Beautiful virgins: the hard road to becoming an Indonesian policewoman

Beautiful virgins: the hard road to becoming an Indonesian policewoman

Being pretty and having a good body are key recruitment attributes for policewomen in Indonesia, writes SHARYN GRAHAM DAVIES.

Late in 2014, Al Jazeera ran a story entitled ‘Virginity tests on Indonesia police condemned: Rights group says female police required to strip and undergo “two-finger test” to prove virginity before recruitment.’

The story, based on a Human Rights Watch report, was picked up by international news media and stories ran in the Guardian, the New York Times and the China Daily, to mention just a few. While such coverage brought unprecedented attention to policewomen in Indonesia, hymen checks are not a new recruitment requirement; policewomen have been undergoing the procedure since at least 1965.

But it is not just an intact hymen that women need if they are going to be successful in their bid to become Indonesian police officers. Prospective candidates must also parade in front of an (almost always male only) selection committee and be judged literally ‘delicious to look at’.

Indonesia’s modern police force came into existence in 1946, shortly after Indonesia’s declaration of independence. Two decades later, in 1966, the police formally became part of the military where it remained until 1999 when President Suharto’s forced resignation enabled the police to regain institutional autonomy.

On 1 September, 1948, six women were accepted into the police academy, propelled by the identified need to provide assistance to women and children. Despite this relatively long history, policewomen currently constitute just 3.6 per cent of the entire Indonesian force—in 2012, there were 13,200 policewomen out of a total personnel of around 400,000.

It is recognised within the police service, and in Indonesia in general, that more policewomen are needed. It might be expected, then, that given the global outcry against virginity testing, and the testimony of numerous policewomen about the cruelty and humiliation of such an examination—an examination that builds what I call elsewhere ‘kinships of shame’—that policing officials might have publicly affirmed the need to change the regulations. On the contrary, Indonesian police officials interviewed subsequent to the story reinforced their commitment to continued testing. One high-ranking official argued that virginity testing was imperative to ensure the morality of policewomen; did we want prostitutes joining the police, he asked.

Virginity testing is not the only unjust prerequisite; prospective women recruits must be beautiful. Indonesia’s media has capitalised on this requirement and Tempo news magazine, for instance, has published articles with headings such as ‘Do you want to know who are the 6 prettiest and most popular policewomen in Indonesia?’ and ‘Pretty Policewomen engage Social Media’. The latter article included information on the social media statistics of Indonesia’s ‘prettiest’ policewomen, noting that ‘pretty policewoman’ Avvy Olivia has 7212 Twitter followers and 10,548 Likes on Facebook.

Candidates must be at least 165 cm tall, have a proportional body, and crucially, be pleasing to the eye.

Interested to know how Indonesia’s media frame policewomen, Hanny Savitri Hartono and I collected all articles that mentioned policewomen published in Tempo in September and October 2013 ). We selected Tempo, which likens itself to an Indonesian version of Time magazine, because of its wide readership and high repute.

We found 93 articles that mentioned policewomen. All 93 of these articles either explicitly or implicitly referenced the beauty of policewomen. Articles in our sample discussed policewomen as feminine, motherly, caring, gentle, best suited to office roles, and as the ideal public face of the police force; all of these factors were mentioned within frames of beauty.

Pretty policewoman
People feel happy when they see pretty policewomen like Eka Frestya.

Articles suggested that the beauty of policewomen meant they were naturally suited to looking after victims of sexual crime, unlikely to accept bribes, and better able than men to calm protestors and prevent the escalation of violence. Articles justified the need for pretty policewomen in a number of ways: pretty policewomen improve the image of police; people feel happy when they see pretty policewomen; and the duty of policewomen is to serve people and people like to be served by pretty policewomen, like Eka Frestya (pictured ).

In one illustrative Tempo story, the head of the policewomen’s academy, Commissioner Sri Handayani, informed readers that policewomen candidates must be never married virgins willing to undergo a virginity test. Candidates must be between the ages of 17.5 and 22 and they must remain unmarried for at least two years after graduating. Candidates need to pass a number of psychological tests, be of strong religious belief, have graduated high school, cannot wear glasses, and be willing to transfer anywhere in Indonesia. Handayani further noted that candidates must be at least 165 cm tall, have a proportional body, and crucially, be pleasing to the eye. Indeed the Commissioner stated that being pretty is the most important attribute for policewomen.

The highest ranked Indonesian policewoman, Brigadier General Basaria Panjaitan, affirmed that being pretty and having a good body are key recruitment attributes for policewomen. As confirmation of the beauty imperative, Tempo ran the story, ‘Is it true that you have to be pretty to become a policewoman?’ The article concluded that yes this was the case, and to verify, the journalist visited the policewomen’s academy and established that all cadets were indeed pretty: ‘Although their hair is cut short like a man and they were sweating below the morning sun, the cadets still looked very pretty (sangat cantik).’

In some ways, having a corps of beautiful virgin policewomen has been a boon for Indonesia. A plethora of research shows advantages accrue to beautiful people and many Indonesians consider policewomen to be caring, considerate and immune to bribery based solely on appearance. As Indonesia’s police force consistently rates as one of the world’s most corrupt, brutal and ineffective, any strategy resulting in an increase in public confidence in police must have some merit. Furthermore, the celebrity status achieved by policewomen has inspired girls to consider a police career, an inspiration that too must have some merit.

Scope for optimism

Yet despite some scope for optimism, the repercussions of the beautiful virgin imperative framing policewomen have been negative. As Naomi Wolf declared decades ago in The beauty myth, a focus on beauty—and we can include virginity here too—does more than prescribe appearance, it actually dictates behaviour.

Selecting policewomen because they are beautiful virgins defines and controls the very jobs that they can and cannot do. Policewomen are seen as too beautiful, too fragile and too innocent to do any real police work and they are thus detained at desks taking minutes of meetings and making their superiors cups of tea.

Moreover, for the few policewomen who do go into the field, they are critiqued in a very public manner. For instance, one person posted comments on social media that ‘Those policewomen [at the demonstration] are not really beautiful. My cousin’s maid is more beautiful.’ Policewomen who are selected based on virginal beauty and framed explicitly as such in the media are deemed failures if they do not measure up to societal expectations of appearance.

The stereotyping of Indonesian policewomen is damaging and dangerous not only in the restricted view it permits of policewomen as beautiful virgins but also in its framing of women more generally. As a result of such strictures, policewomen rarely are permitted to do the actual policing work upon which promotion is granted because they are deemed too beautiful to a) want to do dirty patrol work and b) they are too beautiful to be able to do it even if they wanted to.

As a result, promotion for policewomen is nearly impossible. Indonesia deserves a police force that represents the people it polices and recruiting women based on virginal beauty is not only unethical but it undermines attempts to build a professional and just police service.

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