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 offence.
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 In fact, the practice, doctors believe, is based on a misunderstanding of the female body and outdated notions of “purity.”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 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.
“I couldn’t believe it was still happening or that nobody had taken it up,” Holden told CNN. “I knew I had to campaign to change the law.”
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.
The clearance interview
Balraj Purewal, director of the Indian Workers’ Association in the UK, remembers the day he learned about the violations taking place at UK borders.
It was 24 January 1979 and a visibly baffled young Indian man had come to the offices of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) seeking help. The man told Purewal that he couldn’t fathom why his fiancée, who had just landed in London, was bleeding and seemed traumatized.
He explained to the young SYM activist that while he had been waiting for his partner at Heathrow airport, immigration and medical officers had whisked her away for a “clearance interview”. When she finally came out of the room, the 35-year-old Indian school teacher wouldn’t speak. “Something must have happened to her in the immigration room,” Purewal recalls being told.
It would take both men a few days to learn that she had undergone a so-called two-finger virginity test at the UK’s largest airport.
The schoolteacher’s abuse received national attention after she shared her experience with The Guardian, describing how a medical inspector had examined her to confirm she had not borne children and was in fact entering the country as a virgin, to be married.
Archival records from the Home Office, seen by CNN, show that immigration officials suspected the woman was lying about her age and marital status, and sought permission for a doctor to conduct the internal examination.
After the story went public, the department responsible for immigration, security, law and order, the Home Office, offered the young woman £500 amid news reports that her partner had planned to file a writ against the Home Office.
The evidence of the proposed payoff was later found by two Australian academics, Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo while conducting research into discrimination in British immigration history. Additional sources, including a debate in the Houses of Parliament would reveal that the Indian teacher’s experience was by no means exceptional, nor was vaginal testing only happening at Heathrow.
“We found that gynaecological as well as other bodily examinations were conducted on South Asian women at British High Commissions in India, Pakistan [and] Bangladesh, as well as Heathrow,” Smith tells CNN.
He adds that a 1980 document from the then-Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimated that “between 120 and 140 South Asian women were subject to some kind of bodily examination for immigration purposes over the decade up to 1979.” Of these, 73 were in Delhi, 10 in Bombay and 40-60 in Dacca — now Dhaka. The number of cases in Islamabad and Karachi remain unknown.
“Virginity examinations are inherently discriminatory and when conducted forcibly result in significant physical and mental suffering, thereby constituting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or torture.”
Independent Forensic Expert Group
In March 1977, two years before the schoolteacher’s case came to light, a journalist, Amrit Wilson, received a message from a friend about a 16-year-old Pakistani national who had been detained at Heathrow.
The girl had “landed in Heathrow decked up in full bridalwear, anticipating a wedding to her fiancé,” says Wilson who is now a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain. Instead, the teenager was held at the Harmondsworth detention center for a week.
At Harmondsworth, the young woman described to the reporter how she’d undergone a mandated “sexual examination,” intended to prove that she was younger than she had claimed.
In her 1978 book, Finding A Voice: Asian Women in Britain, Wilson says the girl had told her that there’d been two men, one of them white, the other spoke Urdu and was probably from Pakistan. The examiner had alleged that she was not yet 16 and as a result, she was deported to Pakistan.