Fashion, Thresholds, and Borders

Indonesia's Policewomen and the Matter of Skin and Clothes



How to Cite

Winarnita, M., Graham Davies, S., & Herriman, N. (2022). Fashion, Thresholds, and Borders: Indonesia’s Policewomen and the Matter of Skin and Clothes . M/C Journal, 25(4). (Original work published October 5, 2022)
Vol. 25 No. 4 (2022): fashion
Published 2022-10-05 — Updated on 2022-10-07


Since at least the work of van Gennep in the early 1900s, anthropologists have recognised that borders and thresholds are crucial in understanding human behavior and culture. But particularly in the past few decades, the study of borders has moved from the margins of social inquiry to the centre. At the same time, fashion (Entwistle), including clothing and skin (Bille), have emerged as crucial to understanding the human condition. In this article, we draw on and expand this literature on borders and fashion to demonstrate that the way Indonesians fashion and display their body reflects larger changes in attitudes about morality and gender. And in this, borders and thresholds are crucial. In order to make this argument, we consider three case studies from Indonesia. First, we discuss the requirement that policewomen submit to a virginity test, which takes the form of a hymen inspection. Then, we look at the successful campaign by policewomen to be able to wear the Islamic veil. Finally, we consider reports of Makassar policewomen who attempt to turn young people into exemplary citizens and traffic 'ambassadors' by using downtown crosswalks as a catwalk. In each of these three cases, fashioned borders and thresholds play prominent roles in determining the expression of morality, particularly in relation to gender roles.

Fashion, Thresholds, and Borders

There was once a time when social scientists tended to view clothes and other forms of adornment as "frivolous" or trivial (Entwistle 14; 18). Over the past few decades, however, fashion has emerged as a serious study within the social sciences. Writers have, for example, demonstrated how fashion is closely tied up with identity and capitalism (King and Winarnita). And although fashion used to be envisaged as emerging from London, New York, Paris, Milan, and other Western locations, scholars are increasingly recognising the importance of Asia in fashion studies. Whether the haute couture and cosplay in Tokyo or 'traditional' weaving of materials in Indonesia, studying fashion and clothes provides crucial insight into the cultures and societies of Asia (King and Winarnita).

To contribute to this burgeoning area of research in Asian fashion, we draw on the anthropological classics, in particular, the concept of threshold. Every time we walk through a doorway, gate, or cross a line, we cross a threshold. But what classic anthropology shows us is that crossing certain thresholds changes our social status. This changing particularly occurs in the context of ritual. For example, walking onto a stage, a person becomes a performer or actor. Traditionally a groom carries his bride through the door, symbolising the transition to husband and wife (Douglas 115). In this article, we apply this idea that crossing thresholds is associated with transitioning social statuses (Douglas; Turner; van Gennep). To do this, we first establish a connection between national and personal borders. We argue that skin and clothes have a cultural function in addition to their practical functions. Typically, skin is imagined as a kind of social border and clothes provide a buffer zone. But to make this case, we first need to elaborate how we understand national borders.

In the traditional kingdoms of Southeast Asia, borders were largely imperceptible or non-existent. Power was thought to radiate out from the ruler, through the capital, and into the surrounding areas. As it emanated from this 'exemplary centre', power was thought to weaken (Geertz 222-229). Rather than an area of land, a kingdom was thought to be a group of people (Tambiah 516). In this context, borders were irrelevant. But as in other parts of the world, in the era of nations, the situation has entirely changed in modern Indonesia.

In a simple sense, our current global legal system is created out of international borders. These borders are, first and foremost, imagined lines that separate the area belonging to one nation-state from another. Borders are for the most part simply drawn on maps, explained by reference to latitude, longitude, and other features of the landscape. But, obviously, borders exist outside the imagination and on maps. They have significance in international law, in separating one jurisdiction from another. Usually, national borders can only be legally crossed with appropriate documentation and legal status. In extreme cases, crossing another nation's border can be a cause for war; but the difficulty in determining borders in practice means both sides may debate over whether a border was actually crossed. Where this possibility exists, sometimes the imagined lines are marked on the actual earth by fences, walls, etc.

To protect borders, buffer zones are sometimes created. The most famous buffer zone is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, which runs along North Korea's border with South Korea. As no peace treaty has been signed between these two nations, they are technically still at war. Hostility is intense, but armed conflict has, for the most part, ceased. The buffer helps both sides maintain this cessation by enabling them to distinguish between an unintentional infringement and a genuine invasion. All this practical significance of borders and buffer zones is obvious. But borders become even more fascinating when we look beyond their 'practical' significance.

Borders have ritual as well as practical importance. Like the flag, the nation's borders have meaning. They also have moral implications. Borders have become an issue of almost fanatical or zealous significance. The 2015 footage of a female Hungarian reporter physically attacking asylum seekers who crossed the border into her nation indicates that she was not just upset with their legal status; presumably she does not physically attack people breaking other laws (BBC News). Similarly the border vigilantes, volunteers who 'protect' the southern borders of the USA against what they see as drug cartels, apparently take no action against white-collar criminals in the cities of the USA. For the Hungarian reporter and the border vigilantes, the border is a threshold to be protected at all costs and those who cross it without proper documentation and process are more than just law breakers; they are moral transgressors, possibly even equivalent to filth.

So much for border crossing. What about the borders themselves? As mentioned, fences, walls, and other markers are built to make the imagined line tangible. But some borders go well beyond that. Borders are also adorned or fashioned. For instance, the border between North and South Korea serves as a site where national sovereignty and legitimacy are emphasised, defended, and contested. It is at this buffer zone that these two nations look at each other and showcase to the other what is ideally contained within their own respective national borders. But it is not just national states which have buffer zones and borders with deep significance in the modern period; our own clothes and skin possess a similar moral significance.

Why are clothes so important? Of course, like national borders, clothes have practical and functional use. Clothes keep us warm, dry, and protected from the sun and other elements. In addition to this practical use, clothes are heavily imbued with significance. Clothes are a way to fashion the body. They define our various identities including gender, class, etc. Clothes also signify morality and modesty (Leach 152). But where does this morality regarding clothing come from? Clothing is a site where state, religious, and familial control is played out.

Just like the DMZ, our bodies are aestheticised with adornments, accoutrements, and decorations, and they are imbued with strong symbolic significance in attempts to reveal what constitutes the enclosed. Just like the DMZ, our clothing or lack thereof is considered constitutive of the nation. Because clothes play a role akin to geo-political borders, clothes are our DMZ; they mark us as good citizens. Whether we wear gang colours or a cross on our necklace, they can show us as belonging to something powerful, protective, and worth belonging to. They also show others that they do not belong.

In relation to this, perhaps it is necessary to mention one cultural aspect of clothing. This is the importance, in the modern Indonesian nation, of appearing rapih. Rapih typically means clean, tidy, and well-groomed. The ripped and dirty jeans, old T-shirts, unshaven, unkempt hair, which has, at times, been mainstream fashion in other parts of the world, is typically viewed negatively in Indonesia, where wearing 'appropriate' clothing has been tied up with the nationalist project. For instance, as a primary school student in Indonesia, Winarnita was taught Pendidikan Moral Pancasila (Pancasila Moral Education). Named after the Pancasila, the guiding principles of the Indonesian nation, this class is also known as "PMP". It provided instruction in how to be a good national citizen. Crucially, this included deportment. The importance of being well dressed and rapih was stressed. In sum, like national borders, clothes are much more than their practical significance and practical use.

This analysis can be extended by looking at skin. The practical significance of skin cannot be overstated; it is crucial to survival. But that does not preclude the possibility that humans—being the prolifically creative and meaning-making animals that we are—can make skin meaningful. Everyday racism, for instance, is primarily enabled by people making skin colour meaningful. And although skin is not optional, we fashion it into borders that define who we are, such as through tattoos, by piercing, accessorising, and through various forms of body modification (from body building to genital modification).

Thresholds are also important in understanding skin. In a modern Indonesian context, when a penis crosses a woman's hymen her ritual status changes; she is no longer a virgin maiden (gadis) or virgin (perawan). If we apply the analogy of borders to the hymen, we could think of it as a checkpoint or border crossing. At a national border crossing, only people with correct credentials (for instance, passport holders with visas) can legally cross and only at certain times (not on public holidays or only from 9-5). At a hymen, only people with the correct status, namely one's husband, can morally cross. The checkpoint is a crucial reminder of the nation state and citizen scheme. The hymen is a crucial reminder of heteronormative standards.

Crucial to understanding Indonesian notions of skin is the idea of aurat (Bennett 2007; Parker 2008). This term refers to parts of the body that should be covered. Or it could be said that aurat refers to 'intimate parts' of the body, if we understand that different parts of the body are considered intimate in Indonesian cultures. Indonesians tend to describe the aurat as those body parts that arouse feelings of sexual attraction or embarrassment in others. The concept tends to have Arabic and Islamic associations in Indonesia. Accordingly, for many Muslims, it means that women, once they appear sexually mature, should cover their hair, neck, and cleavage, and other areas that might arouse sexual attraction. These need to be covered when they leave their house, when they are viewed by people outside of the immediate nuclear family (muhrim). For men, it means they should be covered from their stomach to their knees. However, different Islamic scholars and preachers give different interpretations about what the aurat includes, with some opining that the entire female body with the exception of hands and face needs to be covered. That said, the general disposition or habitus of using clothes to cover is also found among non-Muslims in Indonesia. Accordingly, Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus also tend to cover their legs and cleavage, and so on, more than would commonly be found in Western countries. Having outlined the literature and cultural context, we now turn to our case studies.

The Veil and Indonesian Policewomen

Our first case study focusses on Indonesian police. Aside from a practical significance in law enforcement, police also have symbolic importance. There is an ideal that police should set and enforce standards for exemplary behaviour. Despite this, the Indonesia police have an image problem, being seen as highly corrupt (Davies, Stone, & Buttle). This is where policewomen fit in. The female constabulary are thought to be capable of morally improving the police force and the nation. Additionally, Indonesian policewomen are believed to be needed in situations of family violence, for instance, and to bring a sensitive and humane approach.

The moral significance of Indonesia's policewomen shows clearly through issues of their clothing, in particular, the veil. In 2005, it became illegal for Indonesian policewomen to wear the veil on duty. Various reasons were given for this ban. These included that police should present a secular image, showcasing a modern and progressive nation. But this was one border contest where policewomen were able to successfully fight back; in 2013, they won the right to wear the veil on duty. The arguments espoused by both sides during this debate were reflective of geo-political border disputes, and protagonists deployed words such as "sovereignty", "human rights", and "religious autonomy". But in the end it was the policewomen's narrative that best convinced the government that they had a right to wear the veil on duty. Possibly this is because by 2013 many politicians and policymakers wanted to present Indonesia as a pious nation and having policewomen able to express their religion – and the veil being imbued with sentiments of honesty and dedication – fitted in with this larger national image. In contrast, policewomen have been unsuccessful in efforts to ban so called virginity testing (discussed below).

Indonesian Policewomen Need to Be Attractive

But veils are not the only bodily border that can be packed around language used to describe a DMZ. Policewomen's physical appearance, and specifically facial appearance and make-up, are discussed in similar terms. As such another border that policewomen must present in a particular (i.e. beautiful) way is their appearance. As part of the selection process, women police candidates must be judged by a mostly male panel as being pretty. They have to be a certain height and weight, and bust measurements are taken. The image of the policewoman is tall, slim, and beautiful, with a veil or with regulation cut and coiffed hair. Recognising the 'importance' of beauty for policewomen, they are given a monthly allowance precisely to buy make-up.  Such is the status of policewomen that entry is highly competitive. And those who make the cut accrue many benefits. One of these benefits can be celebrity status, and it is not unusual for some policewomen to have over 100,000 Instagram followers. This celebrity status has led one police official to publicly state that women should not join the police force thinking it is a shortcut to celebrity status (Davies). So just like a nation trying to present its best self, Indonesia is imagined in the image of its policewomen. Policewomen feel pride in being selected for this position even when feeling vexed about these barriers to getting selected (Davies). Another barrier to selection is discussed in the next case study.

Virginity Testing of Policewomen

Our second case study relates to the necessity that female police recruits be virgins. Since 1965, policewomen recruits have been required to undergo internal examinations to ensure that their hymen is supposedly intact. Glossed as 'virginity' tests this procedure involves a two-finger examination by a health professional. Protests against the practice have been voiced by Human Rights Watch and others (Human Rights Watch). Pledges have also been made that the practice will be removed. But to date the procedure is still performed, although there are currently moves to have it banned within the armed forces. Hymens are more of a skin border than a clothing border such as that formed by uniforms or veils, but they operate in similar ways. The ‘feelable’ hymen marks an unmarried woman as moral. New women police recruits must be unmarried and therefore virgins. Actually, the hymen is not a taut skin border, but rather a loose connection of overlapping tissue and in this sense a hymen is not something one can lose. But the hymen is used as a proxy to determine a woman’s value. Hymen border control gives one a moral edge. A hymen supposedly measures a woman’s ability to protect herself, like any fortified geo-political border. Protecting one’s own borders gives the suggestion that one is able to protect others. A policewoman who can protect her bodily borders can protect those of others.

Outsiders may wonder what being attractive, modest, but not too modest has to do with police work. And some (but by no means all) Indonesian policewomen wondered the same thing too. Indeed, some policewomen Davies interviewed in the 2010s were against this practice, but many staunchly supported it. They had successfully passed this rite of passage and therefore felt a common bond with other new recruits who had also gone through this procedure. Typically rites of passage, and especially the accompanying humiliation and abuse, engender a strong sense of solidarity among those who have passed through them. The virginity test seems to have operated in a similar way.

Policewomen and the 'Citayam' Street Fashion

Our third case study is an analysis of a short and otherwise unremarkable TV news report about policewomen parading across a crosswalk in a remote regional city. To understand why, we need to turn to "Citayam Fashion Week", a youth social movement which has developed around a road crossing in downtown Jakarta. Social movements like this are difficult to pin down, but it seems that a central aspect has been young fashionistas using a zebra crossing on a busy Jakarta street as an impromptu catwalk to strut across, be seen, and photographed. These youths are referred to in one article as "Jakarta's budget fashionistas" (Saraswati). The movement is understood in social media and traditional media sources as expressing 'street fashion'. Social media has been central to this movement. The youths have posted photos and videos of themselves crossing the road on social media. Some of these young fashionistas posted interviews with each other on TikTok. Some of the interviews went viral in June 2022 (Saraswati).

So where does the name "Citayam Fashion Week" come from? Citayam is an outer area of Jakarta, which is a long way from from the wealthy central district where the young fashionistas congregate. But "Citayam" does not mean that the youths are all thought to come from that area. Instead the idea is that they could be from any poorer outer areas around the capital and have bussed or trained into town. The crosswalk they strut across is near the transport hub next to a central train station. The English-language "Fashion Week" is a tongue-in-cheek label mocking the haute couture fashion weeks around the world – events which, due to a wealth and class gap, are closed off to these teens. Strutting on the crosswalk is not limited to a single 'week' but it is an ongoing activity. The movement has spread to other parts of Indonesia, with youth parading across cross walks in other urban centres.

Citayam Fashion Week became one of the major Indonesian public issues of 2022. Reaction was mixed. Some pointed to the unique street style and attitude, act, and language of the young fashionistas, some of whom became minor celebrities. The "Citayam Fashion Week" idea was also picked up by mainstream media, attracting celebrities, models, content creators, politicians and other people in the public eye. Some government voices also welcomed the social movement as promoting tourism and the creative industry. Others voiced disapproval at the youth. Their clothes were disparaged as 'tacky', reflecting deep divides in class and income in modern Jakarta. Some officials noted that they are a nuisance because they create traffic jams and loitering. Criticism also had a moral angle, in particular with commentators focused on male teens wearing feminine attire (Saraswati). Social scientists such as Oki Rahadianto (Souisa & Salim) and Saraswati see this as an expression of youth agency. These authors particularly highlight the class origins of the Citayam fashionistas being mostly from poorer outer suburbs. Their fashion displays are seen to be a way of reclaiming space for the youth in the urban landscape. Furthermore, the youths are expressing their own and unique version of youth culture.

We can use the idea of threshold to provide unique insight into this phenomenon in the simple sense that the crosswalk connects one side of the road to the other. But the youth use it for something far more significant than this simple practical purpose. What is perceived to be happening is that some of the youth, who after all are in the process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, use the crosswalk to publicly express their transition to non-normative gender and sexual identities; indeed, some of them have also transitioned to become mini celebrities in the process. Images of 'Citayam' portray young males adorned in makeup and clothes that are not identifiably masculine. They appear to be crossing gender boundaries. Other images show the distinct street fashion of these youth of exposed skin through crop tops (short tops) that show the belly, clothes with cut-out sections on various parts of the body, and ripped jeans. In a way, these youth are transgressing the taboo against exposing too much skin in public.  

One video is particularly interesting in light of the approach we are taking in this article as it comes from Makassar, the capital of one of Indonesia's outlying regions. "The Citayam Fashion Week phenomenon spreads to Makassar; young people become traffic (lalu lintas) ambassadors" (Kompas TV) is a news report about policewomen getting involved with young people using a crosswalk to parade their fashion. At first glance the Citayam Fashion Week portrayed in Makassar, a small city in an outlying province, is tiny compared to the scale of the movement in Jakarta. The news report shows half a dozen young males in feminine clothing and makeup. Aside from several cars in the background, there is no observable traffic that the process seems to interrupt. The news report portrays several Indonesian policewomen, all veiled, assisting and accompanying the young fashionistas. The reporter explains that the policewomen go 'hand in hand' (menggandeng) with the fashionistas. The police attempt to harness the creative energy of the youth and turn them into traffic ambassadors (duta lalu lintas). Perhaps it is going too far to state, but the term for traffic here, lalu lintas ("lalu" means to pass by or pass through, and "lintas" means "to cross"), implies that the police are assisting them in crossing thresholds. In any case, from the perspective we have adopted in this chapter, Citayam Fashion Week can be analysed in terms of thresholds as a literal road crossing turned into a place where youth can cross over gender norms and class barriers. The policewomen, with their soft, feminine abilities, attempt to transform them into exemplary citizens.

Discussion: Morality, Skin, and Borders

 In this article, we have actually passed over two apparent contradictions in Indonesian society. In the early 2000s, Indonesian policewomen recruits were required to prove their modesty by passing a virginity test in which their hymen was inspected. Yet, at the same time they needed to be attractive. And, moreover, they were not allowed to wear the Muslim veil. They had to be modest and protect themselves from male lust but also good-looking and visible to others.

The other contradiction relates to a single crosswalk or zebra crossing in downtown Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city, in 2022. Instead of using this zebra crossing simply as a place to cross the road, some youths turned it to their own ends as an impromptu 'catwalk' and posted images of their fashion on Instagram. A kind of social movement has emerged whereby Indonesian youth are fashioning their identity that contravenes gender expectations. In an inconsequential news report on the Citayam Fashion Week in Makassar, policewomen were portrayed as co-opting and redirecting the movement into an instructional opportunity in orderly road crossing. The youths could thereby transformed into good citizens.

Although the two phenomena – attractive modest police virgins and a crosswalk that became a catwalk – might seem distinct, underlying the paradoxes are similar issues which can be teased out by analysing them in terms of morality, gender, and clothing in relation to borders, buffer zones, and thresholds.

Veils, hymens, clothes, make-up are all politically positioned as borders worth fighting for, as necessary borders. While some border disputes can be won (such as policewomen winning the right to veil on duty, or disrupting traffic by parading one's gender-bending fashion), others are either not challenged or unsuccessfully challenged (such as ending virginity tests).

These borders of moral encounter enable and provoke various responses: the ban on veiling for Indonesian policewomen was something to challenge as it undermined women’s moral position and stopped their expression of piety – things their nation wanted them to be able to do. But fighting to stop virginity testing was not permissible because even suggesting a contestation implies immorality. Only the immoral could want to get rid of virginity tests. The Citayam Fashion Week presented potentially immoral youths who corrupt national values, but with the help of policewomen, literally and figuratively holding their hand, they could be transformed into worthwhile citizens. National values were at stake in clothing and skin.


Borders and buffer zone are crucial to a nation's image of itself; whether in the geographical shape of one's country, or in clothes and skin. Douglas suggests that the human experience of boundaries can symbolise society. If she is correct, Indonesian nationalist ideas about clothing, skin, and even hymens shape how Indonesians understand their own nation.

Through the three case studies we argued firstly for the importance of analysing the fashioning of the body not only as a form of border maintenance, but as truly at the centre of understanding national morality in Indonesia. Secondly, the national border may also be a way to remake the individual. People see themselves in the 'shape' of their country. As Bille stated "like skin, borders are a protective integument as well as a surface of inscription. Like the body, the nation is skin deep" (71).

Thresholds are just as they imply. Passing through a threshold, we cross over one side of the border. We can potentially occupy an in-between status in, for instance, demilitarised zones. Or we can continue on to the other side. To go over a threshold such as becoming a policewoman, a teenager, a fashionista, and a mini celebrity, a good citizen can be constituted through re-fashioning the body. Fashioning one's body can be done through adorning skin with makeup or clothes, covering or revealing the skin, including particular parts of the body deemed sacred, such as the aurat, or by maintaining a special type of skin such as the hymen. The skin that is re-fashioned thus becomes a site of border contention that we argue define not only personal but national identity.


This article was first presented by Sharyn Graham Davies as a plenary address on 24 November 2021 as part of the Women in Asia conference.


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Author Biographies

Monika Winarnita, Deakin University

Dr Monika Winarnita is a Lecturer and Academic Affiliate of the Alfred Deakin Institute of Citizenship and Globalisation Australia and is Member of the Board for the Asian Australian Studies Research Network. Her research focuses on gender, migration and (digital) cultural performances. She has published extensively in Asian Studies, Anthropology and Cultural Studies journals.

Sharyn Graham Davies, Monash University

Assoc. Prof. Sharyn Graham Davies is Director of the Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University. Sharyn has held visiting fellowships at Cambridge, Yale, Sydney, Peking and Airlangga universities, and been awarded Fulbright, Leverhulme and Marsden funding. Sharyn is recognised as an expert in the field of Indonesian Studies and for contributions to the study of gender, sexuality, policing and moral surveillance.

Nicholas Herriman, La Trobe University

Dr Nicholas Herriman is a senior lecturer in Social and Cultural Anthropology at La Trobe University. He writes about Indonesia and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.