An eye on re­gional af­fairs

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents -

The prac­tice of at­tempt­ing to ver­ify the virginity – and os­ten­si­bly the moral­ity – of fe­male po­lice and mil­i­tary re­cruits has been in place in Indonesia since as early as 1965. Hu­man Rights Watch re­cently called for an end to it, cit­ing a lack of women per­son­nel for United Na­tions peace­keep­ing mis­sions. Ac­cord­ing to Jakarta Fem­i­nist Dis­cus­sion Group founder Kate Wal­ton, “one’s sex­ual sta­tus has no link to one’s morals” Hu­man Rights Watch re­cently called for Indonesia to cease its more than half-cen­tury prac­tice of “virginity tests” for fe­male ap­pli­cants to its na­tional po­lice force and mil­i­tary, and even for the fi­ancées of mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, in or­der to fill a short­age of UN peace­keep­ers. Why do you think this is be­ing done?

Sup­pos­edly it is to de­ter­mine whether a woman is of good morals or not. Pre­mar­i­tal sex re­mains taboo in Indonesia, and is broadly seen as a sign of an im­moral woman. The think­ing goes that po­lice­women and fe­male soldiers and of­fi­cers, plus the wives of men in the mil­i­tary and the po­lice, should be of a bet­ter moral class than the av­er­age woman – how are they to guard and pro­tect the coun­try if they can­not guard and pro­tect them­selves?

Are these “two fin­ger” virginity tests even a valid way to de­ter­mine if a woman has had sex­ual in­ter­course? No, nei­ther the ‘two fin­ger’ method (in which the in­dex and mid­dle fin­gers are used to find the hy­men) nor other meth­ods such as us­ing a torch to in­spect a woman’s gen­i­tals can ac­tu­ally de­ter­mine whether a woman has had sex­ual in­ter­course. Hy­mens can and of­ten do break way be­fore a woman be­comes sex­u­ally ac­tive, such as through sport, while some women are not even born with hy­mens. It’s a com­pletely un­sci­en­tific method.

Is there any­one in power in Indonesia ad­vo­cat­ing for end­ing the prac­tice?

A num­ber of re­tired po­lice­women have done so, such as Bri­gadier Gen­eral Sri Ru­miati (Ret.), who has said that the tests are in vi­o­la­tion of the Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of All Forms of Dis­crim­i­na­tion Against Women (CEDAW). Women’s groups also fre­quently raise the is­sue in the me­dia and at ma­jor protests such as In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day. The is­sue comes up ev­ery year, and each time, the po­lice and the mil­i­tary say they will end or have ended the prac­tice, yet it seems to re­main in place.

Would more In­done­sian women be in­ter­ested in be­com­ing cops and soldiers if this prac­tice were ended? I think women who are al­ready in­ter­ested would be more likely to pur­sue these ca­reers, yes. Women who have un­der­gone the tests say that the process is in­cred­i­bly em­bar­rass­ing, not to men­tion po­ten­tially ca­reer-end­ing if they are de­ter­mined not to be a vir­gin. But gen­er­ally speak­ing, the av­er­age per­son isn’t in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a po­lice­woman or a solider for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons – dif­fi­culty of en­ter­ing, in­clud­ing fees (both of­fi­cial and un­of­fi­cial) that must be paid, hard work con­di­tions, and low pay.

How do nor­mal cit­i­zens feel about vir­gin tests? What are the bar­ri­ers to end­ing the prac­tice?

Many peo­ple don’t ac­tu­ally known that virginity tests are used on can­di­dates – a quick poll I con­ducted on Twit­ter at the end of June showed that one-third of the al­most 700 re­spon­dents were un­aware of the tests. That said, many do feel that po­lice­women and fe­male soldiers must be of ‘good moral char­ac­ter’, and although they do not sup­port the in­va­sive phys­i­cal tests, they be­lieve that there must be some sort of check in place to en­sure that ‘im­moral’ women do not en­ter the forces. The prac­tice could be eas­ily ended if the heads of po­lice and mil­i­tary de­manded it be erad­i­cated; un­for­tu­nately, con­vinc­ing them of the dis­crim­i­na­tory and shame­ful na­ture of the tests is not an easy task.

In­done­sian mil­i­tary and po­lice re­cruits – those who hap­pen to be fe­male – are sub­ject to an anachro­nis­tic decades-old prac­tice

kate wal­ton is an aus­tralian jour­nal­ist, ac­tivist and founder of the jakarta fem­i­nist dis­cus­sion group in jakarta, where she is based

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