Sacred and Profane

Indonesian women navigate the rise of religious orthodoxy

Neqy, a 34-yearold activist, is part of perEMPUan, an initiative to combat sexual violence in public spaces. “The way of dressing has nothing to do with sexual harassment and the hijab does not protect us from abuse.” Mirko Cecchi
28 February, 2021

One afternoon in early November 2019, Mega Trisnawatii posed for a photograph on the waterfront of Ancol, a seaside zone in the far north of Jakarta, which fills up with locals and tourists over the weekend. The photographer, her husband, Febry, had a digital camera around his neck and held a sleeping one-year-old boy in a baby carrier. After taking the shot, along with their other three-year-old son in tow, the family headed to their car.

Mega is a 27-year-old Instagram celebrity with over fifty-four thousand followers. In the photos on her account, her head is covered by coloured hijabs and her body wrapped in floating dresses that reach her ankles. She was the brand ambassador of Amily, an Indonesian clothing brand, in 2019, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she took part in many virtual fashion shows. “They pay us two hundred and fifty thousand Indonesian rupees”—around eighteen dollars—“per Instagram post,” Febry, who quit his job to devote himself to Mega’s career, told me. “If we work well, we can reach 30 million Indonesian rupees a month”—over two thousand dollars.

Like Mega, many women in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, have found a source of income on Instagram. Some have become points of reference for Muslim fashion, and endorse clothing lines and cosmetics, while some have also becomes promoters of more spiritual wares. A rising number of online influencers have found fame encouraging a lifestyle closer to the doctrines of Islam. The trend has become a movement: hijrah, literally meaning migration, taking its name from the historical exodus of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The millions who have embraced hijrah are mostly young people who find their spiritual guides on social media.

I met Elma Adisya, a 24-year-old contributor to the digital feminist magazine Magdalene, in the coworking space where the publication is based. She told me that as a child she attended a Koranic school and wore a veil, but as she grew up she began questioning the dogmatic ways of the faith. Today, she has short, coloured hair and, in her writings, analyses trends among young Indonesian Muslims.

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.