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imageIndonesian state institutions reinforce the labelling of women into 'good' and 'bad' by policing women's bodies. EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

Society often labels women in two categories: “good” and “bad”. Both of these labels reduce women from human beings to stereotypes. They are detrimental to women’s rights as seen in two recent controversies in Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report which said that the Indonesian police subject female police cadets to two-finger “virginity tests” as part of the recruitment process. Such tests, the report said, are painful and traumatising.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia’s sharia-ruled province Aceh, a victim of gang rape has been sentenced to public caning for adultery. Eight men had raped her in May after they caught her together with a married man, before turning her in to the village head. She was later picked up by the sharia police.

The 25-year-old woman was tried under sharia law. The rapists were tried in the criminal court. The Langsa authorities said the woman, currently five months pregnant, would be caned after she has given birth.

In the “virginity tests”, women are made to represent honour and morality. They are forced to prove their “purity” through an invasive and degrading test. Meanwhile, the caning of the rape victim who was accused of adultery is an example of women being punished for being “bad”.

In the eyes of the patriarchal Aceh society, the woman was an adulterer, a sinner, a destroyer of established norms and morality. In both cases, women’s bodies and private lives are controlled, judged and punished in ways that men are not.

State violation of women’s rights

In both instances, the state is the perpetrator of these violations. The Indonesian police had carried out “virginity tests” for decades nationwide.

Canings are executed by the Aceh sharia police. They operate as part of Aceh’s special autonomy in the former conflict area. Aceh is the only one of 34 Indonesian provinces that officially implements sharia law.

Both institutions base their argument on morality. A police official said the tests were to screen out “bad seeds”. “If she turns out to be a prostitute, then how could we accept her for the job?”, he said.

In a similar tone, the head of sharia division in Langsa City, Ibrahim Latif, insisted that the woman had broken sharia law by committing adultery. He said her claim of being raped was weak as the doctor didn’t find marks left by rape. He continued to blame the victim:

According to people here, she often dresses sexy and ‘seductive’ to men. Perhaps when she was caught she bribed them by letting them grab her body.

These are extreme examples of violations of the rights of women. The two-finger test is an invasive and degrading physical examination. It violates provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It also breaches the Indonesian constitution.

Amnesty International, in its report on Egyptian cases of virginity tests on women prisoners, describes such practices as:

… an egregious form of gender-based violence constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Similarly, rape has been defined as a practice of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. For whatever reason, rape cannot be used as punishment.

Clinging to power by oppressing women

Often, when power is decaying and deforming, it needs an object of repression to reinstate its supremacy. Take the Indonesian police as an example. In the 15 years of reform, the law enforcement institution has continued to be riddled with corruption, internal conflicts, abuses of power and human rights violations.

In recent years, there have been shootings between the police and army forces in various areas in Indonesia. A human rights group recorded at least 30 incidents of conflict in the last eight years. Indonesian Police Watch describes the police as arrogant and repressive.

Meanwhile, Langsa city is one of the districts in Aceh with the most cases of corruption in 2012, according to the Aceh State Prosecutor. The same year, KontraS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence), a human rights organisation, reported that Langsa has the highest incidence of violence in Aceh.

These include cases of violence against women related to sharia law. In 2010, when sharia police caught a young unmarried couple being together alone, an offence under sharia law, three officers raped the young girl. Only two of the officers were punished.

In 2012, a 16-year-old girl committed suicide after being called a whore by the sharia police and local media. The police had arrested her and some other friends when watching live music.

For the Indonesian police and Langsa sharia police, women through their bodies bear the responsibility to uphold the respect of the institutions and reinstate their control over society.

Such practices of shaming and punishing women aim to instill fear and gain obedience from members of the society. Other state institutions should speak against these violations of women’s rights.

Relevant state institutions have all been silent on the caning of the rape victim. The Ministry of Women Empowerment and Protection of Children, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, the governor of Aceh, the mayor of Langsa, the police chief, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo have not commented on the issue.

French existentialist thinker Simone de Beauvoir optimistically said that one has the choice to become a woman. In Indonesia, especially in the police force and Aceh, a woman is not born but rather made into a property of the state.


Sri Lestari Wahyuningroem received the Australian Leadership Award scholarship from the Australian government.

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