From a Heavy Metal Band in Hijabs, a Message of Girl Power

The drummer crashed her cymbals. The bass player clawed at her guitar. The crowd raised index and pinkie fingers in approval. The lead singer and guitarist stepped up to the mic and screamed: “Our body is not public property!” And dozens of fans threw themselves into a frenzy for the hijab-wearing heavy metal trio.

“We have no place for the sexist mind,” the lead singer, Firda Kurnia, shrieked into the mic, singing the chorus of one of the band’s hit songs, “(Not) Public Property,” during a December performance in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

Nearly a decade after first emerging, Voice of Baceprot (pronounced bachey-PROT, meaning “noise” in Sundanese, one of the main languages spoken in Indonesia) has earned a large domestic following with songs that focus on progressive themes like female empowerment, pacifism and environmental preservation.

Now it is also winning fans overseas. It’s been praised by the likes of Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. In the past year, the band — whose lyrics mix English, Indonesian and Sundanese — has played in the United States, France and the Netherlands.

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At the Jakarta gig, Ms. Firda, 23, who goes by Marsya, told the crowd that the band was “a little sad and angry to hear that someone here was a victim of catcalling.”

“Anyone who does something like that, catcall or touch other people’s bodies without consent, those are the worst forms of crime,” she said. “Therefore, we can’t wait to curse this person through the following song.” And then the band played “PMS,” whose chorus is in Indonesian:

“Although I am not as virgin as Virgin Mary/I am not your rotten brain servant/Although I am not as virgin as Virgin Mary/I am free, completely free.”

Voice of Baceprot may be the only prominent heavy-metal band in Indonesia whose members wear hijabs, but the heavy-metal music scene is long established here. Jakarta is the host of Hammersonic, Southeast Asia’s biggest annual heavy metal music festival. The outgoing president, Joko Widodo, is a fan of Metallica and Megadeth.

The members of Voice of Baceprot are all practicing Muslims in their early 20s. With songs that shatter stereotypes of gender, religion and class, they have become role models for many young women in Indonesia. At the concert, many fans moshed and banged their heads in tune to the music.

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Dozens of people watching a performance, including one in  a head scarf and one holding up his index and pinkie fingers
Fans at the December concert.

Still, the group has faced critics. Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, is not a theocratic state and has always cherished its secular identity, but in recent years, parts of the sprawling archipelago have adopted a more conservative interpretation of Islam — one that disapproves of young women in hijabs playing heavy metal.

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“They have come under criticism and all kinds of bullying, but that didn’t affect their determination to make music,” said Karim, a 54-year-old fan who traveled from Bogor to Jakarta for the December concert. Like many Indonesians, he uses one name.

The members of the band — Marsya; the drummer, Eusi Siti Aisyah, known as Sitti; and Widi Rahmati, the bassist — were all born and raised in Garut, a conservative part of West Java Province.

The map locates Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on the island of Java. It also locates the town of Garut in West Java.

MALAYSIA

INDONESIA

SULAWESI

Jakarta

JAVA

Garut

WEST JAVA

Indian Ocean

AUSTRALIA

500 MILES

By The New York Times

Their parents are farmers. The house where Marsya grew up still has no running water, and the internet is spotty. Their childhoods were spent reading the Quran, playing games in rice paddies and listening to their parents’ music of choice, dangdut — a flavor of Indonesian pop.

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Three women all dressed in black head scarves and clothing that covers their limbs.
The members of the band were all born and raised in Garut, a conservative part of West Java Province. From left, Widi Rahmawati, the bassist; Sitti, the drummer; and Marsya, the lead guitarist and vocalist.

The girls met as junior high students in an Islamic school, where they said they were “troublemakers.”

In 2014, they were sent to be counseled by Cep Ersa Eka Susila Satia, a teacher who first tried to get them into theater. But “their acting was horrible,” said Mr. Ersa, whom the women call “Abah Ersa,” or “Father Ersa.”

He directed them to play music instead, and they became part of a group of 15 students who dabbled in pop music. Then one day, the three girls borrowed Mr. Ersa’s laptop and discovered his playlist. They played “Toxicity,” the hit song by the Armenian American metal band System of a Down, and were instantly hooked.

They asked Mr. Ersa to teach them how to play, and they started covering popular heavy metal songs and posting videos of their performances online. They were a hit.

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The band rehearsing, while seated on black chairs set against a wall.
The band practicing before a concert in Jakarta, in December. They were turned onto heavy metal music by a teacher.

Wendi Putranto, the manager for Seringai, one of the biggest heavy metal bands in Indonesia, recalled “being blown away.”

“It’s very brave for them to play this kind of music,” Mr. Wendi said. “I think that’s the most important thing: For them to show the people that, yes, we are women, yes, we’re wearing hijab, and yes, we’re Muslims who play heavy metal. So what?”

At first, the women were called all manner of profanities. The band offended many Muslim men who believed women wearing hijabs should be docile, not head banging to metal. One day in 2015, someone threw a rock at Marsya. Attached to it was a note with an expletive.

They were having trouble at school, too, where they were regarded as “public enemies,” said Sitti, 23. Their principal told the girls, Marsya recalled, “‘Your music is haram,’” or forbidden, and that they were “‘going to hell.’” They dropped out, but eventually graduated from another school.

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The hostility took a toll. “We told Abah we were tired, and we wanted to stop playing music because of that,” Marsya said. “And Abah said: ‘Why bother with humans? Just ask God directly.’”

That led to their 2021 hit song, “God, Allow Me (Please) to Play Music.” Mr. Ersa wrote the lyrics, and the women composed the music. They write their own lyrics now, but continue to seek Mr. Ersa’s guidance.

Fans taking selfies with the band.
The band has earned a large following at home for songs that focus on themes like female empowerment, pacifism and environmental preservation

Last year, the band went on its first tour in the West, performing in France, the Netherlands, and nine cities in the United States. In Oakland, Calif., fans in the audience shouted “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase that means “God is great,” at them.

For those trips, they said, their management company advised them not to go outside without a minder to help keep them safe.

“They were afraid someone will shoot us,” said Ms. Widi, 22.

The women say the frequent questions about their head scarves bewildered them. “A lot of journalists asked about the hijab more than our music, like: ‘Who forced you to wear a hijab?’” Marsya said. “It was so weird.”

“We tell them that we wear hijabs because we want to,” she added. “And at first, yeah, our parents told us to try to wear the hijab, but after we’ve grown up, we can choose what we want.”

The women say they started wearing hijabs in elementary school. “But we wore miniskirts — the top was the Arab version, the bottom was the Japanese version!” Marsya said, laughing.

A sheet of paper, with a list of songs, stuck to a bundle of wires.
The band’s set list for the December performance.

The women said they wanted to continue focusing their next songs on female empowerment and the environment. “We are worried about our future — will we still be able to see the forest 10 years from now?” Marsya asked.

Many girls in their village are pressured to marry at a very young age, some as young as 12. “We realize now it’s a privilege for us to be heard by a lot of people,” she added. “That’s the thing that not all the girls from our village can have.”

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