During the last few months Indonesia’s official record on the humanitarian front has been rather underwhelming at best. The execution of two Bali Nine members alongside other drug offenders and the initial hesitation to accept Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have seriously lowered the almost exuberantly positive expectations many expressed when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was inaugurated as president last October.
The most recent international outcry about the so-called “virginity tests” that have been performed by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and police for what appears to be decades, might now become another disappointment as Jokowi has so far remained silent on the issue.Colloquially known as the two-finger test, “virginity tests” have been condemned as a dehumanizing and potentially traumatizing treatment by many human rights organizations for a long time.
During the simple procedure, a doctor puts two fingers into a woman’s vagina in order to check whether or not her hymen is intact, declaring her a virgin in the former case. The questionable rationale behind the tests is to ensure the stability of military families. Whereas such “virginity tests” might appear to be an absurd residue of a more oppressive system that governed Indonesia until not so long ago, their intention actually betrays a fundamental problem within a society in which poverty and lack of education still often put unacceptable pressure on female reproductive rights and women’s opportunities to express and experience their very own sexuality in a fulfilling, positive and independent manner.
Like everywhere else in the world where the procedure is performed, the tests themselves are merely a symptom of the rampant misogyny that debilitates wide parts of Indonesian society.
Even when considered from a purely medical perspective, the test does not serve its questionable purpose. The assumption that a woman with a torn hymen must have had sexual intercourse is simply inaccurate as a laceration can occur due to a myriad of reasons, including disease and injuries. Yet, while such medical inadequacies might already suffice to completely discard the procedure, they merely touch the surface of a pervasive systemic problem. The invasion of privacy is severe and leaves many women emotionally scarred.
Even though sanctions often appear to be absent for women who “fail” the test, at least in the military, the performance of “virginity tests” takes an extremely private part of a woman’s personal life and, unacceptably, makes it relevant to her professional career. Such serious violations of human dignity in the name of establishing high moral standards might appear cynical at first glance, but their existence can hardly be surprising given the widespread dictate of how a good and proper woman must behave.
In the traditional patriarchal world order, a woman’s body is considered her main asset and the majority of female gender roles are defined through her sexuality as she is pushed along a preconceived life path from object of male desire to motherhood. Because the female womb is crucial to the continuation of patriarchal power, its submission was a cardinal aspect in the establishment of the power structures essentially still ruling societal life today. The most insidious and effective method of absolute control over women has always been performed through their bodies, the most basic level possible.
And since ancient times little — if anything — has changed: even today patriarchal minds (which are not exclusive to men) still strive to hold more or less absolute power over the female body. In this worldview, women must not be granted the right to make decisions regarding their own sexuality.
When the ostensible importance of not having sexual intercourse outside of wedlock is discussed, it is therefore no coincidence that it almost always happens in the context of female sexuality alone. To the patriarchal spirit a woman’s social standing is almost completely determined by her sexual conduct, by whether or not she complies with the oppressive rules regarding her own body. If she does not, she becomes a “prostitute”. Whole religious institutions were created by influential patriarchs of yesteryear in order to strengthen this system of oppression.
And it seems to have worked rather well. Today we live in the 21st century among robots and spaceships, and still female virginity is considered something glorious, something sacred; instead of the unspectacular thing that it actually is to anyone apart from the woman in question: the rather mundane personal condition of not having had sexual intercourse.“Virginity tests” are a patriarchal instrument to put women in their place, to remind them that at the end of the day political participation and the improvement of work conditions do not change the fact that their own vaginas, uteri and in fact their whole bodies do not belong to them. Such tests are institutionalized misogyny. Abolishing them will of course not magically solve every problem women are facing in Indonesia today. It can only be a tiny step in the right direction by slowly stabilizing hopes that Indonesia can finally make another step forward on its long and onerous journey toward true sex and gender equality.
The invasion of privacy is severe and leaves many women emotionally scarred.
Markus Russin, Bogor, West Java _The writer, who holds a master’s degree in psychology from Yale University in the US, is a freelance writer and editor for various publications.