Sirin Kale | Contributing Writer | Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Why Is Virginity Testing Still A Thing In So Many Parts of The World?

Why Is Virginity Testing Still A Thing In So Many Parts of The World?

The Debrief: In some parts of the world women are still being subjected to virginity tests

Why is the concept of virginity still so revered? Even in the 21st Century Western world the concept of  a young woman holding onto her virginity is highly prized (she’s a slut if she loses it too quickly, or too casually  - why else do you think Reese Witherspoon’s losing her virginity scene in Cruel Intentions is so frequently bandied about as an amazing teen movie sex moment?). 

It makes even less sense when you realise that historically, the concept and status of virginity has been fairly muddy. In the 14th Century, virginity was seen as much as a spiritual concept as a physical one - i.e. you could be a virgin in the soul, if not in body. And in the 16th Century people believed there was a particular disease only virgins could have - the aptly named ‘disease of the virgins’. The symptoms included feeling faint, breathlessness and odd eating habits. The best cure? To have sex. 

Our idea of what virginity means has become less ambiguous - and arguably less nuanced since - even while our attitudes to sexuality and gender have been evolving. And in some parts of the world, virginity testing - physically checking to see if a woman’s hymen is in tact to prove that she’s a virgin before she’s married - is still common practice. But how - any why - are people still trying to measure virginity this way when we know that plenty of women's hymens will break long before they have sex? And how does what seems like a particularly archaic and unpleasant act sit alongside the values of an increasingly modern world? 

Virginity Testing In Africa 

For Dr Nomagugu Ngobese, founder of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, virginity testing is an integral part of Zulu culture in South Africa. 

'This is our religion, first and foremost. It’s central to our upbringing as indigenous people of our country. When we go to the mountains for prayers, it’s easier to communicate with the Gods when you’re pure. Even when our virginity testers are married women, they abstain from sex so that when they carry out the inspections, they don’t make the girls impure. So virginity testing is a part of our culture that is sacred to us, and we are not ashamed of it.' 

More than 300 virgins march in protest in the city of South Africa against the passing of the outlawing of virginity testing which is practised in some African traditional communities.The protesters called for the practice to continue as it and integral practice of their custom and tradition.

Virginity testing isn’t just central to Zulu culture. The practice occurs across geography, region and race. It’s been recorded in countries from Egypt to Tanzania, Malawi to India, South Africa to Indonesia, and was even reported recently in Sweden. What’s common amongst all these countries is that the tests are almost always conducted on women (unsurprisingly, there’s no male equivalent for a virginity test), sometimes against their wishes, and often by men. 

Laura M. Carpenter is a sociology professor whose research explores issues to do with virginity, gender and sexuality. I asked her to explain why virginity tests feature in so many cultures around the world. 

'Virginity tests occur in cultures where women’s virginity is seen as important to family honour, or necessary to make sure a marriage is valid. The idea is that all sorts of social disorder will be created from women having sex outside of marriage. There’s also concern about pregnancy, and making sure that children are legitimate. But at its most fundamental level, virginity tests are about controlling female sexuality in societies where men are dominant.' 

Asn we've already touched about, the term 'virginity test' is misleading, as there’s no scientific way to determine whether a woman is a virgin or not. Although tests vary, it usually involves the insertion of fingers or an instrument, often by people who aren’t medically trained, to judge whether a woman’s hymen (the small piece of skin which circles the vaginal entrance), is still intact. As you can rupture your hymen in many different ways (through exercise or inserting tampons, for example), the World Health Organisation has ruled that the practice has 'no scientific validity,' and should be stopped. 

Virginity testing to join the army or police force 

Despite this, virginity testing remains widespread. In Indonesia, virginity testing remains a requirement for women wanting to join the army or police force, in the face of opposition from human rights groups and pressure from donor counties such as Australia. Andreas Harsono is an activist based in Indonesia who campaigns for the practice to be stopped.  

'Virginity testing is used amongst military wives, who have to take the test before they marry military officers, and also amongst female military recruits and police officers, who have to pass the test before being being approved. The rationale is that they want “morally fit women” to join these forces - which, in Indonesia, means you have to be a virgin, or married.' 

Harsono is fighting to stop the use of such tests, and has met with senior police officers, military generals and cabinet members, although the Indonesian president has so far refused his requests to meet. 'There’s pretty considerable resistance to virginity testing in Indonesia, not just amongst so-called "modern" women but also from Muslim groups and the Police Women’s Association. They oppose the use of these tests because they’re unscientific, they denigrate women and there’s no value in their use.'

Fabiola Stella is a medical doctor who formerly worked in an Indonesian military hospital, and regularly saw virginity tests conducted by midwives on the military fiancés. She tells me that many women were angry about the situation, but unable to do anything to challenge it: to refuse the test means they won’t receive the necessary marriage permit from the unit commander. 'I never conducted the test, but just witnessing it was more than enough to make me feel completely disgusted.' She explains the so-called two finger test to me in detail, highlighting how when women refuse the examination the stress of the situation leads to rigidity of the pelvic muscles, making the procedure painful. 

Virginity testing as a form of violence 

In extreme cases, virginity tests can also lead to violence, even murder. Professor Sahika Yuksel is a Turkish doctor and anti-virginity testing campaigner. 'In Turkey, virginity tests are not private tests. They’re a test for family honour, because virginity is considered the most precious asset that the unmarried woman has to bring to the marriage.' 

For Professor Yuksel, virginity tests are a form of violence against women. 'It’s a humiliating, traumatic experience where a members of a woman’s family control her body. If she doesn’t fit the expected, ‘respectable’ role for a woman, she will be punished. And in the most severe cases, this can included murder, in the name of her family’s honour.' 

 Indian Womens Organisations shout slogans and hold placard during a demonstration near parliament in New Delhi on July 29, 2009, held to protest against virginity tests in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Kerala

Virginity tests have also been used as a form of violence against political dissidents in counties such as Iran or Egypt. In Iran, Amnesty International reports that imprisoned cartoonist Atena Farghadani was made to undergo a virginity test prior to her trial for a charge of ‘illegitimate sexual relations’ (she allegedly shook hands with her lawyer, in violation of Iran’s strict laws governing male-female interaction). And in Egypt, global outrage erupted following reports that female protestors during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square were strip-searched and forced to endure virginity tests. 

Amnesty International’s Nicholas Piachaud explains how virginity tests can constitute a form of state-sanctioned violence against women. 'We documented virginity testing in Egypt in June 2011, when a group of women were given forced virginity tests by an army doctor. It was a way to punish them for their political activism, a way of putting them in their place. If you look at the statements made by army officials at the time, they were saying things like ‘these are not your daughters, they’re women who were sharing tents with men’." 

Virginity testing is bound up in a complex web of patriarchal social values and questionable logic. 'The army claimed they were testing to see if these women were virgins so that they couldn’t accuse the soldiers of raping them whilst they were in detention. But that shows a completely primitive understanding of sexual violence, because of course a woman who is not a virgin can still be raped.'

It’s not just political activists who are being forced to endure scientifically worthless and physically intrusive tests. Often, the women most in need of compassion and support - rape victims - are made to undergo the tests. Liesl Gerntholtz is the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s women division, and an expert on the issue of virginity testing. 

'What was particularly shocking for me was the work we did in India, where a virginity test is called the two finger test. Women who are seen to be "habituated to sex," as they describe it, who are not virgins, are essentially seen not to be capable of being raped.' As a consequence, rapists often evade justice. 'So theres a triple injustice committed against these women. They have to undergo the trauma of rape, and the secondary trauma of having these virginity tests. And the third trauma is that they’re often turned away because it’s not believed they can actually be raped if they’re not virgins.' 

Can virginity testing be seen as part of a nation's culture? 

I ask Gerntholtz whether there’s ever a situation where virginity tests can be seen as part of a nation’s culture - as Dr Ngobese argues is the case in Zulu regions of South Africa. 

'I’d argue very strongly this isn’t about culture or religion, it’s about inequality against women and girls. Women often don’t have a choice about whether they submit to these tests. If they don’t, they may be ostracised by their communities, or in places like Indonesia they won’t be able to get certain jobs. And whilst some people argue that these tests aren’t invasive, women we spoke to in Indonesia talked about the physical pain they experienced. Even if theoretically they don’t hurt, they’re still degrading and humiliating.' 

But for Dr Ngobese, virginity tests will remain integral to Zulu culture for as long as she draws breath. 'It makes me angry when people are opposed to this, because it’s part of my culture. It’s not good for teenagers to fall pregnant, so virginity testing is part of educating young girls to take care of themselves. 

We have girls who have finished university, who have done masters degrees in law or engineering, and they come here for the tests. People who oppose virginity testing don’t come here and talk to these girls, they try and stop virginity testing to further their own hidden agendas. Just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean you should do away with it. No one talks about the positives.'

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Follow Sirin on Twitter @thedalstonyears

Tags: Around The World, Sex