‘Jilbab’ and head lice: How can religion address poverty?

Lies Marcoes (The Jakarta Post) PREMIUM Jakarta
Tue, September 6, 2022

A hijab-wearing fourth-grader in the Central Java city of Karanganyar went viral on social media in the final week of August after her teacher helped her remove head lice and nits from her hair. The teacher explained that the girl’s mother, a scavenger, knew the girl had lice, but she was too busy earning a living to deal with the problem.

This story is enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end. But for people who often visit villages, seeing lice in children’s hair is unsurprising. In the least developed regions where water is scarce, such as in the eastern part of Indonesia, I often encounter children and adults with head lice.

Head lice live in dirty, damp hair. In 1984, while doing research in Bandung on the culture of poverty, I lived in a poor area and saw many female residents with lice, especially teenage girls. I eventually got lice myself, because the neighbor’s children often spent the night at my place. Luckily, the house where we lived had its own well and I had enough money to buy shampoo. I did not lack water to wash my hair and rid it of lice, but it was not that easy for the other people in the area.

Over the last several years, it has become extremely common for schoolgirls in the country to wear hijab, locally called jilbab, even in state schools. Jilbab seems to have become part of school uniforms.

It’s easy to understand that if someone constantly wears jilbab, all day and all week long, her hair will become damp or even soaked with sweat until it dries out again. If the hair is rarely washed, it becomes a breeding ground for head lice. Shampoo ads often remind us about the importance of caring for our hair, especially if we wear jilbab. However, what they usually advertise is the effect of damp hair that causes the scalp to dry out, causing dandruff and hair loss.

But the shampoo ads never raise the issue of head lice. This is obviously because shampoo advertisements have a class bias. The problems of urban youth that ads show are dandruff, acne and dull skin, not head lice, or cracked lips from not eating enough fruits.

Our forests have been steadily denuded and replaced with oil palm plantations, and the extracted palm oil is used, among other things, as raw material to produce shampoo. Isn’t it ironic that, even as our forests are all being cut down to support the hair treatment sector, we are still finding girls with head lice?

Clearly, lice are an indication of poverty. Poor children with limited access to water who live in a dense environment that is damp because it does not get enough sunlight will easily get lice. And now the privatization of water is expanding to rural areas.

Water, just like gasoline, has to be bought, or at the very least, electricity needs to be used to pump water from deep underground wells. So, procuring water for day-to-day needs is now also something people must pay for. As a result, more poor people are facing even more difficulties in obtaining water, unless they live near natural sources of water like springs, clean rivers, ponds or lakes.

But how many enjoy that luxury these days? Privatization of water is continuing to spread everywhere.

When people study fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the first topic of discussion is thaharah (ritual purity/cleanliness). Thaharah includes, among other matters, the requirements and methods for mandi junub, or “major bathing”, i.e. bathing and washing one’s hair to be ritually pure after menstruation or having sex. Along with the need for ritual cleanliness, air should also be available to maintain sanitation and health, including getting rid of lice. Clearly, a girl who has lice very seldom has any contact with water, especially for washing her hair.

But teaching the fiqh on the mandi junub obligation, including washing our hair, does not apply to children like the girl in Karanganyar. Even for slightly older girls, washing the hair for ritual purity is required only once a month after their menstrual period. But for younger girls who are not yet menstruating, mandi junub does not yet arise as a religious obligation.

So, it seems the chapters on thaharah in fiqh cannot be relied on to address the problem of head lice through ritual bathing.

The question, then, is how can a religion that “requires” females to wear jilbab also address the health problems that accompany this practice, such as head lice in girls?

Children with lice speak volumes about poverty. The issue is not the steady expansion of wearing jilbab that is not accompanied by teaching about basic hygiene, but rather the increasingly difficult access to clean water, which is a basic need for everyone and something that is guaranteed by the 1945 Constitution.

So, doesn’t this mean that religion should also be responsible for fulfilling the most basic necessities of life, such as the availability of clean water?

* The writer is a researcher at Rumah KitaB.


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