Why Indonesia’s Virginity Tests Still Matter

Last week, Indonesia proposed that female students in Indonesia’s city of Jember should be required to pass a virginity test in order to receive their high school diploma. But just a few days later  Indonesia withdrew the proposal as a result of international outcry. The law’s intention was to prevent female high school students from engaging in premarital sex. Boys were, of course, exempt from such a requirement.

Though we may have put a stop to this discriminatory proposal, the practice of hymen examination is still prevalent in Indonesia. Many have heard of Indonesia’s age-old law forcing women to undergo a virginity test in order to qualify for the National Police Force — a demeaning and abusive requirement that directly goes against the force’s principles of “nondiscriminatory” and “humane” recruitment. 

This is also not the first time Indonesia has attempted to impose virginity tests on schoolgirls. In 2010, governmental officials from Jambi in central Sumatra had indeed proposed such tests for school girls, but the idea died down quickly due to intense opposition. A myriad of Indonesian rights activists and even some government officials have strongly criticized such practices, including Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher with Human Rights Watch who told the Jakarta Globe this week: “The virginity test is an unscientific, cruel, degrading and discriminatory treatment that a woman should never experience.” In fact, the World Health Organization issued a statement last year that stated virginity testing holds no scientific validity, since the hymen can tear for numerous reasons including physical activity.

So why are officials constantly trying to bring such an outrageous idea to the forefront? They cannot deny the derogatory nature of such tests, qualifications that have been ‘recognized internationally as violations of the right to non-discrimination and the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under international human rights treaties that Indonesia has ratified. Phelim Kine of the Human’s Rights Watch stressed, “The Indonesian government’s tolerance for this violence against women and girls needs to end.”

To me, and to many others, this proposal is more than just absolutely inhumane. Not only is this supposed “virginity test” an inaccurate representation of whether or not a female has engaged in premarital sex, but it also infringes on the basic right of individual choice. There is absolutely no correlation between the educational capabilities of a women and whether or not she is still a virgin. Although Indonesia may be a Muslim nation with high standards for its people, it has no right to control the decisions ultimately made by a woman herself. If Indonesia deems itself to strictly follow the teachings of the Quran, this course of action strays the furthest from the truth.

Many individuals may assume that Islam mandates such a practice against women, and thus the origin for requiring a virginity test. However, Islam in fact promotes the acquirement of an education by both women and men equally. According to a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH):

“Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.”

There is no restriction in Islamic Law that says that a women is not permitted to obtain an education, seek work, or have a profession if she is not a virgin. Countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia do not follow such a practice. By decreeing such a law, Indonesia is maligning the very name of Islam and Muslims, contrary to Islam’s rules and laws that do not justify the age old practice in some parts of Africa of female circumcision and female genital mutilation. So where does its justification lie?

Much violence has stemmed from such an idea, from cultures and traditions in not only Indonesia but India, Afghanistan, and Iran — since the beginning of time. Such ideas about a virgin’s intact hymen has caused much humiliation and dishonor to women around the globe, with women being labeled as “impure” and a “disgrace” to their families. There is a long history of women being divorced for not being considered virgins, brides’ families punished through costly fines, women being beaten for a mistake they do not even comprehend, and sometimes even suicide — a seemingly quick way to escape such ignominy. Such reactions by their communities invade the rights of women and girls to their own dignity, freedom, and virtue.

Performing gynecological tests to confirm virginity is bound to have devastating results on the psychological mindset of these adolescents resulting in stigmatization and humiliation.

Instead, the primary concern should be to educate — the very thing they intend to restrict. Sex education is important not only for young girls, but for male adolescents who are also engaging in sexual behavior. Not only will this allow adolescents to practice safe sex and develop mutually respectful relationships, but it will also alleviate the current oppressive paradigm that defines women by their sexuality. The fact that a women is or is not a virgin should not play a part in her accessibility to opportunity. It is time that Indonesian President Joko Widodo takes action for the women of the country and bans all attempts at “virginity tests” in every locality — whether it is in a school, military, or police environment. The perpetuation of such a practice has implications that curtail the very future of Indonesia’s women.

Image from The Guardian