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Women in Indonesia’s military

By: Cok Sawitri


The air of Bandung is still and




Photo by: Alexander Mak




heavy, sending trails of sweat down my back. As the taxi speeds recklessly through the light traffic of the city streets, I feel my apprehension rise. As we approach the barracks, media images of Indonesia’s military flicker in my mind, images of violence, of deadly weapons, of stern, cold faces. I remember my women’s activist friends talking about military oppression of Indonesia’s women, and about the widows of the conflicts in Aceh and East Timor. What, I wonder, would make a woman want to become a soldier?


We pull into the complex where the officers of Kowad—the Korps Wanita Angkatan Darat or Army Women’s Corps—are housed. I get out of the taxi and walk toward the nondescript whitewashed buildings of the barracks. My feet move slowly across the wide tile terrace that borders the reception area. The shiny floor, slippery as if it has just been mopped, reflects the glow of lamps that have been lit against the growing dusk. I knock hesitantly against the open door. From a back room, I can hear laughter and the muted blare of a television set.

A woman comes out to meet me, shaking my hand firmly in greeting. Her speech is clipped and strident, but there is a warmth hidden in its tone. I tell her I have an appointment with Major Eni, and she ushers me into a back room to wait. I take a seat among a group of junior officers and trainers from the Army Women’s Corps Training Center, who are relaxing in the lounge. The women apologize politely for their informal attire. Indeed, I’m surprised to see that this elite corps of highly-trained military officers looks more like a group of housewives gathering to gossip after a long day of work. Mbak Nani, a second lieutenant, is wearing a flowered housedress and Mbak Astri, a captain, is dressed in an exercise outfit of T-shirt and shorts. Another woman, whose name I don’t catch, has curlers in her hair. The women justify their relaxed demeanor by explaining that today is Monday, a day when it’s forbidden for them to receive guests or leave the base. We chat, but our talk is interrupted by the television, tuned to a Latin American telenovela called “Carmanita.” Just like the housewives I know back home, they call out their comments as the action unfolds. A villain in black glasses tries to trick a woman into sympathy by pretending that he’s blind. The officers call out urgently, “Don’t believe that man! He’s just faking it!”

Soon Major Eni, who has promised to tell me about the Army Women’s Corps, arrives. She smiles broadly and sits down, followed by another woman who serves us a plate of small cakes and cups of steaming tea. But before we can begin our conversation, a door opens and Major Eni is called out. I’m left with the junior officers, who turn away from the television to talk with me. I ask them what it was like when they first joined the military, and they laugh and start to pour out stories.

The stress, they say, began with the dozens of documents they had to produce in order to be accepted as soldiers: identity cards, family cards, letter of good behavior from the police and local officials, as well as the vital document attesting that they and their families were free of involvement in the former Indonesian Communist Party. Then there was the physical exam to check that their bodies were in perfect health: no broken bones, pulled shoulder joints, fallen arches or rotten teeth. And for women soldiers, there is a special requirement: they must be virgins. The officers describe taking off their clothes in front of their fellow Army Women’s Corps candidates and lying back on examining tables to have military medical personnel check that their hymens were still intact. This virginity examination, they explain, is repeated if an unmarried woman soldier wants to enter officer training.

Images from Shutterstock

First published in Latitudes Magazine




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