On a recent day in a sprawling Indonesian city, a nervous 19-year-old woman entered an administrative police building and took off all of her clothes. She didn’t have a choice. She wanted to be a cop, and her future bosses wanted her to take a test — though she didn’t know how painful it would be. How humiliating. How she would want to forget that day forever.
“They put up a curtain so that outsiders could not look inside,” she told Human Rights Watch in a report published Tuesday. “My group of about 20 girls was asked to enter the hall and was asked to take off our clothes, including our bras and underpants.”
Then came the exam.
“We’re asked to sit on a table for women giving birth,” she said. “A female doctor did the virginity test — the ‘two-finger’ test.”
Had the aspiring female officer failed the virginity-test, the academy would have rejected her. According to a series of draconian requirements, the Indonesian National Police, which is in the midst of a recruiting blitz to attract female cops, doesn’t accept women who are married. It doesn’t accept women older than 22. And it doesn’t accept women who aren’t virgins.
To ensure that such edicts are met — and that “prostitutes” don’t join the police force — they test the women’s hymen to see if it’s intact.
“I don’t want to remember those bad experiences,” the 19-year-old told Human Rights Watch. “It was humiliating. Why should we take off our clothes in front of strangers? … It was discriminatory. It is not necessary. I think it should be stopped.”
But according to a review of literature on Indonesian virginity tests, there’s little indication this current batch of bad press will do much to halt them. The tests mark just one more discriminatory barrier — in policy, in law, in custom — Indonesian women face, reported Amnesty International. Many of those obstacles are rooted in conservative dogmas that marginalize sexually active, unmarried women. It’s “gender stereotyping,” the aid group found.
Young women — like high school students and teenage cops — are expected to be chaste no matter what. And every few years, wrote Aruna Kashyap in the Jakarta Globe, the tests reappear to ensure that they are. “So why does this dangerous and abusive practice keep returning, almost like a hydra with multiple heads that regenerate after they are cut off?” Kashyap asked.
The answer, she says, lies in “dangerously poor information about female anatomy … The belief that all virgins will have intact hymens that will bleed on first intercourse is unscientific and inaccurate.” Other assessments back up her assessment that virginity tests are flawed. But they continue anyway, which evinces what Kashyap calls “discriminatory traditions and practices” — and the belief the hymen offers a crystal ball into a woman’s sexual history.
Women inside the national military service have been fighting the practice since at least the mid-1990s, but with little success. Despite such opposition, in some sectors of society, officials have encouraged the practice. In 2010 and again in 2013, school officials suggested giving virginity tests to female students and kicking them out of school if they failed.
The desire spawned drama in Jambi province several years ago. “The idea is simple,” a local councilor named Bambang Bayu Suseno told the Jakarta Post, adding the tests were for the “sake of our children’s morality.”
“Parents are obviously afraid of their daughters being deflowered before the time comes, so before they continue their studies, they can undergo the virginity test and automatically protect their dignity,” he said.
Bambang, a father of three daughters, found support among many local councilors. Virginity tests “need to be discussed,” one said.
Bambang said only through the testing of a girl’s virginity will she know the consequences of immorality. “She could not be easily influence, coaxed and surrender herself to her boyfriend or other parties seeking advantage of teenage girls,” he told the Jakarta Post. “Because, if she is later tested, and it turns out that she is no longer a virgin, she knows the consequences that she could not continue her studies.”
A Sumatra town hopped on the virginity test bandwagon last year after officials found room for testing in the city budget. “This is for their own good,” the education chief said.
It appears that even after those girls graduate high school and venture into other fields, like the police force, they must maintain their chastity — or else they’re off the force. So one woman told the Jakarta Globe she went so far as to pay $820 to reconstruct her hymen. The operation was a success — until she went horseback riding — and she now works on a foreign police force.
Either way, it’s difficult to recover from the trauma. “My friend even fainted because … it really hurt,” one woman told Human Rights Watch. “Really hurt.”