Why wear the veil in Jogja? One reason is it’s the fashion, and that as a Muslim woman to go without one would be considered a “statement.” The other is that men cannot dominate their animal instincts around women with sex appeal (triggered by the hair and neck), and that the veil lessens distraction while heightening respect towards the “gentler” sex.
Nothing new. But what if our sexual instincts were as dull as a sleeping eunuch’s? Imagine if the desire for another’s flesh was a peckish interest rather than a voracious hunger, and lust could be swallowed like bad breath. Would the veil just slip off like a loose accessory, while the eyes tipped up from the waist to the heavens?
I might be exaggerating a bit here, but it seems this idea was implied when I prompted my graduate student to answer a question about religion in context. It was only the second day of English class at the university’s center for interreligious studies, and I had just learned that our most wide-eyed student was once a Muslim extremist. He looked much more goofy than extreme, with his eyes rolling around as if they were a mile apart and his chest occasionally heaving from an unprompted giggle.
He said, leaning over his desk, “In places where desire is not so strong, the standards for wearing the veil should not be so strict.” The students around him agreed and nodded their heads, urging him to go on.
“Men in Indonesia have lower levels of desire than Arab men. This is because in the Arab world men eat camels, and camels enhance one’s sexual appetite.” We all paused. I looked around to see if the other students were taking this in. One of the students self-defined as an “ascetic” turned his head to hide a smile.
The speaker waved his palm and shook it insistently. “Yes, Indonesian men do not eat camels. This is why women in Saudi Arabia wear the burqa and women in Indonesia are safe to dress freely in public.”
“Where did you get this information?” I asked.
“There are so many studies,” he said, sweeping an arm to demonstrate vastness, “that prove that what we eat is directly linked to our sexual appetite.” His eyes looked like they were about to pop out. They wobbled above above teeth that frayed from his upper lip.
I thought of the many relationships I knew in Jogja based only on instant message correspondences, the typical blouses hiding feminine curves and truncating the legs, store-front underwear that looked like parachutes, the young men heading out to the milk bar for pastel-colored shakes that put them to sleep. I had never lived in a city that seemed so asexual, and I wondered—in my own slip of logic—if what my student had suggested was true.
“Do you think it’s true that what we eat dictates our levels of desire and modesty?” I asked my other students. “Do you think it’s true that Arab men have more desire than Indonesian men, or that this should mean anything?”
The woman next to me smiled bashfully, as if admitting that her scarf was only the result of wishful thinking among limp men. More likely she had no experience from which to answer my question.
There was an awkward silence in the classroom. I could see the speaker’s bottom lip trembling between the spaces from tooth to tooth. Had he done anything wrong? Hadn’t he presented a proper argument by placing religion in context, and by moreover, by applying science?
There must be other ways to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of religious concepts like the veil than by painting one culture as more flaccid the other. And can we ever speculate on the inner-workings of a culture based on whether it munches on fried tempeh or sucks from the teat of a desert mammal?
Perhaps it will take us decades or even centuries to decide on the validity of religious arguments to the extent that we can move forward. In the mean time, what do you eat?
The weekend before Ramadan, visitors from all regions of Jojakarta came to Imogiri to pay tribute to the dead.
Imogiri, also known as the “Royal Cemetery,” houses the bodies of Central Java’s royal sultanate. Constructed in the mid-1600s, it serves as a pilgrimage site for Javanese traditionalists seeking sanctuary in prayer, and also for the spirits of deceased rulers who cater to the wishes of the devoted.
I visited Imogiri with another language student from Switzerland, along with two local women. Upon entering the site, we were told we had to exchange our Western clothing for traditional batik, as this was the garb most respectful for the dead. All four women entered a changing area the size of a gas-station bathroom and stood still as two elderly Indonesian ladies unclothed us and wrapped our sweating bodies in chocolate-covered fabric.
We walked barefoot up a series of stone steps to the first cemetery dwelling, which housed the graves of the seventh and ninth sultans of the Mataram region. Kneeling on a carpet outside the house of tombs, I listened to old men chanting Qur’anic verses: heads bowed, bodies rocking. Kneeling five feet ahead was the Sultan’s son, wife and two teenage grandsons. On one occasion one grandson’s cell phone rang, breaking the rhythm of the Qur’anic chants. I looked on with surprise as, without shame, the boy removed his cell-phone from his batik pocket, answered his text, and returned to prayer. Beside him an emaciated cemetery servant prayed over a bowl of burning flowers, which generated a sweet scent that wafted into the surrounding space.
After paying tribute to the recent sultans and their wives and after ascending 400 steps, we arrived at the resting place of Sultan Agung, the man who initiated the construction of the cemetery and who died in 1645. Beloved by the Javanese for the past three centuries, Sultan Agung rests at the very top of the site, built at an incline to resemble a mountain of snow.
Sultan Agung’s dwelling smelled like damp stone. I crouched as I shuffled beneath the ceiling into a small room where the royal coffin lay. As custom advised, I prayed beside the coffin for safety and prosperity, then proceeded to the other side of the coffin to complete my meditation. A man sat there cross-legged, candle in hand, and pointed to a crack in the tile in front of me. Kiss the crack three times while making a wish, he told me. So I placed my mouth where thousands have done so before, hoping there might be some truth in superstition, questioning the likelihood of a long-dead man reaching out to me: a sinful white woman, clueless about any sense of traditional belonging, bearing the nerve to fumble like a lost parasite through his tomb.
The Entrance into Imogiri