The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

If you’re ever invited to dine with the top brass at the East Java Police headquarters in Surabaya, accept with alacrity.

The food is fine, the ambience relaxing - and if you’re an upright citizen you’ll find the anecdotes about the devious side of human nature illuminating.

Adding to these civilised qualities is the arresting sight of the striking young staff who serve the meals - trainee policewomen in pencil skirts and tight shirts.

The official line is that beauty isn’t a prerequisite for the job. Brains, balance, adaptability, good health and education are the criteria.

So it must be pure coincidence that so many women in uniform in Surabaya are traffic stoppers. Literally.

The problem is that by the standards of modern international policing (and the tastes of law-abiding male motorists) there just aren’t enough. (See sidebar).

They’re known as polwan (polisi wanita) and Assistant Colonel Sri Chumasia, the head of training and education in the East Java Police (Polda), also says there should be more.

“However it’s now difficult to enter the service,” she said. “Candidates must have high qualifications and then undergo extensive training.

“Of course I agree that many polwan are very beautiful, but if they fail the other tests they’ll still not gain entry. The feedback from the public is good – they prefer to see women police on traffic duties and elsewhere.

“It’s a worthwhile job and I’m proud to be a policewoman.”

Sri’s entry into upholding the law was through breaking the law. Decades ago in Malang she drove through a red light and was chased by the police. She hid in a garage and spied on her pursuers through a wall. She wasn’t caught – but was curious about their job (and presumably about their inefficiency). She’d seen an advertisement in Kompas for women police and applied with success.

Now 29 years later she’s hit the glass ceiling. So have 24 other women in Polda who hold the same rank. In common with many government departments promotion is by seniority, not merit. To rise further she’ll have to transfer to another province.

There are two levels of entry; directly from senior high school or laterally as a graduate from another profession to fill a specific task, like a scientist in forensics. Sri was a teacher before she joined Polda which in those days came under the command of the army.

Her father was in the military and an uncle was in the police, so she was no stranger to the culture of discipline and duty.

Candidates from school must be between 18 and 21 and unmarried. They should be at least 160 cm tall with weight in proportion. Five months academic study is followed by another five months training on the job, plus a month of evaluation.

They undergo a rigorous medical examination; in the past they had to be virgins, but that invasive and discriminatory requirement (it didn’t apply to men) has been abandoned. They can get married after serving two years.

For graduates who are already working in a profession the upper age limit is 33. They can be married and be five centimetres shorter. Women who insist on wearing a headscarf have to transfer to Aceh or be employed as civilian support staff in the office.

Starting salary is around Rp 1.5 million (US$ 160) a month plus food and other allowances.

“Attitudes are changing,” said Sri. “I spent 16 years in traffic. I’ve never been frightened and believe most people treat us with respect.”

That clashes with kampong wisdom about the police. A popular proverb warns against reporting the theft of a goat because the cost of complaining will equal the loss of a cow.

“I know that, and I also know that mothers used to threaten their children with the police if they didn’t finish everything on their plate,” said Sri.

“We were seen to be like ghosts, there to frighten the kids. But the policy now is community policing. We have to build partnerships with the people, we have to work together.”

When community policing was first introduced into Australia more than 20 years ago it ran headfirst into the brick wall of traditional police culture. Graduates from the school of hard knocks were ever keen to rubbish anyone who’d studied at university and had fresh ideas about the job.

In the past entry had been limited to big tough blokes who thought no harm could be done by cracking heads, kicking backsides and locking up the obvious culprit.

Successful legal action against the police by damaged victims and those who’d suffered wrongful arrest precipitated change. Powerful police unions fighting to protect the jobs of their members who resisted the new policies slowed the process.

Although this obstacle isn’t faced by Polda it’s clearly taking time to shift the old guard them-and-us mentality. A pilot project in community policing is being tested at Situbondo on the north coast east of Surabaya.

Sri is in a good position to understand the psychological issues at play. She’s written the guidelines for the police to negotiate their way through difficult situations and defuse tension.

In the past polwan were employed to handle the few females who turned to crime. Now they work in all areas with duties increasing as more women get involved in drugs. The other growth area is domestic violence.

“There’s been a taboo against reporting men who hit their partners, though that’s slowly going,” said Sri. “Likewise with incest. Disturbed neighbours are now more willing to call the police when they know such things are happening.

“However many wives later withdraw charges against their husbands through family pressure. We’ve established a safe house for women who want to escape violent men, staffed with a doctor and counsellors.

“Is it a good job? That depends on what you want and your personality. If you want to become rich, don’t join!

“Don’t apply if all you think about is what you can get out of being in the police. We want candidates who ask: What can I do for the police and for society.”



There are 37,380 police officers in East Java. Only 1,247 are women. That’s just over three per cent.

Women have been employed by the police in Britain and the US for more than a century. Originally known as ‘police matrons’ their duties were confined to handling women criminals and caring for their children.

One of the most famous 19th century pioneers was Scot Rachel Hamilton – though historians reckon her recruitment rested more on her size. She was 195 cm tall, weighed more than 100 kilograms and reputedly could quench a Glasgow riot just by appearing at the scene.

International research confirms Sri’s view that policewomen are more popular than men when dealing with the public. They’re not as authoritative, use less force and tend to be better at cooling tense situations. This is particularly so in cultures where women are well respected.

The social worker role has long defined women police officers in the minds of their male colleagues who handle the rough end of society. That culture has been hard to crack, and even now women are still in the minority in all forces.

Only in San Jose, California have women made up 50 per cent of the recruits. In most US State forces the number is less than 15 per cent with few in the top ranks.

The women’s movement demanding entry into all sections of the workforce, and laws against discrimination in the West have pushed police management to seek more women.

But that’s not always easy. The job will remain unpopular until the Neanderthals who can’t stand women in the workforce resign. It’s tough enough handling lawbreakers – let alone the harassment of contemptuous colleagues.

Polda recruits about 80 women a year through two intakes. Around 200 candidates vie for the positions each time, so selectors can be rigid. No doubt all applicants are bobby dazzlers.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 June 06)


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