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Indonesia's War on Women

"Virginity tests" are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Indonesia's strange, and often terrifyingly restrictive, policies governing women's behaviour.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Legislators in Indonesia proposed a controversial law this week that would require girls to pass a "virginity test" in order to graduate high school. "If they're not virgins anymore, don't let them pass," said one of the leading lawmakers from Jember, the township in East Java pushing for the V-card test, to a local news site. The proposed policy was ultimately defeated after an outpouring of public outrage across the archipelago nation.

This is not the first time such a law has been proposed in Indonesia. In 2007, the province of West Java called for similar tests on high school graduates, and in 2013, lawmakers in South Sumatra tried as well. Both attempts failed. Still, women applying to the National Police force have been given virginity, or "two-finger" tests since at least 1965—a few months ago, the Indonesian coordinating minister for politics, law, and security told the press that giving female military recruits a hymen check has been obligatory for a while now. Last November, the head of the force's law division told the Jakarta Post that the tests can help determine an applicant's moral standards. "If she turns out to be a prostitute, then how could we accept her for the job?" he rationalized.


Local civil society organizations and foreign advocacy groups have called for an end to the bizarre practice. "President Joko Widodo should send a loud and unambiguous message forbidding virginity tests by local governments, as well as the Indonesian military, police, and civil service," Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch said in a press release on Monday.

The practice is degrading, unscientific, and in violation of human rights conventions that Indonesia ascribes to, not to mention a major obstacle to gender equality. But why is it happening in the first place?

Despite provisions in Indonesia's constitution barring gender discrimination, the rights of women there lag far behind those of men. Strict communal perceptions of femininity coupled with an enduring culture of machismo propagates a rigid social understanding of what women can and cannot do. Premarital sex is one of the biggest no-nos. In a country where nearly 90 percent of the population practices Islam, issues of sexuality are often connected with religion and morality. Virginity tests are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The committee is deeply concerned about the persistence of a large number of discriminatory laws at the national level… [as well as] discriminatory bylaws," the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women wrote in a 2012 white paper. Some local regulations are as strange as they are prejudiced. In 2013, a township in Lhokseumawe issued a law banning female passengers from straddling motor bikes. Another law proposed the same year would have banned women from dancing in public spaces.


Other restrictions are just scary: In 2010, the Ministry of Health issued regulations effectively legalizing female genital mutilation, a practice that has polled favorably among 90 percent of Indonesian adults.

In 2013, Indonesia's National Commission on Violence Against Women reported that national and local officials had passed approximately 342 discriminatory laws since 1999. From 2009 to 2013, the number of local discriminatory laws passed more than doubled from 154 to 334. "The number of discriminatory policies continues to increase and there has not yet been any firm and decisive steps taken by the state to prevent and eliminate them," the commission said in an August 2013 press release.

This anachronistic treatment of women is in stark contrast with Indonesia's image as the modern—and religiously moderate—emerging economic hub of Southeast Asia, an image pushed by the new president Joko Widodo, a populist champion of religious pluralism and moderation. But right-wing activists, emboldened by a steady rise in religious conservatism in the country, have advocated laws targeting women's behavior and opposed laws designed to protect women. In 2012, passage of a landmark gender equality bill was put on indefinite hold due to opposition from six major Islamic organizations on the grounds that the legislation went against "Islamic values."

Despite having elected a female president in 2001, the position of women in Indonesian society has been steadily deteriorating since the new millennium. "An expressed notion that women should primarily be heterosexual wives and mothers, continues to make it hard for women to access equal opportunities to men," says Sharyn Graham Davies, associate professor at New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology and author of Sex and Sexualities in Indonesia: Sexual Politics, Diversity, Representations, and Health. "I wouldn't see [virginity tests] as a trend of things 'getting worse,' more I would see it as the cruel reality of a nation where dominant notions of women are of them being virgins until heterosexual marriage and then monogamous within it," she adds.

According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women the number of cases of abuse handled by women's crises centers increased fourfold in four years, from 25,522 cases in 2007 to 119,107 in 2011. Other statistics, such as those related access to reproductive health care, are also worrisome. Official government statistics attribute between 5 and 11 percent of maternal deaths in Indonesia to unsafe abortions. "Restrictions on sexual and reproductive rights are placing severe and potentially deadly obstacles in the way many women and girls can access reproductive health information and services," Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement in 2010.

On nearly every front, women face major obstacles to equality in Indonesia. And with endemic rates of official corruption, growing violence from Islamic extremists, a separatist movement in West Papua, and rising rates of HIV and AIDS, the country certainly has a lot more important things to worry about than the status of its citizen's hymens.

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