Co-authored by Alicia Wynona Tjahjadi
There was a girl back in high school whose face we can still picture. Each day we would see her in our uniform, hair in a ponytail, looking just like every other girl. She was our senior, and other than her name, there wasn’t much else we knew about her. That all changed when news broke that she was caught having sex with her boyfriend in school. Everyone was horrified, and the formerly low-profile girl was now the talk of the town. People whispered awful things when she passed by, and we were equally guilty of that crime. She had sex! Can you imagine that? She’s not a virgin anymore. Is she pregnant? What a disgrace. What would her parents say? She was shamed, insulted and alienated. For that reason, we never saw her again ever since.
You know what the worst part was? We didn’t even know if it was true.
We wish we could say that we were just teenagers stunned by a new idea called sex, that when we ventured into the real world people around us no longer treat sex or virginity as such a licentious matter. As it turned out, the rest of our nation were—and still are—constantly disgruntled by any signs of sexual liberty, all the more when it comes from a woman.
We were one of the lucky ones; we received proper sex education the minute we reached puberty. Here in Indonesia—home of the largest Muslim population and host of five other state-approved religions—anything remotely sexual is taboo, inappropriate to talk about, and of course, persistently censored out by the media. And so what’s considered sex education is teaching girls not to have sex before marriage. No, not to prevent teenage pregnancy, battle STDs, or to educate them on reproductive health and hygiene, but to remind them that their self worth depends on whether or not their hymen is still intact. It’s not taught to introduce various gender identities and matters of consent, but to foster the awareness that any woman who engage in premarital sex will be shamed by their peers and deemed ‘damaged’—regardless of the circumstances—and yet men who do the same are considered manly and powerful. Why must a woman’s position in society be determined by her sexual conduct? What is it that is so remarkable about a woman’s virginity? Whether or not she is a virgin is a matter of biological condition; it determines a woman’s integrity just as much as the colour of her hair determines her intelligence.
Being a woman in Indonesia comes with learning, overtime, that your body is not your own; it is everybody else’s.
Last year, Indonesians were outraged with this obsession with women’s virginity when the Human Rights Watch reported that female recruits of the armed forces and the police force are required to pass a virginity test. Not only that, women who wish to marry military officers are also required to take the test. In 2013, the Commander of Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) claimed that there’s “no other way” to determine a person’s morality. Another high-ranking police officer also thought that the test can determine if someone is a prostitute. The “two-finger” virginity test, as stated by the World Health Organization, has no scientific validity, and it has been declared as a form of sexual violence by Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women. Despite the emerging protests after the Human Right Watch’s disclosure, the craze with women’s virginity did not subdue. In February 2015, a city councilor of Jember, a city in East Java, proposed that high-school girls should take the virginity test in order to graduate. A year before that, the education agency of Prabumulih, South Sumatra, planned to conduct the test as a requirement for female students to enter high school. The value of women’s virginity in the Indonesian society, apparently, has surpassed the value of their future education and training that facilitate their potential.
Being a woman in Indonesia comes with learning, overtime, that your body is not your own; it is everybody else’s. Since childhood, they had been told what to do and what not to do with their bodies: how to sit properly, how to dress modestly, how to speak softly, you name it. Young women are highly encouraged to be prim and proper—an advice based on conservative religious values rather than culture—so they may grow to become marriage material. Here, a woman’s innate nature is to get married, raise a family, and become “ibu rumah tangga yang baik” or “a good housewife”. It is implanted in every woman’s mind that men only want to marry “wanita baik-baik”, or “good girls”, and in this country, that phrase is synonymous with being a virgin. Virginity is a woman’s “seal”, and one does not use anything with a broken seal. It is the crudest, most disgusting way possible to objectify a woman, and it pained us to write that down, but it’s a statement most women in Indonesia have heard of.
The 2007 Indonesia Young Adult Reproductive Health Survey conducted by Badan Pusat Statistik (BPS)-Statistics Indonesia has shown 88.8% of men and 72.6% of women agree that men value their future wife’s virginity, and almost all respondents—which consisted of unmarried men and women aged 15-24—say that it is important for women to maintain her virginity (98-99 percent). Women who do lose their virginity before marriage are punished with unforgiving social repercussions, often accused of being prostitutes. And in a country that protects traditional gender roles, they are eventually accounted as unfit to be a wife, let alone a mother. The intensity of society’s pressure against women regarding their virginity has even forced those who have had premarital sex or their hymen torn in other ways to go above and beyond and undergo hymen reconstruction surgery before they marry. For this reason, the nation’s capital has never seen a scarcity of clinics providing the procedure, which costs around Rp 4 million (US$ 440) to Rp 6 million.
At this point, we can already imagine the reaction of our fellow Indonesians when they read this. Blazing with disapproval, they will scold us and tell us that this is a “Western” way of thinking, one that is not compatible with our “Eastern” culture. They will begin asking us, time and again, to remind ourselves of our faith and religious boundaries. These are the same thoughts they offer women who do not glorify their virginity as much as the society wishes they would, women who don’t think too much of it, or worse, lose it. Despite the nonexistence of written consequences of premarital sex according to law, it’s not unusual for couples who perform premarital sex to be forced to get married by their respective families, and this does not exclude rape victims. In this digital age, it’s no longer feasible to try to rule what women that have reached the age of consent (16 by Indonesian law, 19 for men) do with their bodies. Women who make such decision shouldn’t be forced to face the guilt society has prepared to serve her. They need to know that it is their right to perform consensual, responsible sex. Let’s not forget that women too, have sexual frustrations, and it is only human that they do.
A woman’s body is her own, and losing one’s virginity must be a normality instead of an anomaly.
Please, do not mistake us as encouraging women to perform premarital sex. But a woman’s body is her own, and losing one’s virginity must be a normality instead of an anomaly. Sex is natural and private in nature, a concept that the Indonesian society is still struggling to grasp. Having sex does not diminish a person’s morality, it is only natural for us as a biological organism. Morality is a complex matter, and it should not be simplified by measuring it using virginity alone. One thing we know for certain: Western or Eastern, religious or secular, bodily integrity is universal. Human beings are entitled to the autonomy of their bodies, no matter their gender. Like Mona Eltahawy said so effortlessly,
“It is I who own my body. Not the state, the mosque, the street or my family. And it is my right to have sex whenever, and with whomever, I choose.”
Our bodies are ours and no one else’s. Women need to be given the right to choose what to do with their bodies, they need to be liberated from the restraints and controls that are always pressured on them, especially when they mature and reach legal age. Instead of being patronized not to have sex, women should be enlightened with the prospect of choice and consent, because at the end, to lose or not to lose your virginity is by all means their choice, and it should never be anybody else’s.
Indonesia, it’s time to stop conceiving sex as taboo. It’s time to stop wasting your time judging and shaming women who have lost their virginity without taking the same amount of time to learn their circumstances. It’s time to give women, once and for all, the bodily integrity they deserve.