Last week the British government added a clause to its Health and Care Bill that would make hymenoplasty — or “virginity repair” surgery — illegal in England and Wales. In November 2021, “virginity testing” also became a criminal offense, reports CNN.
About ‘virginity’ test
According to an article on BMJ Global Health, “‘virginity’ testing involves visual inspection of the hymenal membrane by a medical professional. In some cases, the examination includes a ‘two-finger’ test to assess the size of the vaginal opening.”
However, studies have shown no test or exam can reliably and accurately determine whether a woman has had sex and the idea of such a test is largely sexist. In fact, the practice, doctors believe, is based on a misunderstanding of the female body and outdated notions of “purity.”
The new law
The member of the British Parliament who proposed the changes to the law, Richard Holden, spoke of being “tipped over the edge” after a radio story almost two years ago made him aware of these two inextricably linked practices that predominantly affect immigrant women in the United Kingdom.
A government spokesperson told CNN that the amendments were evidence of a commitment to “safeguard all women and break down the pervasive myths that surround virginity and a woman’s sexuality.”
While the proposed changes have been welcomed, Britain has a checkered history with virginity testing. In the 1970s, immigration officers did not safeguard all women with the state conducting virginity testing on the same demographic it is now trying to protect.
The UK Home Office tested women as a means of immigration control and for this, a formal apology has never been issued.
‘A form of state rape’
The Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants is one of the British organizations which has previously backed calls for a formal apology from the state. Its chief executive, Satbir Singh, says the conclusions drawn from the tests show the UK Home Office officials were making “all kinds of assumptions about South Asian culture.”
The rationale of the British government, Singh believes, was that if a married woman had a hymen that was perceived to be intact. If an unmarried woman’s hymen was concluded to not be intact following the examination, immigration officials thought this must mean she was already married.
The government did itself make its logic for using these procedures known. In March 1979, David Stephen, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office adviser, issued a report which states:
“If immigration or entry certificate officers suspect that a girl claiming to be to be an unmarried dependent is in fact married, or if a woman arriving at London Airport and claiming to be a fiancée of a man resident here is in fact a wife seeking to join her husband and avoid the ‘queue’ for an entry certificate, they have on occasion sought a medical view on whether or not the woman concerned had borne children, it being a reasonable assumption that an unmarried woman in the sub-continent would be a virgin (sic).”
The immigration policy “was a cynical ploy using the patriarchal values of Asian communities against them,” says Rahila Gupta, Interim Director of Southall Black Sisters, one of the groups that campaigned against virginity testing at Heathrow Airport. “I would say it was a form of state rape, which was an invasion of a woman’s privacy of the most appalling kind.”
Sweeping an unsavory history aside
By the end of January 1979, organizations representing various immigrant communities in the UK — notably Awaz (UK Asian women’s collective) and OWAAD (Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent) — began protesting at Heathrow airport and on the streets of central London.
A wave of disquiet had also swept India following reports of the practice, leading to several protests in New Delhi. Indian author and activist Urvashi Butalia, who was then in her mid-twenties, remembers the civil actions vividly.
The public objection to virginity testing on immigrants triggered a diplomatic response as well, with then Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, writing to the British government led by Labour’s James Callaghan and India’s Deputy-High Commissioner, Pascal Alan Nazareth, reported at the time as having “registered a strong protest” with Evan Luard, the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office.
Yielding to the growing scrutiny and condemnation, The Home Office issued a statement seen by CNN, dated 2 February 1979. In it, the department admits using virginity testing and confirms that the Home Secretary had now put a stop to the checks.
The practice stopped but the anger remains, fueled by the lack of accountability.
There has “never been an admission of guilt” by the Home Office, Singh of the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants says. “They never admitted that they had done something wrong.”
Almost 43 years to the day since the protests in the UK and India, Holden, the parliamentarian who proposed the legislation to criminalize virginity testing and hymenoplasty is keen to recognise the positive actions of the state, then and now. “We stopped doing that as a government decades ago, but also now we are ending those practices more widely in society,” he says.
But Rahila Gupta speaks of “the hypocrisy of the British state”, which plans to safeguard vulnerable women today and yet sweeps its “unsavory history aside.”
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