Despite the creative hyperbole about the Trump administration’s apparent attempts to turn the United States into Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” women in the developed world are largely safe from humiliating federal, state, or local government-mandated tests designed to determine sexual purity.
Unfortunately, women in such places as Indonesia and India are far less fortunate. To join certain branches of law enforcement, women in Indonesia are required to undergo highly-invasive, “two-finger” chastity tests.
These tests not only deter countless women from joining law enforcement, but also help stigmatize female sexual activity outside of the rigid confines of monogamous marital relationships.
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to rebrand India as a cosmopolitan hub of technological advancement and financial enterprise, many of the poorer parts of the country are littered with regressive patriarchal attitudes, namely mortifying discrimination against newlywed women who are forced to take “v-tests,” or virginity tests, to prove to their husbands (and the larger community) they are medically certified virgins.
Not surprisingly, this has led many women to pursue hymen reconstruction surgery. In fact, this procedure is one of the most popular in India.
While there’s little to no sign of any progress in Indonesia or India, the same cannot be said about Afghanistan. A new policy announced by the Ministry of Health in early July seeks to prohibit government medical workers from conducting vaginal and anal exams to determine female chastity.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘[v]irginity examinations’ are a routine part of criminal proceedings in Afghanistan. When women or girls are accused of ‘moral crimes’ such as sex outside of marriage, police, prosecutors, and judges regularly send them to government doctors.” The government doctors submit certified reports of the women’s sexual histories, at which point women in violation of the country’s religious codes may face jail time. Citing the World Health Organization, HRW notes that “virginity” tests have no scientific validity given the fact that some women are born without whereas others lose their hymens from routine activities outside of sex.
Thankfully, after years of pressure from human rights campaigners, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is now promising an end to government-administered forensic virginity tests.
With the vast majority of women jailed for “morality” related crimes, the move comes as a hopeful change for those seeking a more egalitarian future in a country wrought by decades of systemic gender-based violence carried out by the Taliban and other armed jihadist groups who managed to retrench in the years following the U.S. invasion.
It’s unclear how long it will take to implement the policy across the country or if government clinics across regions controlled by tribal interests will voluntarily comply with Kabul’s mandate. Moreover, non-governmental sexual discrimination against women and girls in private medical facilities is still incredibly pervasive, if not ubiquitous.
There’s a long road ahead when it comes to women’s rights in Afghanistan, but if these developments are any harbinger of things to come then perhaps both human rights groups and Western governments have major roles to play in pressuring the Afghan government to institute more aggressive social reforms.