When 'sexy', 'pretty' women are criminal suspects

INDRASWARI, Bandung - Selly Yustiawati and Melinda Dee are two women who recently made headlines in the Indonesian media, along with Citibank debt collectors and the late Irzen Octa.

Selly, 26, is currently facing police investigations for her alleged crime of deceiving people in various cities in Indonesia to give her money, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of rupiah each, with the promise they would get jobs or profit from some businesses, which turned out to be fake.

Inong Melinda, 47, (aka Melinda Dee) was a senior manager at Citibank. She is also under police investigation for allegedly transferring billions of rupiah from customers' accounts into her personal accounts.

Octa was a Citibank customer who died at one of the bank's branch offices when trying to negotiate his inflated credit card debt. This case is also now under police investigation, as his death is suspected of being a result of violence at the hands of three debt collectors.

If you google "Selly Yustiawati" and "Melinda Dee" and you will find news report titles such as these: "Femme fatale, Selly and Malinda Dee" (detiknews.com); and "Selly, the pretty deceiver who escaped punishment since 2006" (detiknews.com).

There are many other such titles in both printed and online media. Reading through the reports has convinced me how terms such as "beautiful", "pretty" and "sexy" are often used to describe women who become criminal suspects.

If you turn on your TV, you will also find running text and presenters describing the two women in similar terms.

Sexist language and gender-biased media may best describe how the Indonesian media portrays women. In the case of Selly and Malinda, the media tends to have presented facts about crimes that are based more on the sex of the offenders than the crime itself.

Blogs and social-networking sites go further with some people commenting on the women's makeup and other physical appearance. Others warn of "the danger of pretty women".

Even the head of the public relations division of the National Police comments that Malinda is actually not as beautiful as she appears, since her beauty is a result of surgery "National Police PR chief: Melinda was not beautiful before her operation" (kompas.com).

Such comments have nothing to do with his authority as a high-ranking police officer who should focus on the criminal case and not on the physical appearance of the alleged perpetrator.

Now compare the reports on Selly and Malinda to those on Octa. In the latter, the media focus on what happened before and after he died at the bank's office according to witnesses; the possible punishment of perpetrators; and on a wider range of issues including banks' code of conduct in handling customer debts.

Unlike the reports on Selly and Malinda, as far as I am concerned, no media has described the debt collectors - who are all men - with terms such as "handsome", "macho" or "sexy". Nor have I found detailed comments on the physical appearance of the debt collectors.

In reporting crimes, the mass media should focus on the crime and not on unnecessary matters such as the physical appearance of offenders. It would be better too if the reports also highlighted the lessons learned and educate people, for example on how to use credit cards wisely (some media have done this).

Reports on Selly's and Melinda's cases indicate that mass media is not neutral in its reporting on women. Instead of becoming agents of change in portraying women, they strengthen cultural-misogynist notion of "liberated" women.

Culturally, good women are those who limit themselves to a life in the domestic arena and being dependent wives who look after their husbands and children. Selly and Melinda do not fit into this category; their alleged crimes are pictured as examples of the dark side of their liberation.

I am not against women who become stay-at-home housewives and mothers. Nonetheless, the domestic role is not the only role women play. Various circumstances have led them to engage in public life.

With gender-biased media, female alleged criminals are portrayed as examples of "dangerous liberated women". They have not only broken the law but also social norms on good women.

This does not apply to male criminals who are considered as breaking the law only and their criminal acts have nothing to do with violation of social norms.

As a result, female criminals are punished more severely than their male counterparts.

No media has described the debt collectors - who are all men - with terms such as "handsome", "macho" or "sexy".

The writer is a lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic University's School of Social and Political Sciences, Bandung.

-The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network