Sunday, December 3, 2023

Indonesia’s Hidden Beauty

A wise woman once told me to contribute to society and have an interesting life. She also used to say things like, ‘go outside and play,’ and ‘go to bed.’ I’d say all of those words are sage advice from my mother.

I’m photojournalist Carey Wagner, and this week I’m happy to share with you my small contribution through photography. It’s the start of more conversations about how women in Indonesia balance their Muslim faith in the modern world.

With the support of the @internationalreportingproject, I was able to spend five weeks in Indonesia this summer as a religion fellow reporting in photos and video with radio producer and friend @alison_ruth_morris. The stories are in post-production and looking for distribution. So here is your sneak peek with a little backstory.

This first picture was taken in Banda Aceh, right on the tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. The sun blanketed a warm glow over the Grand Mosque early that morning for Edul Fitri to mark the end of Ramadan. There was an incredible yet quiet energy with massive amounts of people taking formation before prayer.

An anomaly to the crowd, I probably stuck out underneath my hijab. With no wall for me to fly onto, it turned into a wonderful experience with women coming up to practice their English with me, nods from the local photojournalists and endless requests for selfies. There is a kindness I experienced, and not just on this day, that reminds us to make an effort to connect just a little bit more.

The tsunami of 2004 was one of the deadliest of all time. It hit Banda Aceh and devastated the town. The hardest part to comprehend was how sometimes all but one or two members of a family were swept away, leaving a sister without her brothers and parents.

During interviews, time was marked by before or after the tsunami, but with a tone of resilience. It also marked the rise of Islamic sharia law. These women climbing the stairs of the Aceh Tsunami Museum have to wear hijab and face a curfew by 11pm. Some rural areas have gone as far as banning women from straddling a motorcycle. You can never be too modest.

Yet it was our job to find out if women indeed felt oppressed or protected. Digging deeper meant less clarity and more complexity. Let’s keep talking in the next post.

Indonesia identifies itself as being moderate Muslims. But in Aceh, they have the authority to implement Islamic Sharia law from the central government – as they have special autonomy granted after the devastating tsunami of 2004.

One official explained that these religious laws are different from the Middle East. Their main goal is to preserve the guidelines of Islam that will make for a better life, a moral life, through restrictions on drinking, gambling, dress and sexual practices. But they differ because they take into account the local culture in a softer approach.

On the visual level, that was obvious through fashion. Colorful head coverings, even ones used for prayer, was a constant reminder of individual expression. But in this region, it’s clear that the guidelines are set for you and the fashion is a colorful mode of protection. If you do not wear hijab in Aceh, the Sharia police might stop you and advise to cover your head so as not to risk being touched inappropriately. Should risk of harassment be based on what you wear?

Last post I talked about women wearing head covering as an obligation to their faith, Islam. Did you know that many women wear hijab out of choice?

While on a shoot about a talented make-up artist, we met Chiki. She was posing for her first solo album cover, and chose to wear hijab. In fact, she was kicked out of her 8-bit electronic band when she first decided to follow her faith and start covering her head . It didn’t fit in with the club culture, despite her choice of bright colors and endless accessories.

She happier now, and that’s her choice. And she’s not alone in the growing trend of Muslim fashion. The nuanced grey area of life is what intrigues me most as a journalist.

It had all the makings of a beauty contest with women identified by contestant numbers, a talent show and portrait session, endless flips of a compact to reapply makeup and high heels so tall that they throw you off balance just looking at them.

But this contest, Putri Hijab (or “Princess Hijab”), trades the bikini contest for a religion quiz. The only skin showing are feet, hands and face. They ate brownies in the break area. Getting to know some of the contestants, I was impressed by how accepting these women were of themselves. The attitude was ‘I did the best I could do,’ and sometimes passing the judgment onto their faith instead of criticizing themselves. They supported each other with patience while still being driven with lofty goals.

These types of contests are growing in Indonesia. You still have to be beautiful and fashionable, but it’s redefining what a modern Muslim woman looks like. I’d also like to note that I wore Teva’s Zirra sandals to this event. They are very comfortable.

There is a saying you sometimes hear photographers use when talking about gaining access to photograph something. ‘Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.’ That doesn’t feel respectful enough. I’d rather have an invitation, or a look in the eye or a small nod that it’s ok for us to share the same space and for me to capture what I see.

During this shoot it was my gender that kept me on the sidelines, not my camera. Hundreds of men, and men only gathered from different villages to break fast during Ramadan. I stood where I was initially told by our friends, but continued to get invitations to come closer. An old man with friendly eyes waved me in, some banana and coconut jelly was passed my way.

So there I was, me and hundreds of men, sharing an experience from beginning to end. No forgiveness necessary. You can hear an audio postcard @alison_ruth_morris put together from this day at the mosque and see a few more photos under my name at

An Australian woman on a train tour group around Java, Indonesia peers out onto a train car graveyard on the way to Bandung. Most in their group were older.

One couple, who met decades ago in Papua New Guinea, told me to travel with a sense of adventure as much as I can now. They said when you get older you start to plan vacations around how many times you have to pick up and move your luggage.

Indonesia can be an incredibly friendly place to roam. So why didn’t we see too many tourists, specifically Westerners, in Aceh? The mayor even asked for visitors to post on social media how great it was. But the restrictions for women and covered clothing in 90 degree heat can be a bit off-putting for a tourist.

But for a traveler, one who can immerse herself a bit beyond her comfort zone, the rewards are in kindness of the locals and lot to think about when you experience cultural norms. How do you travel? If you’re a photographer, do you try to blend in?

There’s a small island resort just a ferry ride away from Banda Aceh that’s known as a place where you can let your hair down. Literally. Women who cover themselves in the capital of Banda Aceh can go there, wear shorts, and take off their hijab.

Tourists feel more comfortable here, too. They can share a room even if they are not married. Some drink alcohol. But there is still a clash with the need for reprieve and Sharia Law practiced and politicized in the region.

The resort came under attack one New Year’s Eve celebration. Part of the following retaliation criticized women and what they wear. It begs the questions: Why the need for a safe haven? And why the judgement?

Photo by Carey Wagner @careywagner guest posting for @causebeautiful made possible by @internationalreportingproject.

Fauziah bounces her granddaughter to sleep in their traditional Acehnese home in the village of Bak Paoh, Indonesia. Four generations live under the same roof.

I asked what they hope to teach the little girl and her mother said she wants her to be more religious than she is. We learned that the villages are often susceptible for people taking the Sharia Law into their own hands. Everyone wants to be a good Muslim, but liberties are taken as to what that means. Unfortunately, women sometimes get the short end of that stick.

As a photojournalist, when someone you interview invites you to her house you almost never want to say no. I am very grateful to Ghaida for letting me be present even as she pulled her kids out of their slumber for the second time that day, the first being before 4:30am prayer.

Her daily life as a Muslim woman was disciplined yet chaotic. Her immediate family blurred into the community around her with an interconnectedness that’s immediately addictive, if overwhelming. Yet in an admirable display of balance, around mid-morning Ghaida made time for her business and her art. She sat down, alone at home, to work.

She’s a Muslim fashion designer and blogger with hundreds of thousands of followers online and products in stores. Yet she even admitted to taking personal time when she needs it away from her husband and three small children. A life of balance is not what I expected to find.

I saw her as a strong woman, yet she assured me that in Islam the husband is the leader and she is the follower. Yet she smiled and added that sometimes she makes the rules.

Photo by Carey Wagner @careywagner guest posting for @causebeautiful made possible by the @internationalreportingproject.

There is a call to prayer five times a day, the first one at 4:30am in Indonesia. It’s a discipline as well as a coming together of a community. But it’s still early enough that kids who need to sleep might find a temporarily bed on the mosque floor.

When Ghaida told us that she carries her three kids from their beds before dawn to pray down the street, it didn’t even require but a look from my colleague @alison_ruth_morris to confirm that I wanted to be there.

At what point in childhood do we realize what it means to be from where we are?

As a photojournalist, it’s fine to capture what I see. But on more nuanced stories I can’t assume anything, even from my own pictures. They should be the start of a conversation.

It’s Carey Wagner here signing off after a wonderful week of guest posting for Cause Beautiful. Please follow me at @careywagner to keep the visual conversations going. Or find me at

There wouldn’t have been a trip to Indonesia to meet so many amazing women had it not been for the @internationalreportingproject. As photojournalists, let’s keep pushing to find ways to do our work.

Four years ago when I went freelance I committed to looking at our world from the perspective of women. I’m doing my best to tell a few of their stories and ask more questions. This has been my contribution.

In return, I’ve been educated and feel more connected. Even in a country of 250 million people. I’m fortunate for everyone who has been supportive.

A big thanks to @luannedietz and @alyssa_hunter_ for sharing the projects photographers care about.

Read also our most popular topics on the International Reporting Project

Rebecca Schneider
Rebecca Schneider
Rebecca Schneider ist eine renommierte Expertin im Bereich des Journalismus. Mit ihrem umfangreichen Wissen und ihrer jahrelangen Erfahrung hat sie bereits zahlreiche Texte verfasst und ist für ihre hohe Qualität und Professionalität bekannt. Dank ihrer Expertise und ihrem Engagement für den Journalismus ist sie eine der gefragtesten Autorinnen in der Branche und hat einen hohen Bekanntheitsgrad erreicht.
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