As Asia enjoys the fruits of its rise, the culture gap between it and the Western world becomes more prominent.
East and West can seem poles apart at times. In the treatment of women, though, they have more common ground than may first seem obvious.
In her latest project, “How to Lose Your Virginity,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Therese Shechter did not necessarily set out to speak to the plight of women across the world. However, her work to highlight what she calls the “virginity culture” and the misconceptions surrounding it may resonate as loudly in Indonesia and other developing countries as in the United States.
“ ‘How to Lose Your Virginity’ is an absurdist phrase,” Shechter said. “There is no right way. You’re not losing anything, and the concept of virginity is so ephemeral we don’t even know what it is.
“This major milestone that affects the consciousness of everyone on earth is built on this misconception and dogma. It’s time to talk about what we talk about when we have sex.”
Based in Brooklyn, New York, Shechter has screened her films around the world, including at Serbia’s first women’s film festival.
The documentary explores why female virginity and sexuality continue to define young women’s morality and self-worth. In that sense, Shechter said, East and West are not that far apart.
“In some ways, we think North American culture is very open and free, but it’s still operating under the same kind of patriarchal, sexist ideas that dominate how female sexuality is treated around the world,” she said.
“Universally, female sexuality is something to be feared, controlled and exploited. No matter where you are, that is happening.”
She added that Muslim countries “do not have a monopoly on treating women badly. There are countries around the world that behave that way.”
Women in Indonesia are no strangers to having society and the government hold sway over their public and private lives. The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) has highlighted the growing number of local government bylaws that discriminate against women —189 bylaws at the end of 2010, up from 154 in 2009.
Among the most egregious is a Tangerang regulation that declares all women caught in public places after midnight as prostitutes and allows the authorities to apprehend them. Aceh province and Padang, West Sumatra, are among the administrations requiring female civil servants and high school girls to wear Islamic clothing.
In 2010, Bambang Bayu Suseno, a lawmaker in Jambi, Sumatra, proposed requiring schoolgirls to undergo virginity testing before enrolling in state high schools. The proposal was rejected.
For Olin Monteiro, a feminist and writer who has worked with several women’s rights groups, “How to Lose Your Virginity” has come at an opportune time. She expressed concern about local administrations that infringe on women’s freedom to accommodate Islamic fundamentalist groups.
“Most of the men are brought up with traditional values in their areas, and in most areas of the country they still have very strong patriarchal culture,” she said.
“The media is exploiting women’s bodies. Much of the advertising you see uses women’s bodies as objects. Also, fundamentalist groups are being emphasized by the media and because of that, local governments think those groups have influence in rural areas.”
Olin said she hoped Shechter’s film would be screened in Indonesia because the issue of virginity has been largely ignored by local filmmakers.
She said better education, both in schools and the mass media, was essential to remove the taboo around sexuality, especially in rural areas.
“Indonesia needs better sexual health education for junior high, senior high and even the teachers,” she said.
“Many Indonesians want to discuss it, but they are hesitant because talking about sexuality or your sex life is difficult in Indonesia,” she added. “It’s hard for men, too. Not enough people are getting good information about it and they deserve to have that.”
Shechter is in the final weeks of editing “How to Lose Your Virginity” and hopes to finish it in September. She is also raising funds online through Kickstarter to put the finishing touches on the film. The project has more than $28,000 of the $35,000 it needs to raise before May 9.
“I’d really like to change the conversation about how and why we become sexual,” she said. “I’d like people to challenge the messages they’re getting from popular culture, religion and possibly their peers that tell them they have to be a certain way.
“That whole conversation around how women should and shouldn’t behave needs to be completely challenged and taken down.”
To donate to "How to Lose Your Virginity," visit Shechter's Kickstarter page at http://kck.st/GTtgMY