- The tests are held to be particularly important by some minority groups in Britain
- Young women charged between £150 and £300 for certified proof of their purity
- Hymens can break easily with half of women not bleeding when losing virginity
By Sarah Sands
Picture the scene: a young bride is alone with her new husband on their wedding night. They make love. But then comes a disturbing test of their union. He examines the bedsheets for drops of blood to prove she had preserved her sexual purity for him.
As part of this traditional process, the sheet is placed on a cushion and put outside the bedroom door where it can be examined by the couple’s waiting families.
Once they are satisfied with the proof of blood – showing that the bride’s hymen broke on her wedding night and that she was a virgin bride – this ‘ceremony’ is finished. The family duly disbands and the young woman’s torment of trepidation is over.
This is not a scenario from medieval times but happened – as it does regularly – in today’s Britain. According to the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other organisations, such ‘virginity tests’ are conducted in many countries. They are most common in North Africa and the Middle East, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and South Africa.
While both the Bible and the Koran forbid extra-marital sex, the tests are held to be particularly important by some minority groups in Britain. As a result, there is a flourishing, hidden business with clinics, particularly in London, offering virginity certificates, or even more disturbing, remedial work on the hymen for ‘cosmetic reasons’.
The hymen is the membrane at the opening of the vagina, and is regarded in some communities as proof of moral virtue.
Young women are charged between £150 and £300 for certified proof of their purity and up to £3,000 for operations to reconstruct the hymen, even though the World Health Organisation has said that the state of the hymen is not a reliable guide to establishing virginity.
A quick Google search comes up, for instance, with an advertisement for Regency International Clinic in Central London. ‘Hymen repair surgery. Restore your virginity. A 100 per cent safe and minor procedure. Performed with strictest confidence.’
The ‘restoration of virginity’ is a deeply controversial example of how a regressive, fundamentalist culture is imposed on young women brought up in 21st Century Britain. Indeed, the consequences after such ceremonies in some ethnic minority communities of the discovery of clean sheets – and therefore the assumption that the woman had had sex before marriage – can mean anything from family shame, being turned into an outcast, or, in extreme cases, being killed.
Naturally, no evidence is required of a new husband having been a virgin, and, anyway, that would be anatomically difficult to prove.
‘IT’S ABOUT MEN CONTROLLING WOMEN’: Regency International Clinic in London advertises its services online as a way of ‘restoring virginity’
The Government is now under pressure to ban ‘virginity repair’ surgery. The Middle Eastern Women and Society organisation, set up to champion the rights of Middle Eastern, North African and Asian women, has launched a petition that says: ‘Virginity tests are unscientific, barbaric and a practice that should be stamped out for good.’
Halaleh Taheri, its Kurdish Iranian-born founder, says: ‘We do not want two laws within Britain. There should be just one – and for us all to be equal citizens under it.’
She tells a story about her own family which shockingly demonstrates the extreme ways that some women are victimised.
In the 1990s, in Iran, Halaleh’s cousin married a man she loved but to the disapproval of their families. While breastfeeding her baby, someone crept into the room and bludgeoned her to death.
‘The baby was suckling blood,’ says Halaleh, 60, her voice trembling. ‘My cousin was a wonderful woman. We never found out which family member murdered her.’
A quick Google search comes up, for instance, with an advertisement for Regency International Clinic in Central London
Like other forms of sexual oppression and humiliation, she says ‘honour killings’ were considered a domestic issue and the maximum punishment was only six months’ imprisonment. She tells the story to illustrate the consequences of a culture in which women are the property of men and their sexuality part of the purchase price.
‘Under sharia law, women have no power, and no support in society. They are so scared,’ says Halaleh.
‘In the UK, we do care about women. I would just ask that we show that we treat them equally by stopping virginity tests and the whole culture of sexual purity and impurity.
‘These are customs from 2,000 years ago but they are still being perpetuated in some communities. In Iran, they stone women for adultery. We have to show that women are equal in Britain.’
Virginity tests and domestic violence may affect only a small minority of women but for those who live in fear of being judged by their communities, life can be appalling.
Natasha Rattu, a barrister and executive director of Karma Nirvana, a charity helping victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage, says that, understandably, young women are mortified by the need to produce blood on their wedding night.
Possibly, they have had boyfriends before their families chose a husband for them. Or they may never have had sex but are fearful that their hymen may have previously been punctured by something as routine as a cycle ride – leading their husband and his family to wrongly think they are ‘impure’.
The fact is that hymens can break easily, with half of women not bleeding when they lose their virginity.
For the women who phone Karma Nirvana’s helpline, the repercussions and future life chances of a damaged hymen are terrifying. Some purchase blood capsules to use secretly in the hope that they will help them pass their wedding night ‘virginity test’. Others seek medical checks or operations.
‘This is the time to change attitudes, so that women are not judged and valued for their sexual purity. They are not commodities,’ says Ms Rattu.
Those who insist on such ‘virginity tests’, unsurprisingly, are very reluctant to talk publicly.
But Karma Nirvana sent me data from its phone line call-handlers which give a snapshot of women’s experiences. The calls fall into pitiful categories.
Some women get in contact because they’ve been sexually active with boyfriends pre-marriage and are frightened their families will find out. This is the main market for hymen repair surgery. Others call because they have been raped by men they know, who then force them to seek hymen repair surgery to cover their tracks. Or they need proof of virginity in advance of an arranged marriage.
The average age of callers is 23 and the youngest 17. The bulk are of African, Egyptian, Afghan and Kurdish origin.
Of the ten women who revealed they had undergone ‘virginity tests’ or hymen repair surgery over the past 18 months, two were victims of forced marriage.
Campaigners are convinced that there are many others who undergo this in secret. Hymen repair is not illegal in Britain and because it is done privately, it is not widely discussed.
Guidance from the General Medical Council is that doctors must obtain ‘informed consent’ which ‘may not be valid if it is given under pressure or duress exerted by another person’.
Rather than focus on young women who resort to such treatments under pressure, there has been a misguided attitude that if a small number of rich women want to spend their money stitching up their vaginas, why should anyone care?
Among those highlighting the practice is women’s health campaigner Nimco Ali. She is supported by Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Home Secretary Priti Patel in her bid to make illegal the shaming and mutilation of young women.
She says: ‘Virginity tests suggest that a new bride is like a new car being driven out of the showroom.’
Ms Ali believes the issue has previously been ignored by politicians because there has been ‘a false reasoning that this is a matter of private choice and outside government control’.
She says: ‘Just because you can pay for it doesn’t mean you do it in a civilised country. This goes on in Harley Street and “for cultural reasons”, so nobody questions it.’
‘We allow women to be flown in from the Middle East and South East Asia, thus supporting the belief that women have to bleed on their wedding night.
‘If men were suddenly going off to trim their testicles, it would be a public health issue. This is simply a case of profiteering from violence against women.’
There is momentum behind the campaigners. The Middle Eastern Women and Society group is organising a conference where medical staff and campaigners will discuss bringing the private clinics into line.
Ms Ali says the Cabinet Ministers who back her are discussing measures that would bring prosecutions against doctors who carry out this procedure.
In a joint statement, Ms Patel and Mr Hancock have said: ‘Despite online advertising dressing up this surgery as a chance to “restore your innocence”, we know that at root this is about men controlling women.’
And they urged husbands, brothers and fathers to speak out against the view that women’s bodies are ‘objects that have to be sexually policed’, which has ‘absolutely no place in modern Britain’.
Perhaps one day soon, women’s worth will no longer be measured by drops of blood on the marital bed.