Virginity Testing: Debunked
Virginity testing refers to the practice in which a woman is deemed a virgin or non-virgin through the invasive inspection of her hymen. Virginity testing is prevalent all over the world, in over 38 countries (that we know of). Virginity checks are used as a powerful tool to control female sexuality. Women are subjected to mistrust, shame, and in some extreme cases even honour killings if they falter in their virginity tests. Different communities around the world use varying methods to conduct their tests, but all the methods rely on the hymen as their foundation to determine virginity. This practice is prevalent in India and has significant implications for female sexual, mental and physical health, as well as domains like law and malpractice. The concept of virginity is inextricably linked to this practice.
What is virginity? It is as much a social and cultural construct as it is a medical reality. I was curious to learn if there existed an objective and universal definition of virginity widely accepted in the medical community, “Virginity is the absence of penetrative intercourse, peno-vaginal”, said Dr Balsekar, a practising gynaecologist for the past 40 years. Through the course of my conversation with Dr. Balsekar I was careful to notice how there never existed a value judgement attached with the concept of virginity, virginity indeed was black and white, and had a valid scientific basis. Nonetheless, this approach changed drastically while examining the concept of virginity through a social and cultural lens, where nothing was black and white, laden with complexities.
°The Truth Behind the Lies
There were a few strong medical certainties that emerged from my conversation with Dr. Balsekar. The general stance against virginity testing tends to demean the link between virginity and the hymen, contending that the hymen does not and cannot inform us of a woman’s virginity due to several anatomical reasons. The fact of the matter is that the reality of the link between the two has been highly distorted. There is indeed a strong link between the hymen and a woman’s virginity, meaning that if a woman is a non-virgin there is a high likelihood that her hymen is ruptured due to the intercourse. It has been quoted that the hymen can heal even after being ruptured, that every individual hymen is unique in its appearance, that the hymen is highly elastic and stretchable and may never tear at all, and that there are other factors that might cause the hymen to tear such as physical activity and masturbation.
The virginity Fraud
While all of the above are true, most are a medical rarity. It is very rare that a woman’s hymen should heal after being torn, individual hymens do vary but still fall under an identifiable standardised structure, the hymen is elastic but in most cases not elastic enough to allow for penetration without a tear. Therefore, rather than emphasising these medical rarities, I would like to emphasise that the term strong likelihood does not imply certainty. Attaching an absolute link between virginity and the hymen is illogical. High probability is not a sound basis for an absolute guarantee.
The truth is that virginity extends beyond its medical reality, and exists as a concept, an idea. To combat the practice of virginity testing, we need to examine its social and cultural roots. The value attached to the concept of female virginity is universal in that it is associated with purity and is a benchmark for assessing a woman’s virtue. Understanding and targeting such thought processes is the only way to prevent such a violation. If the narrative surrounding the concept of female virginity persists, then the crime will merely acquire another form of expression.
In India’s Kanjarbhat community, the marriage between a man and woman is finalised after they spend their first night together. The man and wife must have sex on a white sheet if the woman bleeds then the marriage is approved by the village council, ‘Maal Khara Hai’ they declare and she is branded as original and pure if she doesn’t bleed they declare, ‘Maal Khota Hai’; she is reduced to an object and branded as fake and impure.
Another area of concern is the two-finger test, a form of virginity testing where two fingers are inserted inside the woman’s vagina to assess its laxity from which the absence or presence of intercourse is concluded. This method was used as forensic evidence in rape cases in India, subjecting the rape victims to the horror of this unscientific practice. In 2016 the two-finger test was banned and discredited for having no forensic value. In 2019 a woman was raped by her uncle for 5 months until she escaped and reported the incident. She went to get tested at the Dewas Government hospital in Madhya Pradesh, where she was subjected to the two-finger testing. She claims that men in her village are not deterred from committing rape as they are aware that the two-finger test avails no accurate evidence. In the two-finger test, if the fingers slide in the vagina with ease and the hymen is ruptured the woman is presumed to be habituated to sex, and it is assumed that she must have consented to the intercourse and the claim of rape is falsified. The mentality behind this practice is shocking and deeply problematic, it considers a woman’s past sexual history to assess the matter of consent in rape.
°Quick-Fixes and Regressive Mentalities
Women are so terrified about being ostracized for not conforming to these illogical standards of ‘virginity’ that they opt for ‘virginity quick-fixes’ to ensure bleeding. They undergo plastic surgery known as virginity regeneration, resort to spilling vials of blood on the sheets, and even buy fake hymens completed with theatrical blood. Dr. Balekar tells the stories of countless women who have approached her in need of a virginity quick fix from higher strata of society, residing in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. This breaks the idea that only rural sectors of the country practice and subject their women to virginity testing. The consequences of failing to prove oneself as a virgin differs in urban and rural contexts, with the ramifications being much harsher in rural areas. In Afghanistan, a young 18-year-old girl was imprisoned after failing to clear a virginity test, and jailed alongside murders under the premise of committing a ‘moral crime’. This incident occurred in 2018, despite virginity testing being banned in Afghanistan in 2016. The UN has declared virginity testing a human rights violation. Regardless, the problem persists. Why? The why goes layers deep, but always squares back to a regressive mentality. Let’s take India for example, the women who fail to conform to the standards of virginity are subjected to more than just social shame, they are oftentimes excommunicated, physically abused and so on.
Why this obsession with virginity, what fuels such violent behaviour and such an intrusive violation of female sexuality? The answer specific to the Kanjarbhat communities lies in their obsession with maintaining pure caste identities. The anxiety around protecting and maintaining pure caste identities fuels the practice of virginity testing, where the families can control and maintain pure bloodlines. Therefore female sexuality is strictly policed to ensure purity and continuation of desired identities such as caste, race, and religion. The regressive mentality in this case( that sustains this horrid practice) can be traced back to the age-old obsession with caste in India. So on a practical level, if one wished to combat the practice of virginity testing in Kanjarbhat, one would need to target not only the physical act of the test but tackle the narrative surrounding the idea of purity and casteism.
°Why the Law Lags
Another manner in which virginity testing can be tackled is through the law. But it isn’t a simple feat, there exist societal barriers that prevent people and communities from seeking the law in such matters. The concept of the cultural lag dictates that physical changes manifest relatively quicker (in societies and cultures across the globe) as opposed to a mental change. This might also explain why despite there being laws in place against virginity testing people are hesitant to access them. Let us delve into Kanjarbhat as an example, for more clarity. Kanjarbhat functions on the basis of a caste panchayat, following its own set of codified laws. In July 2017, the law criminalised caste panchayats, but to avail in the Kanjarbhat community. Many young women in Kanjarbhat are afraid to access this law to protect themselves against virginity testing, as the older women in the community defend the practice and reject any change. This clearly demonstrates the cultural lag, re-emphasising the importance of focusing on social and cultural barriers that prevent the eradication of such a practice.
TheVibe believes the practice of virginity testing is a violation, harmful, and unethical. We also urge that when tackling the practice, every society be appraised for their cultural and social factors that contribute to the practice of virginity testing so that it may be dealt with in a way that uproots the very foundations of such a practice.
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