Insane in the membrane: Sticking two fingers up to the virginity test

Colonisation from within of the female form © MisBeee Writes
There has been a slew of media stories since the start of the year fixated on the supposed potency of the female form and the responsibility women have with making their bodies less desirable to the opposite sex.

The idea that a 16-year old girl groomed her married 47-year-old religious education teacher into having an affair, according to UK judge Joanna Greenberg QC, was one that stuck in my mind.

It got me recalling the experience of a friend of mine whose mother directed her to wearing a dressing gown over her night dress whenever she ventured out of her room. The extra layer was supposed to act as deterrent against the licentious attacks she suffered most nights at the hands of her stepfather. It didn’t.

More recently, fresh efforts by an MP in the Indonesian district of Jember to introduce the controversial 'two-finger' or virginity test to schoolgirls before they can graduate have been denounced by women and human rights activists alike as sexist and degrading in equal measure. Although recent news reports suggest the plan has been scrapped, this is not the first time officials have sought to legitimise the procedure.

In 2013, the education chief of a city in western Sumatra, Indonesia suggested that teenage girls should take a virginity test before being able to join high school. And as far back as 1965, women recruited in the country's women’s police force are not only required to be unmarried but have to submit to this internal examination.  

Once again the responsibility for guarding chastity and the blame for relinquishing it is left to sit squarely on the shoulders of the female – in spite of the fact that it takes two to tango.

Sex before marriage
According to reports dotted across the media, the logic behind advocating the test in Indonesia was to reduce the incidence of pre-marital sex and HIV among the high school population. In return, the females – because the males would be exempt from such an examination - would be free to graduate and receive the respect from their peers and society. Those that failed would receive neither. Girls believed not to be virgins are often shunned from society, while others are mentally and physically scarred by the invasive procedure. 

But Indonesia is not alone. News pieces indicate that in parts of Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, to name but a few, this form of inspection has been used. 

Traditionally before pre-pubescent girls of Sudan’s Kenuzi tribe were married off, they were manually inspected by an adult male to check they were virgins, (Godard 1867), (Kennedy, John G. 1970)[1].  
And in a Zimbabwean village in 2004, the chief of the area justified the practice as a method of curbing teen sexual infections because girls were easier to control than boys[2].

In Bangladesh the practice has been used on rape victims to establish whether or not they have had been sexually active prior to that incident. And investigations look at the hymen and the tightness of the vaginal walls were also conducted in Europe. French medical jurist Dr L Thoinot claimed that inserting a cone or two fingers into a woman’s vagina would establish whether she was a virgin or not. 

Virgin lies
The idea that women are held accountable for the actions of some men cuts across societies. I’ve heard in the UK that a woman baring too much skin or those having 'a skin full' (too much alcohol) are just asking to be raped are still common place.

So too is the idea that virginity is somehow bound up solely in the notion of innocence and purity of the mind, which is at once polluted when a female has been deflowered. I guess that would explain why some HIV/Aids-infected men in South Africa justify sleeping with a virgin as a way to somehow cure their sickness….

In Britain, this flawed concept of linking virginity to innocence was peddled during the 1970s with one well-documented case detailing the experiences of a 35-year-old Indian woman who arrived at Heathrow Airport to eventually marry her fiancé – a British resident of Indian descent[3].

At the time, people entering Britain to marry their fiancés did not require a visa. But the woman in question had to endure an internal examination by a male doctor in exchange for her right to stay in the country. The belief was that a virgin was less likely to be falsely trying to obtain a visa than one who had had sex…..

Pretty petals
But let’s be realistic for one second. All women are capable of lying or telling the truth regardless of whether their hymens are intact or not. And it is also well documented that some females are born without hymens or can have them torn without having sex – but does that make them liars? And let’s add into the mix the fact that no two hymens are the same. 

Research suggests that rather than being merely a membrane that covers the entrance to the vagina, the hymen is a series of folds much like the petals on flowers. And so it is not a hard and fast rule that the first sexual encounter would result in the breaking of this membrane. In some cases the hymen is scarred or it stretches and is left undamaged, Sherria Ayuandini who, at the time of writing in the 'The Conversation' in 2014, was a Phd candidate in medical anthropology at Washington University, St Louis, USA. 

Once again, I am drawn back to my school days and a chance conversation I had with a classmate who had yet to experience the 'joy' of menstruation despite enduring the monthly cramps. She recounted that it was only after visiting her local hospital that she discovered that she had been bleeding all along but her hymen had been so sturdy (even though she rode bikes and horses, which are typically supposed to rupture these structures), hers remained steadfast and only succumbed to repeated prodding from the doctors.

So I am left to wonder why in so many cultures, through so many eras virginity testing or the views surrounding virginity and women continues to prevail. Is there a logical defence for targeting just one gender when the spread of sexually transmitted infections or pre-marital sex affects both?

And is society so broken that heaping the responsibility on children is easier than tackling it more holistically? Even with the United Nations condemning the test and despite there being medical proof that the function of hymens vary and cannot be bound up in innocence, why in 2015 are we still forced to have this conversation?

[1] Kennedy, John G. Circumcision and Excision in Egyptian Nubia. Man 5 (2): 175-191

[2] IPS Correspondents, Rights – Zimbabwe: Virginity Testing Strips Girls of Their Dignity – Groups, 17 February 2004

[3] Smith, Evan and Marmo, Marinella. Uncovering the ‘Virginity Testing’ Controversy in the National Archives: The Intersectionality of Discrimination in British Immigration History. Gender & History. Vol 23 No.1 April 2011, pp. 147-165

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
For more blogs like this, check:

Insane in the membrane: Sticking two fingers up to the virginity test 

Why I am not buying the new Band Aid 30 single

Art Attack: When human brutality becomes art   

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