An Indonesian female soldier ejects a shell from her assault rifle during a demonstration of skills to celebrate the anniversary of the first enlistment of women in the Indonesian military. Photo: AFP / Seno

JAKARTA – It isn’t often that a teenage girl sways the might of the 300,000-strong Indonesian Army, but that’s what Faye Simanjuntak did in helping to bring an end to the senior service’s controversial practice of conducting virginity tests on female recruits.

Still waiting to see if he will earn promotion to commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), body-building Army Chief of Staff General Andika Perkasa took the populist road this week by finally scrapping the tests, which go back more than five decades.

Andika had signaled his intention in June when he declared the recruitment process for males and females had to be made equal. “Whether the hymen was ruptured or partially ruptured was part of the examination,” he told reporters. “Now there is no more of that.”

It has taken the separate but concentrated efforts of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (KP), the Indonesian chapter of Human Rights Watch, military doctors, military wives and the children of service personnel to convince the armed forces to move with the times.

The 19-year-old Faye became involved in the campaign four years ago. As she told Asia Times: “Not yet with an organized strategy, but more of a crazed teenage guerilla tactic that was made up of ambushing every military-related person I met with demands to understand why these tests were still implemented.”

Using her popular Instagram account, she was uniquely placed to push the case. She is the daughter of Major-General Maruli Simanjuntak, the former commander of the Presidential Security Force and the current chief of the Bali-based Nusa Tenggara regional command.

She is also the fiercely independent granddaughter of powerful Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Panjaitan, himself a former four-star special forces general who did nothing to discourage the young campaigner, even helping her initiate discussions with some of his colleagues on a practice she describes as “detestable.”

Student activist Faye Simanjuntak in a file photo. Image: Facebook

He clearly has a soft spot for the girls in the family. It was Kerri, the youngest of his two daughters, who persuaded him to sell timber from a  forest concession he owned in Kalimantan to a furniture maker called Joko Widodo instead of wasting it on pulp and paper.

An activist against child trafficking since she was 13, Faye is a graduate of the prestigious Jakarta Intercultural School and is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Washington DC.

She says she regrets the change has come so late, “but the sense of relief is incredible. After hearing the news I couldn’t stop crying because it was just unbelievable. Now I would like to see  this implemented properly throughout  the country.”

Faye has told friends that without exception, all the female soldiers she came across during the course of her campaign had been subjected to virginity tests.  She now believes there should be accountability for those who have defended the practice in the past.

Once part of the military chain of command, the Indonesian National Police quietly ended the tests in 2015, a year after New York-based HRW first raised the issue, describing it as “abusive, degrading and discriminatory.

”Women make up about 15% of Indonesia’s 400,000 service personnel, but the highest percentage are in the navy and air force, which have yet to follow Perkasa’s lead. Says HRW’s Indonesian director, Andreas Harsono: “If there aren’t other factors, I think they will.”

Virginity tests, which are also common in Egypt, India and Afghanistan, have long been recognized as a violation of human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political (ICPPR) and Civil Rights and the Convention against Torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified.

It hasn’t been easy to break down barriers. In 2015, then-TNI chief General Moeldoko, now President Widodo’s chief of staff, claimed the virginity test was aimed at bringing forward the most qualified female soldiers, without bothering to explain the logic behind his assertion.

Indonesian Military Chief General Gatot Nurmantyo (L) shakes hands with then-outgoing Military Chief General Moeldoko during the swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta on July 8, 2015. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

“There is no element of discrimination in the virginity test,” he insisted during a public lecture in Bengkulu, Sumatra, noting that recruits were judged on mental, intellectual and physical criteria. Virginity, he said, fell under the physical category.

Senior Indonesian officers had previously maintained the so-called “two finger” test – where army doctors checked on the hymens of new recruits going back to at least the 1960s – was important in assessing a recruit’s morality and mental health.

“If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good,” one military spokesman explained at one point.  

Rising through the ranks during an era when the TNI was under a US military embargo, Moeldoko and his successor, General Gatot Nurmantyo, had little overseas experience and like other generals of that period their public statements often reflected outmoded thinking.

But other senior Western-educated officers did nothing to stop the practice either, with army doctors saying the direction had to come from the TNI commander. As one put it in 2015: “The military is a top-down organization. We have to follow orders.”

In fact, during the 2004-2014 presidency of retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, local governments enacted a slew of discriminatory laws against women, regulating how they should sit on a motorcycle, what clothes they should wear and the hours they should be out alone.

As part of wide-ranging efforts to wind back conservative Islam in the wake of the fractious 2019 elections, the Widodo government recently rescinded regulations adopted by more than a fifth of Indonesia’s 514 regencies and cities that forced schoolgirls to wear the hijab.

An Indonesian Muslim woman shopping for headscarves at a hijab shop in Bogor on April 26, 2021, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Adriana Adie

The president apparently played no role in the latest move, but KP activists had numerous meetings on the virginity issue with TNI commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto and other service chiefs before Perkasa took the initiative.

The army commander is currently in a two-way race with Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Yudo Margono, 55, to replace Tjahjanto, a 57-year-old Widodo loyalist who retires in November after an unprecedented four years at the helm.

As the son-in-law of former intelligence guru General A M Hendropriyono, Perkasa, 56, has the pedigree that would normally stamp him as the successor, but it is the navy’s turn to fill the post according to the past practice of rotating it among the three services.

Although Margono’s chances appeared to suffer a setback following the loss of the aging submarine KRI Nanggala-402 off Bali last April, analysts say an admiral as TNI commander would still be a good fit for the current geopolitical situation.

Before becoming navy chief last May, Margono had served as Western Fleet commander and head of joint operations in the Natuna Sea, where Chinese Coast Guard ships and trawlers have laid claim to traditional fishing rights in Indonesia’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).

With four frigates patrolling regularly around the Natuna archipelago, and work proceeding on extending the runway and beefing up defenses on the main island, China has avoided intrusions over the past three years and moved its fishing fleet further into the Pacific.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on August 15 to incorporate interview quotes with Faye Simanjuntak.