The toxic masculinity of Indonesia’s police was on full display in Malang

Police firing tear gas at supporters at Kanjuruhan Stadium on 1 October. Photo by Ari Bowo Sucipto for Antara.


When an Indonesian police chief told me a few years ago that his tactic to control unruly crowds was to deploy his prettiest policewomen to the frontline, I felt my feminist rage swell.

This misogynistic approach to policing treats policewomen simply as beautiful distractions.

The police chief added that policewomen were often successful in quelling protests not only because their beauty calmed angry crowds, but also because they handed out sweets and performed well rehearsed dance sequences, including to K-pop hit Gangnam Style. There was no need to worry about the women’s safety, he said, because armed policemen were right behind them to protect them if they ran into trouble.

The supposed efficacy of feminine beauty in calming angry crowds is used to justify incredibly onerous recruitment requirements for female police. Prospective policewomen are literally judged on their beauty (often by walking on a catwalk in front of an all-male selection committee) and must prove both their piety and their virginity. Male prospective recruits face no such assessment of their virginity.

Indonesian activists and reformers have long drawn attention to the toxic masculinity entrenched within Indonesia’s police force. This toxic masculinity was exposed to the outside world in the horrific deaths of more than 130 football fans in Malang on 1 October.

The first response of police to spectators invading the pitch was one of brutality. Images and videos of the physical assaults levelled against fans spread quickly across social media. As has been widely reported, the police’s reckless use of tear gas contributed to crushes at exit doors, with many spectators, including children, suffocating to death and others trampled.

It is not surprising that police responded in this way. The force still operates on a model of militarism.

Indonesia’s police force was established in 1946 and units were quickly deployed to fight in the Indonesian national revolution against the Dutch. In 1966, the police formally became part of the military. It was only in 1999, after the fall of the authoritarian New Order, that the Indonesian National Police (Polri) were formally separated from the military.

The past two decades have seen a strong rhetorical commitment to reform from senior police officials (not to mention millions in international donor funding support), with a focus on introducing procedural justice and greater attention to serving the public.

But apart from words and a few policy initiatives, militarism remains standard police operating practice, on full and horrific display during the Malang football tragedy.

I have researched policing and surveillance in Indonesia, and how foreign donors have influenced reform, since 2008. With colleagues Adrianus Meliala and John Buttle, I interviewed donor and foreign police liaison staff.

Japanese and New Zealand police officials expressed deep concern about ensuring their support was directed solely toward meeting Indonesia’s needs. Japan’s influence can be seen in the police boxes or posts dotting the streets of major cities. The idea of these boxes is to make police accessible in a timely manner.

Conversely, US and Australian (and, to an extent, UK) police liaisons were explicit that their mandate was to protect their own national interests. Australian officials viewed Indonesia as its first line of defence against terrorism, asylum seekers, and “illegal” fishing.

The US police liaison, meanwhile, plainly stated that he aimed to create an Indonesian police force in the image of the police in his home state of Texas. The profile of Brimob, the elite but notorious special forces police unit, precisely reflects this.

With donor mandates such as these, it would be surprising if Indonesia’s police had successfully developed the kind of service that would respond to unruly crowds in a humane manner.

The police chief I spoke to years ago boasted that his region had the most beautiful policewomen, claiming that they showcased the police motto of being a friend and partner to society. While he might have felt he was presenting his force as enlightened and progressive for having women on the payroll, he was reflecting a toxic, destructive and hypermasculine view of what a police force should be.

He was not describing a service, but a force where pretty women were rolled out to tick a gender mainstreaming box. Meanwhile, police on the frontlines continue to treat civilians as military targets.

As Australia reflects on the 20th anniversary of the Bali bombings, it should also reflect on its role in supporting Indonesia’s police. The Indonesian National Police should not be viewed simply as a proxy Australian border force, but as a service that could be reformed to become a true friend and partner of society. Australia’s support should reflect that.

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