Indian Activists Are Fighting To End Virginity Tests

by Sarah C. Epstein


The “conspiracy of silence” sounds like a contract clause for initiates who join one of  Yale’s super-elite secret societies. While it might be part of the mandate of the skull and bones, the phrase was recently used by activist Vivek Tamaicheker in an interview with BBC News to describe the ethos around virginity testing in his nomadic Kanjarbhat community in Western India.

Perhaps self-explanatory, virginity testing evaluates whether a woman is a virgin. The assessment is integral to wedding tradition in the Kanjarbhat community, and happens as follows: The local villiage council, the “panchayat,” rent out a hotel room for a  bride and groom to share on their wedding night. They deck out the marital bed with a white sheet, and, along with the couple’s families, wait outside the room until the newlyweds finish consummating the marriage. The next day, they hear testimony from the groom on behalf of his wife. If there is blood on the sheet, and the groom says his bride bled during sex, the council considers her a virgin; if she did not bleed, she’s labeled as impure, having failed to substantiate her claims of virtuousness.

In the latter case, the groom can annul the marriage on the grounds of damaged goods. Subject to beatings and verbal abuse by their own families for disgracing their household, the women are left feeling humiliated and alone.

The World Health Organization has called virginity testing “degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific,” reports The Independent. And experts say that not all women bleed the first time they have intercourse. “There can be many reasons a woman will not bleed the first time she has sex,” Dr. Sonia Naik, a Delhi-based gynaecologist, told the BBC. (Amongst other reasons, anatomically, the hymen isn’t akin to a hermitically sealed cellophane wraper that stretches across the opening of the vaginal canal waiting for someone to pop it open like the lid of a Pringles container.) “If the woman in question has done a lot of sports or has masturbated there is a chance she will not bleed. Also, a gentle partner can help prevent bleeding even if it is the first time the woman is having penetrative sex,” she said.  

In some cases, women who undergo the test aren’t virgins to begin with. One woman, who used the pseudonym Anita, told the BBC that she and her husband had been having consensual sex prior to their marriage. But on their wedding night, when testifying to the council about her virginity, ”He pointed to the unstained sheet and called me a fake. I was stunned. I had been in an intimate relationship with him for six months on his insistence. The village council pronounced me ‘impure’ and went away and I was left alone,” she said.

While the trechery of terrible men may never cease, cases like Anita’s can be fought with the help of a social worker, who aids brides in blocking annulments. But failing the virginity test still leaves many women publicly disgraced, bars them from participating in community events, limits their social life, and hinders their economic opportunities. The stigma may even carry over onto other family members, affecting their lives and marriage prospects as well. In Antia’s case, her failure has rendered her sisters unsuccessful at finding husbands.

However, young activists, like soon-to-be married 25-year-old Vivek Tamaichekar, are looking to put an end to this “humiliating” practice.

“It’s a complete violation of a couple’s right to privacy and the way it is done is very crude and traumatising. They are forced to consummate the marriage with many people sitting outside the room, and the groom is often given alcohol and shown pornography in order to ‘educate’ him,” he told the BBC.

Tamaichekar and his fiancé told the Panchayat in their home city of Pune that they will not participate in the test. Encouraging other couples to opt out, and take a stand against the “regressive” practice, he created a WhatsApp group called “stop the V ritual.” He hopes to build a word-of-mouth movement that calls on everyone to boycott the test. So far, the groups’ members number around 60 in total, half of whom are women.

Mostly, the young activists have been met with ire — during a community wedding in Pune, group members were attacked by fellow wedding guests, who objected to the group’s opposition of a keystone of their tradition. Pune’s panchayat has also proclaimed that groupmembers and their families will suffer a “social boycott” if they don’t disband and apologize for attempting to “defame” the Kanjarbhat community.

However, the group has said it won’t back down any time soon, and the growing movement could well impact other countries like Indonesia, where virginity testing is still widely practiced and is a requirement for joining the army or police force there.

top photo by  Saad on Unsplash

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