The education agency in the city of Prabumulih in Indonesia announced last month that it would make virginity tests mandatory for high school girls in order to curb the increasing instances of prostitution and pre-marital sex. This move drew wide criticism in the country, including from the Religious Affairs Minister and the National Commission on Violence Against Women. The agency now denies the proposal, claiming misunderstanding.
The proposal brings to the fore a rather problematic premise existing within government structures all over the world: that ensuring virginity somehow protects women from social ills. I do not want to delve into the personal and national morality that determines pre-marital sex as an offense in the same category as prostitution (which I believe should be legitimate choice, too). The obsession with women’s virginity that presses patriarchal systems to create invasive policies stems from many of disturbing motivations.
It is obvious that the origins of the test lie in sinister beliefs, rather than medicine. The virginity test determines whether a woman has had vaginal intercourse by inspecting if her hymen or vaginal corona is intact. This test is highly unreliable, since hymen breakage can occur in circumstances other than sex; women can have sex without damaging the hymen; and some women don’t have developed hymen membranes in the first place. Moreover, if it were to determine signs of sexual activity, it cannot account for non-vaginal penetration and homosexual sex.
However, the scientific inefficacy is beside the point. The idea of protecting virginity is offensive. Award-winning author Taslima Nasrin observes that in many countries, a couple has sex on their first night after their wedding on a white sheet so there is evidence of hymen rupture; the stained sheet is displayed to the family as testament to the girl's chastity and purity. The value placed on a virgin woman stems from the ultimate consumerist commodification: that men can only use that which is brand new; a second-hand product is inferior in quality and must be discarded.
A lack of proof of virginity has led to honor killings in certain cases, prompting an Egyptian Mufti to issue a fatwa to allow hymen reconstruction surgeries in order to prevent these killings. While some celebrated this fatwa for protecting women, the move still reinforces and encourages this ridiculous notion that virginity is some sort of deliverable good, sealed with hymen: a precious good that cannot be lost unless claimed by the entitled male consumer.
On an online Islamic question and answer portal, a woman wrote a heart-wrenching testimony: "My husband and I found out that I was not a virgin, but I am certain that I am innocent because no one ever touched me before him." It gets worse: this blog post reveals how a man divorced his wife on the day of their wedding after finding out that she had been molested as a child, lest his reputation be tarnished.
Unfortunately, valuing virginity over humanity is a deeply embedded social issue in many parts of the world . At a mass wedding in the state of Madhya Pradesh in 2009, prospective brides were reportedly made to undergo the virginity test to be issued a clearance certificate which made them eligible to receive state aid for their weddings. In India until May 2013, the virginity test (known, crudely, as the "two-finger test") was used to collect evidence of rape, and included examining vaginal "laxity" to determine whether victims were habituated to intercourse or not. In case of unmarried women, the defense would use this test to label rape victims as "loose women," and blame them for getting raped. The Supreme Court finally abolished this horrifying forensic procedure this year.
In Egypt, the army ordered that unmarried female protesters be subjected to virginity checks to intimidate them and force them into submission. Protestor Samira Ibrahimpursued legal action after being subject to this ordeal. She told the court: "A woman prison guard in plainclothes stood at my head and then a man in military uniform examined me with his hand for several minutes. It was painful. He took his time." The Cairo administrative court finally ruled that the virginity tests were illegal.
In Georgia, there exists a clinic that reportedly issues "virginity certificates" for aspiring brides, and the tests are encouraged by prospective mothers-in-law. A professor of gender studies at Tbilisi State University, Nino Javakhishvili, spoke about the double standard to Eurasianet "We have two morals in this country: one for men and another for women," she said. "Premarital sex is not only tolerated, but even encouraged for men, while it is frowned upon for women."
However ludicrous these practices sound, the obsession is far more widespread and prevalent than one might assume. The United States has its own offering: the prominent Virginity Movement . Jessica Valenti, of Feministing.com and author of The Purity Myth criticizes the abstinence-only sex education program in many U.S. states, which denies students vital information about birth control.
This obsession with virginity is celebrated at various father-daughter "Purity balls" across the country, where fathers and daughters sign a covenant: daughters vow to be chaste until marriage, and fathers vow to protect this chastity. The founder of the first Purity ball, Randy Wilson, told the men in attendance: “Fathers, our daughters are waiting for us. They are desperately waiting for us in a culture that lures them into the murky waters of exploitation. They need to be rescued by you, their dad.” I haven't come across anything this literally patriarchal in a while (check out this documentary about the Virginity Pledge and the Purity Balls here).
Chalk this up to yet another way of denying women autonomy over their anatomy. Labelling women as promiscuous, secondhand, and not suitable for further use is part of a larger framework that denies women the right to pleasure and limits their sexuality to the purpose of being a vent for male power and propagation of species. This control is about preserving psychological submissiveness; it violates freedom on multiple levels.
Girls in schools should not be made to pass virginity tests just as they shouldn't be taught abstinence-only education. Internationally, we need sound, sexual education that enables girls to make strong,informed, individual sexual choices. And while we're at it, let's demystify sex, and call it what it is.
Hymens aren't flowers, and they're not holy.