Why does an Indonesian woman need to be a virgin to join the military?

Why does an Indonesian woman need to be a virgin to join the military? June 10, 2015


An expose by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in November 2014 on the use of virginity tests in Indonesia’s police force has revealed that just because people are silent over a long-standing practice, it doesn’t mean that it is accepted as a normal part of everyday life. Also referred to as the “two-finger test”, it involves a female physician inserting two fingers into the vagina to check for vaginal laxity and the presence of an intact hymen. Women who failed the test are not necessarily rejected, but may receive fewer points for their physical assessment and have further background checks.

The head of the national police law division, Inspector General Moechgiyarto told the media that “the chief objective of the test was to ensure that female cadets lived up to high moral standards” and implied that non-virgins (at least according to the test) are prostitutes and therefore unacceptable candidates.

The tests have been taking place since at least 1984, according to a testimony by a retired female air force officer given to HRW. This HRW report calls for an “[immediate] end the use of so-called virginity tests, which violate the prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international human rights law.” According to HRW’s research, all branches of the military – air force, army, and navy – have been requiring the test for decades for not only women planning to enter the military but also the fiancées of military officers. Women with connections to powerful or important people in the military can pay bribes to avoid the test, or obtain a favourable assessment.

In interviews with HRW, women who have undergone the test described the experience as “tense”, “embarrassing”, “humiliating”, “against the rights of every woman” and a form of “trauma”. A female doctor who had administered the test described it as “torture”, even.

Several Indonesian ministers and senior military officials are defending the practice. However, the country’s highest Islamic authority, The Indonesian Council of Ulema, says that the practice goes against Muslim jurisprudence. A district head ulema, Syarifudin Damanhuri, suggested “a religion test instead, arguing that it would give military recruiters a better profile of an individual’s character”.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) chairman Haris Azhar said in the Straits Times that the police has no good reason for requiring the test.

“The police should be ashamed. They’re not moral police. It actually makes us question the morality of the police force itself.”

As a practice instituted by the state, the test appears to serve two purposes:

  1. To teach what it means to be a proper Indonesian woman, wife and/or military recruit.
  2. To keep Indonesian female soldiers subordinate to their male superiors and the masculine state.

The work of Nira Yuval-Davis on gender in nationalist projects helps us to understand this better. While men are usually discussed in terms of their physical abilities to defend the nation, women are spoken of in terms of their capacities to produce citizens and therefore define the borders of a nation. They are the “symbolic bearers of the collectivity’s identity and honour”. With their “‘proper’ behavior” and “‘proper’ clothing”, women “embody the line which signifies the collectivity’s boundaries.” Women in the military thus carry a double burden.

Indeed, the head of Indonesia’s Armed Forces General Moeldoko sees Indonesian women as being responsible for the identity of the military and the state. In The Jakarta Globe,

“[Moeldoko] conceded, though, that there was no direct link between a woman being a virgin and her abilities as a member of the armed forces, but insisted that virginity was a gauge of a woman’s morality — one of the three key traits he said a woman must have to serve in the [Indonesia Armed Forces], along with high academic aptitude and physical strength.”

There is obviously the double standard which absolves Indonesian men of the need to be ‘moral virgins’. National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) chair Yuniyanti Chuzaifah explains best why virginity tests are wrong – and in the plainest words. (Her commission has requested a meeting with the chief of the national police to discuss the issue.)

“It is wrong to judge women based on the rupture of the hymen. The virginity test violates the right of women to work – in this case to become a police officer. Moreover, their male counterparts do not take a similar test or face judgment over their virginity. The test is discriminatory and degrading.”

The fact that senior officials saw the need to defend virginity testing only after HRW’s call to stop it suggests that what it means to be the ideal Indonesian/Muslim woman is often reinforced in opposition to the imagined Western/non-Muslim woman. Indonesian women should not have sex before marriage, gaining a superior moral status from their chastity. Their morality affects not only the reputation of their (military) husbands and (military) families, but also the “dignity and the honour of the nation.

At the same time, the test is not accepted by the women who have to undergo it. In an interview with HRW, one retired air force officer wondered how she could “defend the honour of our nation if we cannot defend our own honour” by undergoing such tests. Could this test be a way to remind women who do make it into the military that no matter how strong or intelligent they are, they will not be treated the same as men when it comes to defending their country?

Nira Yuval-Davis acknowledges this “ambivalent position” that women have within the nation.

“On the one hand (…) they often symbolise the collectivity unity, honour and the raison d’etre of specific national and ethnic projects, like going to war. On the other hand, however, they are often excluded from the collective ‘we’ of the body politic, and retain an object rather than a subject position. […] Strict cultural codes of what it is to be a ‘proper’ woman are often developed to keep women in this inferior power position.”


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One response to “Why does an Indonesian woman need to be a virgin to join the military?”

  1. I admire you for being honest about this horrible, misogynistic abuse. Too many people in the media mouth platitudes about Indonesia when it really has some serious problems with women’s rights, of which these tests are not the worst. Ignored for years by NGOs, the rate of FGM is 95%+.

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