Virginity testing is a contentious issue around the world. A court in Egypt recently cleared a military doctor of charges alleging that he forced virginity tests on female activists after a demonstration held in the wake of the Arab Spring.

BERND FISCHER

Virginity testing is a contentious issue around the world. A court in Egypt recently cleared a military doctor of charges alleging that he forced virginity tests on female activists after a demonstration held in the wake of the Arab Spring. Amnesty International describes these tests as “nothing less than torture”. Perdeby investigates this controversial method of testing and its place in contemporary society.

According to The New Age, Zulu girls in South Africa as young as six years old undergo hymen examinations to determine whether damage has been caused by penetrative sex. Similarly, as told in Sex and Society, a book published by Marshall Cavendish, Kenuzi girls of Sudan are married off to adult men before reaching puberty. On their wedding night, they are inspected by their new husbands to confirm their virginity.

Virginity testing determines whether a woman has ever engaged in sexual intercourse. The test’s outcome relies on the condition of a woman’s hymen – the membrane located inside the vagina – to establish whether it has been torn or not. The test, however, assumes that the hymen can only be torn as a result of vaginal penetration.

Medical professionals maintain that the presence or absence of a hymen is not a reliable indicator of whether a woman has engaged in sexual intercourse. The hymen can break during numerous non-sexual activities. These include horse riding, athletics, gymnastics, the use of a tampon and certain medical procedures such as Pap smears. The tearing of this membrane may happen at a young age and go unnoticed. Some women are even born with an already perforated hymen. Critics have also accused proponents of these tests for disregarding rape as a possible reason for no longer being a virgin. This has raised ethical questions about the definition of virginity.

Virginity testing has been condemned by human rights activists, especially when performed on behalf of a government. According to The Independent, Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old activist, is the only woman out of seven who went public about the forced virginity tests in Egypt last year. “No one stained my honour. The one that had her honour stained is Egypt. I will carry on [fighting] until I restore Egypt’s rights,” Ibrahim tweeted following the acquittal of the accused. Despite Egypt’s admission that the tests were carried out to contest claims that the women had been raped while in custody, the case collapsed due to conflicting witness testimonies. Virginity testing by military officials has since been banned in Egypt as of December 2011. In January this year, similar tests performed on rape victims in India have also been stopped. Human Rights Watch called the tests “degrading and unscientific”.

The so-called “fiancée visa” was a 1970s policy which required women who were immigrating to Britain to undergo virginity testing. This policy applied to women who were moving to the United Kingdom to marry their fiancés already living in that country. It was based on the assumption that women were thought to be more likely to tell the truth if they were still virgins. This practice was exposed by The Guardian in 1979 and immediately abandoned.

Despite the practice being illegal in several countries, some societies consider it an integral part of their culture. Here in South Africa, for example, the Zulu custom known as the “reed dance” requires young girls to undergo virginity testing before participating. According to the Mail & Guardian, older and respectable Zulu women examine the young girls to determine whether their hymens are still intact. If the girls pass the test, they are invited to the king’s palace. If a girl fails the test, she may not participate in the dance as this would render the ceremony impure – she disgraces her family and risks being shunned.

A surgical procedure known as a hymenoplasty can restore a torn hymen and thus a virginity test can be passed. Reuters maintains that this procedure is becoming increasingly popular among Muslim women of north-African descent living in France.

“Many of my patients are caught between two worlds,” says Dr Marc Abecassis, a doctor in Paris. He believes that the increase in the trend is due to religious demands – a custom he calls “cultural and traditional, with enormous family pressure” in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage.

Apart from promoting abstinence before marriage, proponents of virginity testing argue that the practice has other advantages. According to News From Africa, Naboth Makoni, a Zimbabwean village chief said he would implement monthly virginity tests among female youths as an active attempt to decrease HIV infections among his people. He also argued that it would lower teenage pregnancies. “If a young woman is not a virgin, she is considered to have less value,” Makoni says. He insists that this commonly held view leads to abuse by the woman’s husband and often results in divorce.

Rudo Gaidzwana, a sociologist from the University of Zimbabwe, strongly criticised Makoni’s plan. Gaidzwana called the system sexist and one-sided as it focused on girls and ignored the role boys have. Olivia Masore of the Woman Action Group reiterates Gaidzwana’s stance: “Virginity testing leaves a man free to do whatever, without enforcing similar checks and balances on him, while it strips girls of their dignity.”

Photo: Hendro van der Merwe

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