A small-town education chief in Indonesia made headlines last week after he reportedly planned to impose mandatory virginity tests on female students entering high school. He cited concerns over premarital sex and teen prostitution as the reason. But H.M. Rasyid, the Education Agency chief of Prabumulih, a town in South Sumatra province, wasn’t saying anything Indonesians hadn’t heard before.
In recent years, other figures have argued for virginity tests — an invasive, humiliating procedure that is based on pseudo science — including a provincial legislator in eastern Sumatra in 2010 and a district chief in western Java in 2007. Both proposals were withdrawn after public outrage, but some conservative politicians and religious figures remain in favor of the idea. Says Masruchah, deputy chair of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (and who, like many Indonesians, uses one name): “They have no understanding about human rights. They are more worried about image.” The commission called virginity tests “a form of sexual violence against women.”
In the wake of widespread condemnation, Rasyid has backtracked. He now claims he only meant to support the parents of a girl who wanted to rebut accusations that their daughter, a victim of a human-trafficking ring, was no longer a virgin.
But regardless whether Rasyid’s proposal was intended for one or many female students, the latest call for virginity tests highlights the country’s increasing anxiety over sexual issues, and, as in many conservative societies, women are the focus.
Nowhere is the push and pull of morality as strong as in dangdut. The immensely popular Indonesian music, with influences from Indian, Arabic and Malay folk music, is staged for wedding parties, community functions and political rallies, inviting performers and fans, men and women alike, to sway and gyrate to a sinuous beat. In recent years, much to the irritation of conservative Muslim clerics, the genre has become more lewd: the biggest hits are songs with risqué lyrics; the biggest divas are famed for their erotic dances and often dressed in skimpy or tight clothing. One of the most famous is twice-divorced Dewi Persik, who encapsulated Indonesia’s moral contradictions perfectly when, in 2011, she went public about having a hymen restoration surgery in Egypt, saying it was to please her future husband.
As justification for a hard-line approach, social conservatives could easily point to the rising rate of teen pregnancies, which among girls aged 15 to 19 had increased 37% between 2007 and ’12. But women’s-rights activists and medical professionals say this needs to be tackled by comprehensive sex education, not virginity tests, condemnation or prejudice. (They also urge the government to amend the marriage law, which currently puts the minimum legal age of marriage for women at 16.)
“Unmarried girls who aren’t virgins are deemed immoral, when in fact they could be victims of abuse,” says Masruchah. “And victims may get blamed and victimized again.” This happened last year to a 14-year-old girl who was expelled from school after surviving kidnapping and rape by traffickers, because she had “tarnished the school’s image.” The private school in Depok, outside Jakarta, reversed its decision after a public backlash.
In an open letter last week, London-based Amnesty International and a group of Indonesian NGOs criticized Jakarta for failing “to take concrete steps to tackle gender-based discrimination and violence,” leaving “women and girls at continued risk of human rights abuses.” Masruchah says government leaders need to take stern action. “Otherwise, it will be repeated again and again,” she says.