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How India treats sexually active women — and virginity tests

The burden of proof in any situation concerning socially unapproved virginity loss falls on the woman or her family.

 |  6-minute read |   22-07-2017
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Over the past four years, there has been an increase in demand for surgical procedures that are being dubbed as "virginity restoration surgeries". More and more women are going under the knife for hymen repair, a cosmetic technique that repairs a torn hymen. The consensus, both medical and social, is that in a heterosexual sense, the loss of virginity is signalled by the first act of penetrative intercourse causing the rupture of the hymen, a tissue in the vagina.

This definition is entirely normative, the context being heterosexual. The debate often does not extend to include how sexual minorities, that is non-heterosexual identities, describe or experience virginity loss. Regardless of this lacuna, it is fair to say that most societies and cultures across the world place an inordinate amount of premium on virginity, especially the virginity of a woman.

While penetrative heterosexual intercourse signals the loss of virginity for both the male and the female, the physiological repercussions for a man are different from those for a woman. In the case of an unmarried woman or a soon-to-be married woman, the hymen’s presence or absence thereof is seen as a direct reflection of a woman’s purity, chastity and thereby, by extension, a reflection of her as well as her family honour.

A sexually intact woman is in demand not just in a moral sense that is embedded within familial institutions such as household and marriage, but also in a perverse sense. For instance, militant indoctrination takes place with the promise of “virgins waiting in heaven” for a job (an act of terror nevertheless!) well-done, while in commercial sex work the monetary consideration increases considerably for a virgin.

Given the premium culture places on virginity, sometimes the state of sexual purity comes under scrutiny and often needs to be established. The burden of proof in any situation concerning socially unapproved virginity loss (essentially every conceivable situation outside of marriage) falls on the woman or on the family of the woman. The anatomy of the vagina, the site of the hymen and the complex internality makes it virtually impossible for a woman to put forth any proof of virginity without subjecting herself to an examination carried out by a third party with authority, and medical institutions fit the bill perfectly.

In early 2013, 450 women were forced to undergo virginity tests in the tribal district of Betul in Madhya Pradesh. These tests were carried out at the behest of the Madhya Pradesh government during a state-led mass marriage ceremony. The state had floated the Mukhya Mantri Kanyadan Yojna ceremony in which the government assisted poor women in getting married. The scheme provided brides with household items to the value of Rs 9,000. The state justified the virginity tests by maintaining that women who were already married wanted to avail these gifts and therefore took part in the ceremony with their husbands and posed as bride and groom.

virginity-tests_072117111844.jpgYet, when women seek the physical manifestation of virginity they perhaps rather unconsciously cement the social construction of female virginity as it exists today. Photo: Independent blog

Medical institutions have responded to demands pertaining to virginity in three ways: as an examiner of virginity, that is, as a regulatory interventionist on behalf of the state, as a "solution provider" in the form of inventing and performing these "virginity restoration" surgeries (this terminology is in itself problematic because virginity loss, apart from being a physiological phenomenon, is an experience locked in time and its restoration is impossible unless time travel is invented) and "virginity sparing" surgeries or surgeries performed to treat the medical condition of an imperforate hymen in such a way as to preserve the appearance of virginity.

Until late 2005, the diabolical two-finger tests were being carried out in medico-legal cases. The purpose of these tests was twofold: to conduct an examination which in turn would lead to a medically-sanctioned verdict on whether a woman was a virgin or not. The second purpose was to establish laxity of the vagina and to determine if a woman was “habituated to sex” and in a roundabout way consent would be established; a lot of these discussions would happen in open courtrooms for rape trials have often been turned into commentaries of a woman’s sexual past rather than the current grievous offence on hand.

The justification of enforcing the two-finger test in cases of rape was based on the patriarchal validation that a rape victim if unmarried would not have had sexual intercourse before the rape and therefore the test would be able to say with some authority that the rape deprived her of her virginity. This argument about rape amounts to commodification because it looks at rape of a woman only along the binaries of whether "something was taken away" or not, rather than as a violation of bodily autonomy of a woman that could lead to lifelong psychosomatic disorders.

In January 2013, a Supreme Court Committee comprised of Justice JS Verma, Justice Leila Seth and Advocate Gopal Subramianam was constituted to look into possible amendments in criminal law to “provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women.”

Another Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices BS Chauhan and FM Kalifulla stated that the two-finger test and its references to consent violated the rights of rape survivors especially that of privacy, integrity and dignity.

These are rights guaranteed as part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. In May 2013, the Maharashtra government banned the two-finger test via a government resolution.

We do live in paradoxical times. On the one hand we have one kind of advancement, that is, virginity restoration surgeries that provide the impression of virginity and on the other hand we have another kind of advancement – the state taking cognisance of sexual activity amongst pre-marital couples.

This is evident from the fact that live-in relationships that signal sexual advancement have received state acknowledgement by being brought under the ambit of Indian Statutory framework such as the Domestic Violence Act 2005.

Yet, when women seek the physical manifestation of virginity they perhaps rather unconsciously cement the social construction of female virginity as it exists today. Both private and public spheres impose the patriarchal paradigms of chastity that law enforces.

Medical science in turn helps preserve and correct this situation as and when situations arise. Yet, the entire process is a salute to patriarchy and therefore extremely gendered in nature. The whole medical process is also fiercely value-laden. This is evident from the fact that medical science, in this age of reconstructing female virginity, has not created a robust test for male virginity.

Yes, there are scientific theories concerning the examination of foreskin and its level of detachment from the penis as an indicator of male virginity but these remain in the periphery of the discussion or under the carpet never to be raked up, relegated to the confines of an academic.

Yet, one finds solace in the fact that these victorious engagements with the law, whether it is the DV Act or the abolishment of the two-finger tests, are hard-fought, hard-won successes for the women’s movement.

Also read: Virginity today is a bloody business

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Writer

Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind

Feminist research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is also the author of The Heavens We Chase published by Roli Books, Delhi.

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