backlash over virginity tests proposed for indonesian school-girls
Imagine: you’re a young woman about to embark on a journey that will see you tested mentally, physically and emotionally. A doctor examines you, checking to see if you are physically prepared for the path ahead. Your strength of character is linked to the purity of your body – and so the doctor’s examination requires an inspection of your hymen. But it’s for your own good, honestly.
This is not just a scene from Medieval Europe à la Joan of Arc, but an impending reality for young Indonesian women entering their final, non-compulsory stages of education in Prabumulih province, Sumatra.
According to Muhammad Rasyid, head of the Prabumulih’s education office, virginity tests would be imposed on the young women ‘for their own good’ and would be mandatory on an annual basis as a means to stamp out premarital sex and sex work in the province. Testing has been allocated a spot in the district’s budget and could take place as early as from 2014.
The strategy in Prabumulih is paternalistic and not the first in the Muslim majority nation to garner criticism, with a similar policy being pulled in Sumatra in 2010.
There are a number of ethical issues associated with proposed virginity testing for girls pursuing further education in Prabumulih. First there is the abhorrent privacy breach, then there’s the fact that the local school board will not be implementing any measures to confirm the virginity of male students. But perhaps most troubling is the potential negative social outcomes for women in a socially conservative Muslim state as testing is ultimately not a reliable measure of whether intercourse has taken place.
Currently, virginity testing is more commonplace in the developing world beyond Indonesia. In tribal African communities – particularly the Zulu and the Bantu – testing determines marital worth or admission into ceremonies. It has been used on Indian women as a means of determining previous sexual activity prior to rape and even as an excuse to abuse female protestors in Egypt. In the Western world, examination of the hymen is generally accepted as an unreliable means of determining the sexual activity of a woman as a hymen is able to be disrupted by things other than consensual sexual intercourse. To name a few: tampons, sport and rape can all manufacture the absence of a hymen.
Furthermore, vaginal laxity tests – digital penetration of the vagina to determine, well, if it’s tight enough to not have had sex – are subjective due to the finger size of doctors conducting the examination.
However, the practice has been seen in Western societies well into the 20th Century. Virginity testing was used up until 1979 in the UK as a means to determine the legitimacy of immigration applications – if a woman was a virgin and claiming she was travelling to be with her fiancée, her application was somehow more worthy of approval.
Virginity testing harks back to the double standard of sexuality: promiscuity is somehow detested in women and an acceptable or even glorified character trait for men. The Prabumulih school district will essentially turn a blind eye to the sexual encounters of young men pursuing an education. There are no ramifications for boys entering this stage of education, with no physical test or questionnaire to confirm their virginity which is – in effect – expected by the law.
The age of consent for women in Indonesia is 16, compared to 19 for men. Given that girls entering the final stage of their schooling are aged 16-17, there is little reason for the Prabumulih school board’s concern over whether or not girls are engaging in sex acts as it is not an issue of child welfare where consensual acts are concerned.
The proposed test has come under fire in the Indonesian media, with a number of activist groups citing the test as a human rights violation and an act of violence against women due to the mandatory nature of testing. ‘Virginity is a personal issue, and a person has a right over their own body,’ chairwoman of Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women, Masruchah told AAP. ‘Morality cannot be determined by [a student’s] genitals.’
Indonesian education officials in Jakarta have described the proposal as unethical. Despite this, the Indonesian Education Ministry would be unable to block the Prabumulih education office from conducting virginity exams. Instead, the national education ministry would only be allowed to advise that the policy not impact on access to education. However, where there may be no institutional barriers for sexually active young women to gain an education, there may be social ones.
As in many cultures, virginity is an overvalued ‘prize’ in socially conservative parts of Indonesia. With the confidentiality of test results yet to be confirmed, the social outcomes of a ‘negative’ test could have a tremendous impact on women’s education in Indonesia. The potential for slut shaming – be it overt or covert – is a possibility one cannot write off. The thought of having to undergo a physical test and have one’s privacy invaded itself is enough incentive to drop the prospect of non-compulsory schooling. With education a clear means to better quality of life for women in Indonesia, it is hazardous to ignore the potential of virginity testing to set back not only the quality of life for individual women but the whole developing nation.
Public outcry in Indonesia over the past few days has seen Rasyid slowly backing away from the proposal. At the time of publication, no official word was available on the state of the plan. For the sake of Indonesian women’s education and sex positivity, one can only hope this plan does not come to fruition.