an international organization against street harassment, received more than 200 reports of women admitted to being harassed or groped in public places in Jakarta (The New York, 2017). Such personal accounts of street harassment gained more publicity with the rise of popular platform focusing on women commentaries such as Magdalene.com and Lakilakibaru.or.id.
Despite its evident improvement, the online self-reporting of street harassment hardly reaches beyond the domain of the digitally-literate urban women. Consequently, the awareness it has successfully leveraged is equally exclusive. For the rest of the Indonesian, street harassment is still an alien concept. Aside from Indonesia’s history of repressive masculine sub-culture against women (Elmhirst, 2007), the reluctance to bring street harassment issues into the spotlight may also relate to the nation’s rooted normalizing of women’s subordination (Amiruddin, 2013). Furthermore, it does not help that the voices against such harassment mainly featured on English-written website and feminist blogs, which furthers the nation’s longstanding suspicion with feminism, a term many Indonesians associates with ‘liberal’ thought. As a prominent Indonesian Muslim feminist scholar Musdah Mulia (2016) noted, the whole notion of feminism, notwithstanding the differing school of thoughts within the movement, is still seen as a western product threatening the ‘eastern way of living’.
Beyond that, the limited offline advocacy of street harassment partially relates to the need for prioritization among women activists. With women activists preoccupied with ‘homework’ not any less urgent than street harassment -such as domestic violence and rape-, the agenda of mainstreaming street harassment remains lukewarm. It is believed that street harassment is being pushed back because of its seemingly less tangible impact compared to other issues. Contrary to this belief, verbal street harassment could be as damaging as another type of harassment. Street harassment ultimately enforces the practice of ‘silencing’ the victim. When being harassed, the victim struggles to fight back as she is forced to step into the role that the harasser has ascribed to them; the obedient women who will reply to the greeting, retreat to her private space because she is undeserving of free public space. This practice of ‘silencing’ is dangerous because it affects how women respond to other, often more severe, forms of harassment. Reuters polls (2016) about sexual harassment in Indonesia show that 1.636 of 25.213 respondents admit to having been raped and a triggering number of 93% of them said they keep it to themselves due to the fear of repercussions. Among the respondents, 58% had experienced verbal sexual harassment. This shows that the act of ‘silencing’ women in the face of sexual harassment of any form risks further normalization and neglect of the urgency to address the bigger issue.
Assalamualaikum: peace be upon you…never
“Assalamualaikum, beautiful. Where are you going?”
“Assalamualaikum, young lady. Loh, loh, why don’t you answer me? Hahaha….”
Aprilia explained what she has been experiencing as a young adult woman who started wearing hijab in high school (see Kumala, 2019). In her article, she wrote that one ‘catcall apologist’ excuse himself by saying that assalamualaikum is “…a form of prayers… so when they shouted that, what they were actually doing was to pray that peace be upon you.”
It is not easy to pinpoint the fault in that statement. Assalamualaikum, indeed, literally means ‘peace be unto/upon you’, in which an appropriate reply, waalaikumsalam, meaning ‘and unto/upon you be peace’, is expected. The salutation incorporates the word ‘salam’, the Arabic form of a Semitic triconsonantal root Shin-Lamedh-Mem (Š-L-M), with meanings ranging from ‘peace’, ‘sound’, ‘safe’, ‘well-being’, ‘complete’, ‘greeting’, to ‘wholeness’ (Murtonen, 1988). In the Indonesian language, salam found its derivation in the form of selamat which literally means ‘safe and sound’. Muslims salute their fellow both formally and informally, individually or collectively with the greeting. In countries where Muslims are majority such as Indonesia, public figures and government officials commonly address a large audience with the greeting. Aside from a daily greeting, in a more sacred purpose, assalamualaikum is an integral part of taslim, a concluding part during the five-time-a-day ritual prayer of salat. The greeting is, therefore, an important socio-religious language of Islam, which at times serves as a synecdoche to represent ‘prayer’.
Linking such courteous greeting with street harassment may be difficult to fathom. It is, therefore, important to distinguish which one of them falls under street harassment and which one serve its proper function as a harmless greeting. To be categorized as street harassment, the assalamualaikum greeting should mimic the characterization of the ‘conventional’ street harassment, which according to Bowman (1993) mainly divided into three unique characteristics: 1) it is done by an unacquainted male to female, 2) it is done in the absence of an audience, and 3) it is meant to limit the response from women.
First of all, Islamic manners teaching strongly allude to the gentleness of the assalamualaikum greeting (Al-Kaysi, 1989). A Muslim shall greet a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger of which a good wish is necessary. A greeting could be extended as a cordial gesture to a stranger when a mutually-acknowledged fellowship is established between the greeter and the recipient of the greeting, such as to fellow Muslims that one encountered in the mosque or to fellow students in one’s class. Street, however, is not a common ground for an acquaintance or a mutual fellowship to be agreed upon immediately. Therefore, those who we encounter on the streets are often strangers to whom we feel no obligation to extend wishes. A random greeting on the street from a man to a woman is even more uncommon in Islam mannerism, as Islam notably draws a courtesy line between the two genders. Even more, Islam enforces the practice of ghadul bashar, in which men are encouraged to lower their gaze in the presence of unacquainted women (Al-Sheha, 2001). Therefore, a random, loud assalamualaikum extended from a man to an unacquainted woman in a public place pays no heed to the Islamic mannerism of the greeting and thus suggest a stronger link to harassment.
Secondly, an assalamualaikum greeting that is meant to harass someone is done in an absence of an audience. Bowman suggested that a cordial greeting, contrary to street harassment, has no problem to be overheard. The greeting should be not only acknowledged by the one to whom it is directed; it should also be socially acceptable (Firth, 1972). This acceptance could represent a justification from the social surrounding where the encounter takes place, validating the contact as having a positive social quality. Anecdotal accounts of women who have been harassed using the assalamualaikum greeting depict the opposite. As seen in the reports of Hollaback Indonesia and Stop Street Harassment, the sudden assalamualaikum shout-out often occurs in a secluded place with limited possibility of the unintended audience, such as small alleys and side roads, and during night time. Those that occur during broad daylight and in a large open space are typically very targeted, where the harasser has ensured that the victims are in their vicinity while others could hardly hear them. It is also suggested that street harassment is most likely spontaneous, corresponding to its alleged purpose of boredom reliever (Benard and Schaffler, 1996).
Thirdly, the greeting is a form of street harassment when it is meant to restrict the response from the recipient of the greeting. Firth (1972) suggested that reciprocity is crucial in a valid social interconnection and recognition of each other. A respectful response from the receiving end of the greeting can only be elicited by an equally polite greeting. According to Firth, this is normally seen in a greeting meant to open a conversation or to further social recognition, where a ‘… respect by the speaker to the personality of the recipient’ is required (1972:7). According to victims who self-report in online forums, commonalities of derogatory assalamualaikum are, among others, loudly shouted -often from across the street, worded and toned suggestively, accompanied by whistles and inappropriate facial expression, and followed by sneer and laugh (Fidthy 2017; Kumala, 2019; Kushardini, 2015; Mahita, 2016). The above expression of assalamualaikum greeting could hardly elucidate the respect of the speaker to the hijab-wearing women who receive the greeting. Beyond that, the recipients feel upset and humiliated upon encountering such degrading expressions (Kushardini, 2015).
Compare to the conventional street harassment, the assalamualaikum one is even more repressive because there is a formal obligation for all Muslims to return the greeting. The mandate is endorsed by no less than a couple of hadith, the record of Prophet Muhammad words and the second most legitimate source of Islamic law and moral guidance after the Holy Qur’an, and is deeply internalized by Muslims all around the world. So strong the endorsement of the greeting and replying to it that other hadiths espouse a reply even to those who are not part of the Muslim community and those who may not have been amiable fellows to them.
As a result of the religious pretext, the victim of the assalamualaikum street harassment has limited options for response. They may reply with waalaikum-salam as encouraged by Islamic norms, but at the same time feeling disenfranchised and invaded, effectively submitting to the intention of the harasser. Alternatively, they could ignore the harassment, either because they do not want to make a scene or they struggle to find the right expression to reclaim their space. On top of the initial reluctance to confront the harasser, a silence could stem from self-doubt inflicted upon the victims that they should not be offended by religious remarks. Finally, they may express their discomfort by talking back to the harasser. While in the case of sexual remarks the victim is encouraged to rebut the harasser by saying that her body part is not for them to comment on, or that she refuses to give him ‘pleasure’, there is hardly an equivalent rebuttal in the case of assalamualaikum harassment. Anecdotal reports of past victims suggest that silence or verbal defense are frequently followed by further harassment of claiming the victims to be ‘vain’, ‘cocky’, and ‘a sinner’ for not acknowledging one’s greeting. Consequently, as also happens in conventional street harassment, the victims will be left with self-doubt, their feelings invalidated and they internalize the idea that women exaggerate too much and are ‘crazy’ for claiming non-existent things (Kitzinger and Wilkinson, 1997).
Peoples (2008) suggest that public space, where street harassment occurs, is a vital ground that provides men alternative forms to affirm their masculinity, especially when it is difficult to do so through work or other means. The history of Indonesian male exertion of dominance over public space to affirm masculinity was reflected in popular movies during the 70s to 90s with the featuring of verbal harassment euphemized as joking banter in Warkop DKI comedy hits, especially to a bodycon-fitted female passerby (Clark 2014). Post-Reformation era, in line with the reinvigorated Muslim identity among the urban community (Nef-Saluz, 2007), Indonesian popular culture has shifted away from the bold flaunting of curves to a far more reserved appearance (Beta, 2014; Nef-Saluz, 2007). As Jones (2007) noted, the past image of hijab or veil in Indonesia strongly rhymes with old women coming back from a pilgrimage. Increasingly, after the Reformation, young women have negotiated hijab’s functionality by the rise of modernity, resulting in the adoption of a more vibrant and trendier hijab style. As the fame of hijab escalated, its meaning has been negotiated and re-produced by different groups of women who are eager to incorporate their self-expression in this new wave of fashion.
The emergence of a street harassment type specifically invoked by a religious dress code is highly ironic considering the sociological status of the headscarf in Indonesia history. As noted by the anthropologist Smith-Hefner, hijab in the Indonesian sociological perspective symbolizes resistance and rebellion of young students against the Soeharto regime (Soekarba and Melati, 2017). It is particularly associated with many women activists and women-led organizations during the New Order and Reformation era (El Guindi, 1999) who transformed the headscarf as a symbolic agitation. For modern Indonesian women, the reason behind the decision to wear hijab is to serve as identity, self-actualization, and a better sense of security (Budiastuti, 2012). Case studies of Smith-Hefner (2007) show that among the recent hijab user are the young, well-educated, and socially assertive members of the urban middle class. In contrary to those points, street harassment using assalamualaikum, as outlined in the earlier section, has quietly served to symbolize helplessness, invasion, and defenselessness of women with hijab.
This ‘assalamualaikum’ type of street harassment targeting mainly the hijab-wearing women showcase that women are losing no matter what they do. Still, Indonesian women are frequently told to dress more modestly to avoid sexual harassment. No less than highly esteemed public figures such as former Governor of Jakarta Fauzi Bowo, West Aceh Regent Ramli Mansur, former Speaker of House of Representative Marzuki Alie, and recently National Police Chief Tito Karnavian dismissing the lack of consent of rape victims while at the same time blaming the way they dressed. Indonesian netizens in various social media platforms still frequently call out women to ‘cover themselves’ to avoid ‘arousing’ men in their surroundings. There is still a prevailing common conception that women who do not adhere to these religious practices and codes are promiscuous. By not covering up, they are believed as degrading themselves and thus ‘deserving’ of such harassment. Consequently, the discourse of sexual harassment hovers around the glorification of hijab as the ultimate ‘solution’ to armor women from possible harassment, drifting away from the discussion to address the root of sexual harassment culture in Indonesian society.
There is a misleading conception among Indonesian society that women dressing in ‘provocative’ manner results in a higher incidence of sexual harassment and assaults. In fact, as to how this writing has explained, street harassment still happens despite the increased number of hijab-wearing women because the problem lies in the patriarchal thinking and women objectification, not in the way they dressed and behave in public space. The usage of assalamualaikum to harass women has accommodated the objectification of women in public space, even when they wear hijab. More women cover themselves, but generally, women do not feel any safer in public places and still encounter street harassment.
Until we uncover the underlying problems in the way our social position women’s appearance and the way men objectify them, Indonesian women will be in an endless modest-clothing dilemma: damn if they do, damn if they don’t.
 ‘Six are the rights of a Muslim over another Muslim. It was said to him: Allah’s Messenger, what are these? Thereupon he said: When you meet him, offer him greeting…” (Abu Huraira, Book 26: 5379)
 “A’isha reported that a group of Jews came to Allah’s Messenger and sought his audience and said: As-Sam-u-’Alaikum. A’isha said in response: As-Sim-u-’Alaikum (death be upon you) and curse also, whereupon Allah’s Messenger said: ‘A’isha, verily Allah likes gentleness in every matter. She said: Did you hear what they said? Thereupon he said: Did you not hear me answering them back by saying Wa ‘Alaikum (the same be upon you)?.” (Book 26: 5384)
 “Maybe after (I give no reply), they (the harassers) will respond with ‘geez, what a cocky girl’, ‘you know it’s a sin if you don’t reply (to assalamualaikum)’ and other sayings”, as written in an online forum Quora discussing street harassment using assalamualaikum, retrieved from https://id.quora.com/Bagaimana-respon-kalian-sebagai-perempuan-khususnya-yang-berjilbab-jika-dilecehkan-dengan-perkataan-catcalling-assalamualaikum
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Konten ini ditulis oleh Dianty Widyowati Ningrum. Ia adalah pelajar di bidang ilmu transdisipliner yang tertarik pada isu krisis iklim, gender, keadilan sosial dan pembangunan. Temukan ia di sini.