Virginity Tests in the Middle East and South, Part 1

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By Claire Davaine 

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer 

A Virgin Bride at all Costs

Cultures have long been obsessed with women’s virginity. In the Middle Ages, virginity was a sought-after commodity, primarily because it was the surest method to guarantee paternity. The only way to make absolutely sure that a child born to a marriage - a child who would inherit property from his father - is a legitimate heir was to bed a virgin bride. Thus a high value was placed on virginity.

Virginity testing was also used on women entering Britain. United Kingdom had a policy to use virginity testing on women who said they were immigrating to marry their fiancees who were already living in the country. During the 1970s, British government officials conducted virginity tests on more than 80 female migrants hoping to enter the country on marriage visas. The Home Office said the practice was carried out on women arriving from India and Pakistan in order to weed out bogus immigration claims, but the tests drew worldwide condemnation and were denounced as "an outrageous indignity" and "tantamount to rape," The Guardian reports.

As proof of her “bona fides” in late 1970s, virginity has now been a gauge of women’s morality in several cultures and religion. "The statistics on how many girls get tested remain sketchy," but the practice typically occurs in deeply traditional or religious societies where virginity is highly prized, says the charity Stop Violence Against Women.

Although the invasive tests are a gross violation of women's rights, many societies still carry these tests out and require proof of a bride's virginity prior to her marriage, for a variety of cultural, economic and religious reasons. The myth of the hymen and others mistaken assumptionThe process of virginity testing varies by region. It could be given by a doctor, an older woman or whoever can be trusted to search for a hymen. 

It has traditionally been tested by the presence of an intact hymen, which was verified by either a visual test, a woman is considered a virgin when there is no visible sign of “defect” on her hymen, or by a "proof of blood", which refers to vaginal bleeding that results from the tearing of the hymen. Indeed, it is widely believed that the hymen will break at first intercourse, causing bleeding. 

The hymen, named from the Greek god of marriage, is a ring of fleshy tissue that sits just inside the vaginal opening. Normal variations include everything from thin to thick, but it may also be completely absent. In fact, some women are born without hymens and the membrane can also rupture or stretch from activities like sports or using a tampon.

Thus, many researchers state that the presence of an intact hymen is not a reliable proof of virginity.More, trauma to the hymen is so hard to determine that even forensic experts on cases of child sexual abuse often are not able to discern the signs of maltreatment on the hymen of a female child. This is especially true in cases when the child was taken to the hospital a long time after her mistreatment. Although the unreliability of this test, it remains the most common test for female virginity.

The second aspect that is often checked is the tightness of the vagina. There is a widespread belief that a woman who is sexually untouched has a tight vaginal opening, because of the hymen membrane.The so called "two-finger test" involves a doctor that performs the test by inserting a finger into the female's vagina to check the level of vaginal laxity. Level of laxity which is used to determine if the woman is "habituated to sexual intercourse".This is obviously a mistaken assumption. The tightness of the vagina being not caused by the hymen membrane but as a result of a contracted pelvic floor muscle. The more it is contracted, the narrower the vaginal canal is. Also, it is noteworthy that when a woman is feeling anxious, when it comes to sex for the first time for example, she automatically tenses up her pelvic floor. Therefore, many doctors wrongly attribute this tense and narrowness as a proof of virginity. 

As the usefulness of these criteria is exceed only by the subjectivity of the observation, these tests have been hardly questioned by medical authorities and opponents of virginity testing -  not only because vaginal laxity and the absence of a hymen can both be caused by other factors but also because the ways the test is done are unethical and constitute a clear violation of women’s and girls’ right to privacy and bodily integrity.

A degrading and unscientific procedure that should be banned

Requiring a woman to undergo a virginity test is harmful, especially when it is performed on behalf of a government. The practice can be seen as sexist, perpetuating the notion that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is acceptable for men, but not for women, and suggesting that a women's sexual activity should be subject to public knowledge and criticism, while men's should not. Indeed, those who fail these unreliable tests of virginity may be ostracized, labeled prostitutes, fined, or even beaten.“Prejudice and negative stereotypes against women and girls are passed off as medical science by many doctors who wrongly believe they can determine a woman’s virginity,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, who is the director of women’s rights at HRW. 

“Governments and doctors should abide by the WHO handbook to ensure that they conduct themselves ethically, respect women’s privacy and dignity, and take steps to educate their peers to end the scourge of ‘virginity testing.’”However, the invasive test to check for evidence of sexual activity is often carried on young girls and typically involves inspecting whether the hymen is still intact, leaving victims feeling traumatised and humiliated. Still, the practice persists in many parts of the world, including the Middle East and South Asia. It may be done out of a cultural or religious belief that the test can ensure women are virgins until marriage.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan's conservative society, a bride's virginity is regarded by many as proof of her purity. There are cases of women who were unable to prove their virginity, have been killed in so-called honor killings whose perpetrators claim to be preserving a family's integrity.Another Afghan practice says a bride may be returned to her family with her face painted in black, as a sign of disgrace, if she is thought not to be a virgin. In such cases, the bride's parents must repay the dowry and wedding expenses and the groom might then marry the disgraced bride's sister.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka’s Sinhala community, the mother-in-law provides a white sheet on which the couple must consummate their marriage, and this sheet is to be presented to the in-laws for examination.

India

In India, some communities use several methods to test if a bride is a virgin on her wedding night. It includes using a piece of thread to detect the presence of a hymen: Kukari ki Rasam. Another ceremony is called Paani ki Deej (purity by water), during which a woman is expected to hold her breath under water while someone walks a hundred step. Also used, Agnipariksha (trial by fire), in which a bride walks with a red-hot iron in hand with only a plate made out of leaves and dough shielding her hands from the heat. Women who cannot complete the tasks are considered "impure".

"Brides who fail the tests are beaten and forced to disclose the names of sexual partners, who are then required to pay the bride's parents large sums of money," says Stop Violence Against Women.  But police in India say their hands are tied and that the issue is a moral matter, not a legal one. "Virginity tests are not covered under the Indian Penal Code and as such cannot be considered a crime," S. Jain, Deputy Inspector-General of police in Jaipur told News 24.

A worldwide condemnation

Virginity tests have been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, particularly the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which many countries have ratified.The UN Human Rights Committee states in a General Comment that the aim of article 7 is “to protect both the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of the individual.” Article 7 relates not only to acts that cause physical pain, but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim. Coerced virginity testing compromises the dignity of women, and violates their physical and mental integrity.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other human rights treaties prohibit discrimination against women. Virginity testing constitutes discrimination against women as it has the effect or purpose of denying women their rights on a basis of equality with men.

The International Rehabilitation Centre for Torture victims describes it as a "gross violation of women's rights and one that may amount to ill-treatment and torture under international law." But the modern myth of virginity persists today and increases violence against women. Indeed, ashamed, some women go to surgery to restore their virginity by repairing the membrane because of fears they will be shunned by future husbands or ostracised by family members and their communities.

“In the most extreme cases, women and girls were so traumatised by the fact they were no longer virgins that they were insisting on this surgery to feel whole again – they feel they have lost something,” Rothna Begum, a women’s rights expert for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent.