Indonesia has a track record of turning a deaf ear to international censures; when Indonesian military opted to continue its virginity testing to prospective female applicants. The practice of the “two-fingered” virginity testing in Indonesian National Armed Forces which consists of the Army, Navy, and Air Force- which has been instituted since 1965 is still taking place today in spite of internationally critical condemnation (Human Rights Watch, 2018 & The Telegraph, 2019). In 2014, the then Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno said that the test had been obligatory for prospective female military recruits. The test is an obligatory procedure with which women who are to enlist in the military must comply and is also required for the fiancées of its personnel (BBC News, 2015). Military officers who are to marry are required to get a letter of recommendation from their commanders- which only be issued after the fiancées have undergone the test (Human Rights Watch, 2018). The test is being conducted by inserting a doctor’s two fingers (male or female) into a woman’s vagina to determine whether the hymen is still intact- if the hymen were to be torn with consistent patterns, then it is to be judged that the candidate is accustomed to sexual intercourse (The Guardian, 2015). Even though the test is neither being recorded nor a part of the official requirements, it has become a moral prerequisite for joining the military.
Some public officials have stated their support by saying that prospective female candidates should possess morality in order to be enlisted in the military. The then Commander of Indonesian National Armed Forces, Moeldoko, now Presidential Chief of Staff, has publicly advocated the cause by saying to the reporters that virginity testing was one of the requirements for women enlisting in the military (Jakarta Globe, 2015). He also conceded that there was no correlation between a woman being a virgin and her abilities to serve in the army, rather the state of being “virgin” was a moral prerequisite to enlist since it could determine a woman’s worth by saying that the virginity test “is a measure of morality. There’s no other way” to determine a person’s morality. Nevertheless, the then Armed Forces
Information Chief Major General Fuad Basya said that the test was a matter of national security adding that women who had lost their virginity due to wedlock would make her mental state unfit to serve in the military, and stated that the test was a means of examining a woman’s mentality on the basis of her virginity (The Guardian, 2015). He also conceded that it could determine whether a woman’s vaginal laxity was due to accidental or sexual activities, as well as adding that those who failed the test were not eligible for enlistment. Nevertheless, the 2018 Deputy Head of the Indonesian National Armed Forces Health Center First Admiral Drg. Andriani stated that virginity testing was no longer used and the substitute was a test to determine a candidate’s wellbeing, health, and mental ideology, thus having changed the name from “virginity test” to “hymen test”.
In 2021, Head of Legal Development Agency of Indonesian National Armed Forces, Rear Admiral Anwar Saadi asserted that the test was not an absolute requirement in determining whether a female applicant will be admitted to the military, following a visit by delegations from National Commission on Violence Against Women to Indonesian National Armed Forces Headquarter in Cilangkap, East Jakarta (Warta Ekonomi, 2021). He conceded that the test was to be understood from the perspective of gynecology- to determine one’s reproductive health- instead of determining a woman’s morality. In 2017, Binsar Gultom, an Indonesian judge published a book titled Pandangan Kritis Seorang Hakim advocating the virginity testing to be conducted for soon-to-be-married women, so as to lower the nation’s divorce rate. His book advocates for both preventive and repressive actions of the government to non-virgin women.
The practice of virginity testing in Indonesian military has both sparked critical condemnation, both nationally and internationally, and been covered by international news outlets and human rights organizations. The Indonesian Council of Ulema, the highest Islamic authority, has publicly stated their opposition to the practice saying that it didn’t conform to Muslim jurisprudence (Jakarta Globe, 2015). Human Rights Watch asserted that President Joko Widodo should order the armed forces commander to ban the test so as to abide by its international obligation to uphold human rights (Human Rights Watch, 2017). The World Health Organization also urged governments around the world to end the practice through its recommendations in a WHO handbook which states that health workers should
never use virginity tests (Human Rights Watch, 2014). A group of United Nations agencies have also issued a joint statement condemning the practice of virginity testing that is still common in 20 countries due to the lack of medical basis (United Nations, 2018). Moreover, in the aftermath of the inauguration of Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as the new Indonesian National Armed Forces Commander, Human Rights Watch published a publicly open letter to Tjahjanto urging the military to hold human rights violators accountable, including to ban the virginity testing for women who wish to enlist in the military. Human Rights Watch also urged Indonesian medical association to publicly denounce the practice of virginity testing (Human Rights Watch, 2018). In the United Kingdom, human rights campaigners have urged the UK government to make aid and increased trade with Indonesia conditional on the abolition of virginity testing (The Telegraph, 2019).
Virginity testing, or formally known as hymen test has no medical basis since the absence of a hymen provides little to no evidence to a woman’s sexual activity due to its extra elasticity which makes it vulnerable to wearing down due to overwhelming sports such as horseback riding, ballet, yoga, et cetera. Moreover, women are born with different sizes of the hymen and some are even born without one. United Nations agencies also stated that the virginity testing could not determine whether a woman had had sexual intercourse or was sexually active (United Nations, 2018).
In a journal article titled “Virginity testing: A systematic review”, the authors argued that virginity testing could inflict physical, mental, and social repercussions (Olson & García-Moreno, 2017). The reviewers based their research on existing data of physical examination of both prepubescent and adolescent girls who had allegedly been sexually abused to determine whether the evidence of vaginal penetration existed and concluded that the studies on the utility of the virginity testing by means of hymen examination (as distinct from the method commonly known as “two-fingered” test) had indicated that the test could not give conclusive evidence of vaginal penetration or any other kinds of sexual activities. So, women with or without sexual histories can happen to have the same “normal” hymen. Furthermore, a woman’s hymenal opening size is varied by a woman’s age, weight, and height, thus medically unable to prove whether or not a woman has ever had sexual intercourse. With regard to the method of two-finger insertion to determine vaginal laxity, the
two-fingered test was not included in the literature review because the medical community had never considered vaginal laxity as a medical indicator of whether a woman is inhabited to sexual intercourse — due to the fact that women can have varied vaginal size shape depending on individual, developmental stage, physical position, and certain hormonal determinants (Olson & García-Moreno, 2017).
From The Perspective of International Law
Virginity testing has both been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights and seen discriminatory, cruel and degrading as the World Health Organization has declared that it lacked scientific validity. From the perspective of international law, it is against Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation”; Article 16 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture which requires “Each State Party to prevent cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public offical or other person acting in an official capacity”; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, three of which Indonesia has ratified (ICCPR, 1966, UNCAT, 1985, & CEDAW, 1979).
Moral Duty of Democratic States (and Lack Thereof)
Virginity testing is just one form of gender-based violence and the preservation of its pratice by state actors demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the double standards and systemic violence against women in Indonesia are in fact institutionalized in our state institutions. The subordination of women on the basis of their virginity is not only degrading and discriminatory — this deprives them of equal job opportunities and embraces sexist attitudes. It is true that virginity has become a moral imperative for women in Indonesia, due very much to the deeply rooted religiously conservative beliefs with regard to the sanctity of what virginity is deemed to represent: innocence. As a Muslim, I do not, in any way, turn my back on my religion’s normative values, one of which is that one must not have sexual intercourse outside marriage — by rejecting the religion itself so as to justify any acts that are antithetical to my religion; because it will make me a leftist hypocrite, as hypocritical as a self-proclaimed democratic country whose governments consist of unelected elites; as hypocritical as a human rights activist who does not practice her preach by not treating her daughter to a higher education just because she is a woman; and as hypocritical as countries who ratify Universal Declaration of Human Rights and still take part in cultural cleansing of minority groups.
Nevertheless, I will argue that democratic states have different moral duties than that of individuals and religiously authoritarian countries to guarantee and protect the equal rights of all of their citizens. The difference between the moral duty of democratic states and that of an individual is that democratic states are moral agents that don’t get to decide which moral demands are superior to another: they don’t get to decide whether a particular religion should take precedence over another in the law-making process, instead, lawmakers try to work on what different religions and denominations can find common ground to protect the rights and interests of all of its citizens without having to be a zero-sum game. They don’t get to decide whether believers get tax breaks and atheists don’t. They don’t get to decide whether religious liberals are superior to religious traditionalists. However an individual, for the better or worse, gets to choose whatever kind of morality, be it religiously, ideologically, culturally, or self-imposed, they will defend, uphold, and teach to their children. An individual gets to espouse the moral authority that they impose on themselves is “right, virtuous, and moral” in the sense that it is relatively right, virtuous, and moral to themselves. They also get to decide not to espouse a particular moral duty: They can choose not to be married to someone of particular races.
But democratic states do not enact laws prohibiting interracial marriage, because states can’t espouse this belief in the sense that they should be objective and espouse morality that can coexist with religious and cultural pluralism. Democratic states do have moral duty in the sense that they should protect the equal rights of all of their citizens — irrespective of the irreconcilable differences among them; whether they are religious liberals or religious traditionalists; whether they are observants or non-observants; whether they are black or white; whether they are priests or erstwhile prostitutes; whether they lean to the right or to the left; whether they are Jews or Muslims; whether they are bourgeoisie or peasants; whether they are landlords or tenants; whether they are patricians or proletariats; whether they are saints or sinners. States can’t designate a particular religion or culture as officially representing the moral duty of the state and as the foundations of the future laws; it should protect the rights of those people.
Paradoxically, democratic states also do not have moral duty in the sense that they don’t get to decide to degrade, humiliate, and criminalize those who turn their backs on their religiously, culturally, ideologically, or self-imposed faith. States don’t criminalize every Muslim who converts to Christianity; nor do they revoke citizenship of every husband having extramarital affairs. This is why states should never interfere with private matters, because whether one is or is not a virgin is never of a public interest — rather, it is a sectarian interest and the only thing that has something to do with it is one’s conscience. States can not be partisan in the sense that they shut down every Orthodox believer just because the Constitution guarantees the state as secular; nor can they refrain themselves from ratifying free trade agreements just because they promise their citizens a more interventionist economic policy. Instead, democratic states should be neutral and accommodating, they should be democratically secular in the sense that they do not give a particular religion a preference over another and honor the people’s freedom of and from religion; they should only interfere with matters that these religious factionalism can find common ground, that everyone will be treated, employed, and paid in an equitable manner according to their ability, not according to their denomination. And they should be moderately liberal in the sense that they maintain economic multilateralism and protect national economic actors from unfair competition.
Moral duties of democratic states also differ considerably from that of religiously authoritarian countries, because authoritarian countries designate a particular religion as the official religion on which the law is based, and owing to their legitimate authority, these countries have the rights and gain supremacy to impose any laws whose moral values satisfy the state’s religion. Thus they are not democratic in the sense that these states do not provide legal frameworks in protecting those they are deemed as religiously, ideologically and culturally incompatible, and they do get to decide what is superior to what, who gets what, and what deserves what.
So it is undeniably irrelevant for Indonesian military to require female applicants to undertake the morally-motivated virginity testing, because it would, and in fact, has made the military belong to sectarian interest, but neither democratic nor religious, just moral to them, and immoral to those women having been denied. A woman not being a virgin is a matter of personal matter, not a legal heresy. There is a time when democratic principles will be at odds with religious norms, and this is the determinant of what religiously democratic and religiously authoritarian states will decide what laws should take precedence. And as a democratic country with being neither religious or secular, unless it wants to remain irrelevant in the sense that it can’t practice its preach, Indonesia lacks every moral, ideological, cultural, and religious justification for the continuation of the practice of virginity testing.
Indonesia must abide by international agreements it has ratified, that are to say, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, International Covenant on Civil and Political Right, and United Nations Convention Against Torture. Nationally, President Joko Widodo must order the Commander of Indonesian National Armed Forces Hadi Tjahjanto to ban the practice. The decades-long recruitment processes in the military have been both discriminatory and tone-deaf to international human rights standards. Government Regulation is needed to address the current legal uncertainty pertaining to virginity testing — it should ban the practice in both the public and private sector. There is also urgency for the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill to pass the Parliament. Independent investigation committee is also needed to assist Indonesian military change its systemic organizational culture, with preventive and repressive measures. The military must review its current policies, from equal health treatment to equal recruitment processes. Internationally, Indonesian military medical services need to foster collaboration with the International Committee of Military Medicine so as to level up both their medical standards and knowledge. There is currently only a few authoritative research with regard to the practice of virginity testing, and this absence of comprehensive knowledge has limited health professionals to deciding medical policies on the basis of conventional wisdom.
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Editor: Ruthana Bitia