I came to my new school right on the cusp of graduation and the graduation ceremony. Because my school is a madrasah all female students and teachers must wear a hijab as part of the uniform. As part of the “staff” it would be appropriate for me to wear a hijab also, but because I am not Muslim, I am not required to.
I’ve heard that some other volunteers have made the decision to wear a hijab in their schools and heard that it is a big commitment. Once you said yes, it was looked down upon to change your mind in the future. With this in mind, I was a little more than annoyed when I was asked by one of my counterparts—on my first day at school no less—if I would be willing to wear a scarf for two days for the students’ graduation ceremony. All of the students’ parents would be present, he said, you will be more beautiful! I think he meant to stress in the notoriously passive-aggressive Javanese manner that if I wore it I’d look more presentable.
The direction of this conversation began to fill me with internal conflict. What ran through my head:
• I don’t want to set a precedent.
• I definitely don’t want to wear one for the next two years.
• If I say yes now, will they insist I wear one in the future?
• I am not Muslim so I shouldn’t be forced to wear one.
• Am I being a horrible person for not wanting to partake in their customs? (Note respecting, does not mean partaking.)
I have no lack of confidence in my ability to communicate diplomatically about delicate issues so I began: I would prefer not to wear a scarf because I am not Muslim, but if this is very important to the school and if it is only for two days, I will be willing to do it.
I had spoken too fast and too much at one time. So I began to dissect my sentences and use body language and stressing only two days, right? He confirmed that it was only for two days and upon completion of the event I could just put the scarf away for future religious occasions inside mosques.
Though we were both satisfied with the resolution of the issue, there was still a lack of calm in the air because I didn’t want to offend him—or the school—and he didn’t want to be the source of any discomfort for me. Not much later, all my English counterparts, one female teacher and I traveled together to a hotel an hour away for conference to plan out the upcoming year. In between bouts of carsickness from the winding, but scenic roads, I replayed the conversation in my mind wondering if I had handled the issue in the best way.
There’s not much to tell about the conference, because it was all in bahasa Indonesia and there was little I could actually contribute, but the overnight trip gave me the invaluable opportunity to meet all of the school’s staff and get to know them on a personal level. I shared a hotel room with two female teachers, Bu Mut and Bu Endang, who kept me up all night—and not because they were chatty (and only because we don’t have the language skills required to be!) Apparently, Javanese people are very superstitious and prefer to sleep with the lights on. Also, they are very pious Muslim women who got up to pray at (what felt like) 2:30, 3:30, then at 4:30 they went to the mosque.
Before that restless night and after their evening sholat—prayer—Bu Mut, my principle, Pak Iman and Pak Warai asked me to speak with them. I wasn’t absolutely sure what it was about, but mentally, I was getting ready to restart the hijab conversation all over again. It did turn out to be about the hijab, but I was pleasantly surprised when my principle immediately blurted out that if I didn’t want to wear a scarf, it’s ok. They all had gathered together to make sure I understood that they want me to be happy here and for me to feel kerasan—at home. I made sure they understood that I would be willing to wear it, but in my opinion it would be more honest to present myself as I am to all of the parents, rather than as someone I am not. They understood, agreed and we proceeded to eat and have a great conference in this hotel by the sea.
I am beyond happy to be surrounded by open-minded scholars who are able to understand and accept my point of view. I do feel kerasan here. All of the people I’ve met here have gone above and beyond to assure that.
This is definitely the beginning of a beautiful work relationship—and friendships.