JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Chastity belts, which went out of fashion with knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, are making a comeback in the massage parlors of East Java.
In a bid to prevent any hanky-panky between masseuses and their clients, several massage parlors in the hill resort town of Batu are insisting that the women wear padlocks across the zippers of their work pants.
Franky Setiawan, owner of Doghado Massage Parlor, says he came up with the idea when men "bombarded" his staff with demands for sex after local authorities shut down the town's brothels. In recent years, conservative Islamic values have gained influence in a society that has long enjoyed liberal freedoms, such as easy access to alcohol, gambling and the sex trade.
"We had a hard time rejecting this kind of client because they try over and over and over again, persuading our workers with their dangerously sweet words," Setiawan said by phone this month from Batu, explaining that he wanted his 14 masseuses to feel safe and morally upstanding, while protecting the massage industry's image.
But Meutia Fardia Hatta Swasono, minister for women's empowerment in the world's most populous Muslim nation, calls the return of the chastity belt an affront to all women.
"It is not the right way to prevent promiscuity. It insults women as if they are the ones in the wrong," she told reporters this month. "It is not that we oppose the administration's effort to uphold morality, but the problem is their way of treating masseuses as if they're all committing prostitution."
A 27-year-old masseuse, who identified herself only as Sani, said she knew that padlocked pants came with the job at Setiawan's place when she joined 18 months ago, "so it's nothing special."
"We find it comfortable wearing them," said the mother of two children.
A clothing designer before getting into the massage business in 2000, Setiawan called on his garment-making skills to create his lockable uniform.
The chastity belts of Renaissance Europe were often bulky contraptions made of iron plates, maybe with the rough edges taken off by touches of velvet or leather. Setiawan wanted something much more minimalist.
"I considered the fashion trend when designing the uniform," he said.
He settled on black pants that zip up at the side, where a padlock is slipped through two cloth loops and snapped shut each time a masseuse meets a client.
The uniform includes a red blouse worn each day except Mondays and Fridays, the Muslim holy day, when his employees wear batik shirts. All of them have zippers up the back, which remain unlocked, Setiawan said.
He stores the padlocks and keys in a special box at the cashier's counter.
When a customer arrives for a massage, given in a private room behind a curtain, the "cashier calls one masseuse, asks her to prepare things and locks her pants," Setiawan said. "Because the masseuse knows the drill, she usually pees before that. And when the client is done, the masseuse comes to the cashier, and the cashier opens the padlock."
Once in a while, Setiawan said, he checks to make sure no one lifts the keys to cut copies.
Locking up women's pants seemed such an elegant solution, Setiawan suggested that other massage parlor owners try it during a meeting of their association about two months ago, when the main item on the agenda was "how to handle some naughty guests."
At least four owners agreed to start dressing their masseuses in similar uniforms and padlocks, he said, and others plan to follow suit soon.
But local reports have portrayed the move as a government order. Municipal official Imam Suryono said: "This new policy is still in the form of a suggestion. But in the future, we expect this policy to be enacted as city legislation."
Putting women and their pants under lock and key has inflamed an already heated national debate over the government's role in enforcing morality and strikes many here as bureaucracy run amok.
Last month, Indonesia's parliament passed a bill that makes it a crime to look at violent or pornographic material on the Internet. The penalty is up to three years in prison.
News that massage parlors were clamping down on prostitution soon followed, and with all the publicity, Setiawan is suddenly losing customers. Many of them never knew that they were getting kneaded and soothed by securely fastened women because the padlocks were hidden beneath their long tops, he said.
"It's not because of the padlocks, but because they are not comfortable with the journalists" poking around, he added.
The objections of Swasono, the women's empowerment minister, were echoed on the editorial pages of the Jakarta Post, where the majority of 26 reader comments published one day this month ridiculed locking up women's pants.
Some called it a throwback to the Middle Ages, or even the Stone Age. Calling for fair treatment, one said, "The customers' hands should be chained too to prevent them from sexually harassing the masseuse."
Another suggested that modern technology offered a better solution: monitoring the women and their clients by closed-circuit TV.
Amid news that officials in the capital, Jakarta, were weighing the padlock option for its massage parlors, a Post reader wrote, "Jakarta should consider locking up the hands of politicians to prevent corrupt officials from taking bribes."