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The Need To End Afghanistan's Virginity Tests

Violence against women remains a major issue in Afghanistan. File photo of Afghan civil society activist women weep and lie on the grave of Farkhunda, 27 after she was lynched by an angry mob in central Kabul on March 22.
Violence against women remains a major issue in Afghanistan. File photo of Afghan civil society activist women weep and lie on the grave of Farkhunda, 27 after she was lynched by an angry mob in central Kabul on March 22.

Women in the third world at large, and in most Muslim-majority countries, have been victims of pervasive myths unique to their own societies. One such notion is about the "treasure" a woman is expected to give her husband on their wedding night: her virginity.

In Afghanistan, a woman’s virginity is central to her purity and high social standing. The supposed pain experienced by a woman during her first experience of sexual intercourse and the bloodied sheets from that night are considered proof of her virginity.

In anatomical terms, any women whose hymen -- a thin, easily broken membrane covering the external vaginal opening -- is intact is considered a virgin. Throughout the years, an unidentified number of Afghan girls have been killed, ostracized, and exposed to severe punishments for lacking an intact hymen, or, as they are deemed in Afghanistan, for being impure, disgraceful, and condemned.

In countries like Afghanistan where poverty and illiteracy are rampant, ignorance about human anatomy is widespread. Moreover, sex is considered a shameful act that has to be done in the dark and behind thick curtains of anonymity and silence. Thus, determining a woman’s virginity has long been a test of her piety and honorability. In some cases, the decision of whether a woman should be stoned to death relies solely on a simple gynecological exam to determine whether her hymen is intact.

Global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned these "virginity tests" carried out on Afghan women and girls accused of so-called moral crimes.

"These so-called virginity exams are not just demeaning. They constitute sexual assault and are often used as evidence against women in court for the 'crime' of sex outside of marriage," Heather Barr, a researcher with HRW, recently wrote.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) says the Afghan government still employs invasive and scientifically dubious virginity tests. The group says they are a form of abuse imposed on women and even teenage girls who are often imprisoned on false accusations of moral crimes.

In a report published on February 29, the group said 48 out of 53 women it interviewed last year who had been accused of adultery or fled their homes were subjected to compulsory gynecological exams by government officials. Afghan women fleeing their homes are often attempting to escape forced marriages and domestic violence.

In 2014, the World Health Organization decreed that such virginity tests had "no scientific validity."

Afghanistan has made considerable progress toward empowering women and protecting their rights since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, but gender equality still continues to be a dream for Afghan women.

"The Afghan government should end arrests [for moral crimes] entirely and reform the law that permits them. Banning all 'virginity exams' could be an important first step toward reform," Barr said.

Statistics from the Afghan Interior Ministry show that the number of women and girls imprisoned for "moral crimes" in Afghanistan has risen to about 600 in May 2013 from 400 in October 2011 -- a 50 percent increase in a year and a half -- a projection that has likely risen more in recent years.

Rabia Jalalzai
Rabia Jalalzai

In the past five years, there has been an almost 30 percent increase overall in the number of women and girls in Afghanistan's prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

The virginity tests have been a way of dehumanizing, degrading, and imposing authority and control over women in patriarchal societies such as Afghanistan. Many women have been persecuted or accused of adultery and even lost their lives because they lacked a hymen.

Anatomically, the hymen is a thin piece of mucous tissue that surrounds and partially covers the vaginal opening and is said to be the residue of a thick membrane once completely covering the opening to vagina in order to prevent any inflow into the fetus's body while it resides in the mother's womb.

Most of this tissue is usually worn out by adolescence, allowing for menstruation, and any that remains might even be hardly visible to a trained doctor. If a hymen doesn’t tear and stays intact, it is a medical condition called an imperforate hymen, which is corrected by surgical penetration. Just like every other body part, every hymen is also shaped differently: Some are broken by as simple an activity as walking whereas others resist tearing even in individuals who are sexually active. For many women, too, the loss of the hymen involves no pain, bleeding or other sign.

Knowing hymens come in so many shapes and forms is important to realize it is not a reliable indicator of whether a person is sexually active. Thus the pain of a bride's first sexual intercourse and those bloody sheets that are celebrated on the first morning of married life could simply be the result of other factors like rough intercourse or anxiety.

Ruling out rape solely on the basis of examining the hymen, when it actually is a complex task involving multiple lab tests and physical and mental examinations carried out by forensic medicine personnel, would be insanity. And yet in Afghanistan it happens.

It is safe to conclude that the Afghan government needs to immediately put a stop to these invasive and inaccurate virginity exams. Instead, it should take a leading role in guiding Afghan society to abolish practices that ultimately only result in violating women’s basic human rights.

Rabia Jalalzai is an Afghan doctor working at Kabul Medical University. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.