Virginity testing has become a relatively new trend in many countries, especially those that are highly concerned with women's honor or serious diseases such as AIDS. Virginity testing is seen as a way to curb women's sexual activity before marriage and keeping them "pure" until then. There is much controversy and debate as to whether or not this infringes upon women's human rights, even if they are willing participants.
Virginity testing is done is different ways, depending upon the country. Primarily, the vagina is examined to see whether or not the girl's hymen is intact. The hymen is defined as "the thin membrane of skin that may stretch across part of the vaginal opening". An opening in the hymen allows the menstrual flow to pass out of the body. Most girls are born with a hymen, although some are born without it. There are many doctors who say that the hymen is not a good indicator of sexual virginity for several reasons:
a girl may have been born without a hymen
the hymen can easily be ruptured during normal physical activities and sport
the hymen can be stretched open by the use of tampons
Often the bed sheets from a couple's wedding night are examined to see if any blood is present on them because a virgin is supposed to bleed during her first sexual encounter. However, a woman may be a virgin and still not bleed during her first intercourse.
During the Middle Ages, there were many alternate methods to testing one's virginity. One could conduct a urine test (a virgin's urine is clear and sparkling), or look at which way a woman's breasts point (a virgin's breasts point up). In Middle Age romances (where a urine test would not be at all romantic), there are many stories of magical objects used to test virginity or marital fidelity. A common object is the magic drinking horn. Women who attempted to drink from it and were not faithful to their husbands would spill the wine inside of the magic horn. During the Middle Ages people were much more interested in the question of a woman's virginity than that of a man).
Amnesty International's formal statement and position in regards to virginity testing is that "forcibly subjecting [women] to so-called 'virginity tests' is an egregious form of gender-based violence constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".
Virginity Testing in India
In India there is a centuries-old custom of "Kukari ki Rasam" (thread ritual), where a skein of thread is used to detect the presence of an intact hymen. It isn't just used to torture women, but is often used so that the bride's family can make money "Impure" brides are beaten to reveal the names of their "lovers" and then these lovers are forced to pay large amounts of money to the bride's family. Sansi women will often name any man that they know just to stop the torture that they are undergoing. A local schoolteacher says that it is irrelevant that they are forced to name the men. He says, "Here the brides are beaten to make them admit to affairs." The police claim that they are unable to do anything because this is not illegal, rather just immoral. Virginity tests are not covered under the Indian Penal Code and therefore cannot be considered a crime so a case cannot be filed against these practices.
In India, women's organizations are active, but the movement to end virginity testing is not strong as of yet. Other tests used in India are the "Paani ki Dheej" (purity by water) or "Agnipariksha" (trial by fire). In the purity by water test, the woman has to hold her breath under water while another person takes one hundred steps. If she is unable to do this, she is not considered a virgin. In the trial by fire test, the brides have to walk with red-hot iron in their hands with just a plate made out of leaves and dough to shield her hands from the heat. If her hands are burnt, she is considered to be impure. Sansi women are often not willing to draw attention to this problem, so the government is unable to do very much. Many Sansi people feel that whatever happens within the home between husband and wife is private, so education is probably the best route to invoke any change in the cultural practice (Sharma).
Virginity Testing in Turkey
In Turkey, the government has stepped in to try to curb the controversy over virginity testing after five girls, aged 12-16, tried to commit suicide after being ordered to have the tests performed because they came home late to their dormitories one night. Women and Family Affairs Minister Isilay Saygin tried to say that the situation was of little importance. He said, "Girls of 12 and 13 are falling pregnant. If girls commit suicide because of the virginity tests, they would have committed suicide anyway. It is not that important. We need to lay down certain conditions as a deterrent." (Associated Press).
Virginity is seen as highly important in Muslim culture, but the tests seem to mainly occur in Turkey, where Turkish law states that the husbands are the head of the family. For a new bride, virginity is of extreme importance, symbolized by the red ribbon belt that she wears on her wedding day (Associated Press).
In Turkey, a cross-sectional study in the form of a self-administered survey was given to forensic physicians in Turkey. 118 physicians completed the survey and the results are quite interesting. 68% believed that virginity examinations are inappropriate if there is no allegation of sexual assault, however, 45% had conducted examinations for social reasons. Most respondents (93%) believed that these exams are psychologically traumatic for the patients and 58% reported that at least half of patients undergo these exams against their will (Women's Health Information Center.
Some of the social reasons for performing these exams are as follows: consensual sexual intercourse between minors, certification that intercourse had not taken place prior to divorce, suspicions of consensual sexual intercourse between adults or immoral behavior, forced marriage because of a failed virginity examination, no vaginal bleeding after first marital intercourse, and certification of virginity before marriage (Women's Health Information Center.)
It is interesting to note that virginity examinations violate guarantees of freedom from discrimination found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination Against Women, all of which are international human rights standards that Turkey has ratified (Women's Health Information Center.)
Virginity Testing in South Africa
120,000 South Africans are estimated to die this year of AIDS-related illnesses and more than 100,000 AIDS orphans are there. This has made community leaders extremely interested in reviving the old cultural tradition of virginity testing as a way to safeguard against AIDS. They believe that by testing for virginity, they are protecting themselves by telling people to abstain from sex. These exams have become extremely popular and hundreds of girls wait in line for up to three hours to be tested. Government officials in Zulu estimate that tens of thousands are being examined each month. Many Western critics claim that this method is just "putting raging teen hormones in temporary check by creating a culture of fear." These critics believe that both boys and girls need to be educated about sex, condoms, AIDS, and STD's instead. Leaders, however, refuse to educate about condoms because they believe that this will spark curiosity and that the boys and girls will try it. There are increasing reports of parents beating their children for failure to pass virginity examinations. The Ministry of Health has many concerns about the testing, but will not do anything because of the sheer size of the AIDS epidemic and does not want to curb efforts to halt the spread of the disease (Singer).
In South Africa, particularly in Zulu, infants as young as 4 months are being tested to protect them against child abuse. Even women as old as 50 undergo these examinations to show that they are becoming socially prestigious. One girl says, "This is not the time to be sleeping with boys. We have isolated ourselves from those girls who sleep with boys. They are not our friends." This is the type of attitude that is prominent within these communities. Newly branded virgins often wear colorful dots on their foreheads to show their purity to the world. This is not always a good idea, however. Because of the existing myth that having sexual intercourse with a virgin will cure you of AIDS, many women are being raped after undergoing examinations that show that they are a virgin.
At one particular school in Zulu, about half of the 1,500 students have undergone a virginity test. Fewer than 30 have failed. At times, the testing can be cause for major celebration of Zulu culture, where they slaughter cows and have large celebrations. The boys are also often tested. The penises are checked. A hard foreskin is a sign of purity. A wire is placed between two trees about three feet off of the ground. The boys are instructed to urinate about the wire, without using their hands. If they urinate in a straight line, they are virgins. If it is a shower, they are impure. They are also told to urinate in the sand. The urine of a virgin makes a straight hole, they claim. South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality held a special meeting on virginity testing and determined that it is a bad thing on the whole, but recognizes that individuals have the right to practice their cultural traditions. One of the problems is that there are no babysitters in South Africa. Parents return from work in the evening and do not know what their children have been up to during the day. Many parents believe that these tests will be a cure for AIDS because virgins will congregate with virgins and the impure will be shunned. Tests are also performed in five other schools in Zulu on children as young as six so that they can "get used to it." Sex education does not sound like it is plausible in the near future. A local schoolteacher says, "We are against the use of condoms. We think condoms promote lust for sex. If a person has condoms he can go to another man's wife knowing he will not get her pregnant. I don't think we should teach children about such things.
There are many questions that are raised about the inspections such as:
how much anatomical knowledge do those doing the testing have?
how do they know that a broken hymen is not the result of sport or even child abuse?
how hygienic are the inspections?
If the first girl inspected has HIV, and the same pair of gloves are used on the rest of the girls in the row, they can all become infected with the virus.