Indonesians argue over plan to ban miniskirts

As part of a crackdown on ‘pornography,’ Indonesian lawmakers have proposed a ban on skirts that end above the knee. Are revealing clothes a public indecency or a private choice?

Miniskirts are rarely considered as a subject for serious political debate. But in Indonesia, they are the hottest topic of the day: the government has proposed a ban on skirts and dresses that fail to cover a woman’s knees.

The law has been suggested by an influential minister who was appointed last year as the head of an ‘anti-pornography task force.’ The controversial group has taken an unusually broad definition of ‘pornography.’ With government approval they have set out to enforce a stricter sexual morality, including a crackdown on revealing clothes.

Indonesia is home to more Muslims (over 200 million) than any other country in the world, and the recommendations are influenced by Islamic teachings. Strict Muslims consider public displays of flesh taboo – especially for women. In Iran, for instance, all women are expected to cover their legs, arms, ankles and heads.

But Indonesia is enormously diverse. Many rural regions stick firmly to conservative Muslim teachings; but urban areas are often home to far more liberal attitudes. Fashion-conscious shoppers buy ‘western’ clothes from sales assistants who wear dresses as short as any regularly seen in Paris and New York; tank tops are hardly more unusual than hijabs.

Six months ago, the streets of the capital Jakarta were filled with women marching in protest against restrictive attitudes towards clothing. ‘My miniskirt, my right,’ was one of their chants – for them, this right is now under genuine threat.

Meanwhile on remote islands like Papua, customs are even more relaxed. Local culture treats bare breasts as no more taboo than bare arms or necks are to a European. Women freely walk the streets topless without even raising a glance.

And differences of opinion over acceptable clothing are certainly not confined to Indonesia. In England, for instance, a man known as ‘the naked rambler’ is serving a seemingly endless string of prison sentences for his refusal to wear clothes in public.

Skirting the issue

Any kind of rules on what people can and can’t wear are just repressive, say free spirits. To stop someone from dressing how they want is to stop them from being who they want – and that’s the most important freedom of all. Our bodies, they say, our choice.

But clothing, argue those with less outrageous tastes, is not simply a matter of personal choice. Exposed flesh makes many people extremely uncomfortable – do they not also have rights? It is completely reasonable, they argue, for a society to expect its members to abide by certain standards of dress. Nobody is proposing a uniform, they say, but surely there have to be some limits.

You Decide

  1. Should people be allowed to walk around in public in the nude?
  2. Do governments have a right to tell people what they can and can’t wear?


  1. Hold a class debate about your school’s dress code. Should there be a uniform? Are there types of clothing that ought to be banned?
  2. Research a country you are interested in and draw up a list of instructions for travellers advising them about local customs: what sorts of behaviour, dress and body language should they avoid?

Some People Say...

“If people find the human body disturbing, that’s their own problem.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do laws like this apply to visitors as well?
Absolutely. And it’s not just the law you need to respect: often foreign cultures have very different expectations of what clothing is appropriate, and it’s extremely impolite to ignore these expectations. Before heading somewhere unfamiliar it’s always worth doing some research on the local customs.
It’s not really an issue in western cultures though, right?
Not so. In France, for instance, the face-covering burqa worn by some Muslim women is outlawed. In the UK some department stores have recently banned hoodies, while in some American cities it is illegal to wear ‘low-rise’ trousers. Only a few countries – such as Canada – allow full public nudity, and most have some sort of restriction on what clothes are allowed.

Word Watch

Short skirts have been worn for thousands of years. But the ‘miniskirt’ as it is known today was designed in 1964 by a London fashion designer called Mary Quant. She named the skirt after her favourite car, the Mini, and it soon became an international phenomenon – one of the icons of the 1960s.
The Koran calls on women to ‘guard their modesty,’ and many Muslims interpret this as a restriction on bare flesh – although not all. This ‘modest’ style of Muslim dress is called hijab, but the term is mostly associated with the headscarf in particular.
The naked rambler
Stephen Gough, known by the media as ‘the naked rambler,’ has twice travelled the length of Britain naked on foot. He was repeatedly arrested for public indecency, and now refuses to wear clothes even when appearing in court. As a result he has been in prison almost continuously for six years. He is likely to remain there until nudity laws are are changed.

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