Many men still believe the frontier of purity lies inside the woman’s body. Where does that leave the idea of women having control over their own bodies?
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Some 35 years ago, the British immigration authorities began to carry out what came to be known as virginity tests on Indian women entering the UK as potential brides—on “fiancée visas”. Likely suspects were whisked away at the airport, held in closed rooms and examined—presumably for intact hymens. The assumption was that if the woman was found to be a virgin, it was likely that she was coming in to be married for no Indian man would marry a woman who wasn’t a virgin. If, on the other hand, she was not, they’d have legitimate grounds to turn her away.
When a local newspaper exposed this, telling the story of a teacher who had been subjected to such tests, there was widespread outrage, both in the UK and India. The immigration authorities claimed that they had sought—and gained—the teacher’s consent for once “the nature” of such an examination was explained to her, she agreed. She could, of course, have done little else: Stuck at an airport in a different country, surrounded by men in uniform, fearing she would be sent back…it takes little to guess how voluntary that “consent” was. Protest and outrage eventually led to the tests being withdrawn, but not before it had become abundantly clear how well the immigration authorities in the UK had figured out the psychology and pathology of Indian men.
This was in 1979. Cut to the present day: June 2013 in Hardu village in Madhya Pradesh and the chief minister’s Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojana to conduct mass marriages among poor, tribal and Dalit men and women, is being implemented. Some 450 women are to be married, and the authorities decide to first conduct virginity tests on them. The aim is the same: to find out which ones are “legitimate” (read virgin) brides and which are not. Prospective husbands are made to wait while two health workers carry out these tests. If the newspapers are to be believed, the majority of the women are found to be “pure” and their marriages go ahead. Nine-10 are found to be pregnant and are denied the benefits of the scheme, the assumption perhaps being that if they are pregnant the chances are that they are already married but trying to illegally access the benefits of the scheme.
Why, one might ask, is virginity such an obsession in India? What is it about that small and useless piece of membrane that makes it the marker that stands between the “pure” female body and the “impure” or polluted one? As with all complicated questions, there are no easy answers to these ones too, so as people do these days, I decided to turn first to the Internet to see if I could find one. I came across a lively debate on virginity in which one of the participants pointed out that it wasn’t really virginity that was an issue but the fact that women were considered as property because “the social and cultural reasons of giving importance to virginity are very deep. Since olden times every culture on earth considers women as ‘property’. So, women’s virginity is also her man’s property.”
The fact that men see women as their “property” isn’t anything new, and indeed this sense of belonging to men is often internalized by women themselves. This sense of entitlement is what enables men to demand that women dress in certain ways, that their behaviour conform to the norms defined by men. And it is also this that enables men to place the value they do on virginity—for so long as the woman is untouched, the sense of belonging can somehow hold until she is safely confined within the bounds of marriage. Women who transgress these boundaries, or choose to stay outside of them, are automatically suspect, and men therefore feel they have the right to discipline them—the ways of such discipline being almost inevitably violent. The Moroccan sociologist, Fatna Sabbah, offers an explanation for this: She points out that men’s need to control women’s bodies is built on a deep fear of their sexuality—which is perhaps why the desiring woman, the sexually active woman, becomes the opposite of the virgin woman and the latter gets valorized.
This isn’t, of course, something that one can only blame on men: Women themselves are often party to extolling virginity. Witness the following statement from the debate on the Net: “Are you stupid?” asked one young woman in response to a question about whether virginity was important. “I’m 20 and a virgin. I’m from north India. I’m still going to remain virgin until I get married to the special one. Seriously, stop spreading your Western bullshit here.”
Is this Western bullshit though? I’m not sure. It’s true the valorization of female virginity isn’t something that is special to India and all over the world young women will claim they want to guard it—notice the terms that are used, “jewel”, “precious thing”, something that must not be “lost” and so on—for that special man. It’s also true though that all over the world, and India is no exception, attitudes to virginity have begun to change, if only in very minuscule ways. Speak to young people anywhere, sometimes it doesn’t even matter what class they come from, or even if they are urban or rural, and a different reality begins to emerge. A young domestic worker I know, straight out of the rural hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, set no store at all by this thing called virginity. “Why do people make such a fuss about this, didi?” she asked me. “After all, it’s what’s in the mind that is much more important.” Involved in a long sexual relationship with a young man, she later went on to marry someone else, and no questions were asked. I suspect this experience may be more common than we like to believe. And as the young woman said, who can control what goes on in the mind?
This doesn’t take away from the painful and harsh reality that men feel the need to control—and therefore abuse and violate—women’s bodies. Nor does it take away from the fact that women’s bodies—not only in India but everywhere —are simultaneously sites of exploitation and violence where battles are fought over notions of honour as defined by men.
This was abundantly clear during the Partition—a moment that we would do well to recall on Independence Day now, 66 years later. At the time, men on both sides of the newly-created border fought over what they saw as their “ownership” of women’s bodies, many of them battling to save them from rape by men of the “other” community, others leading their wives, mothers and sisters to their deaths—sometimes killing them themselves—in order to protect their own honour and retain the women’s “purity”.
Has anything changed since then? It’s difficult to say, particularly in India, where change is so impossible to quantify. But given the complex nature of our lives, any answer has to be a mixed one. Many men still believe the frontier of purity lies inside the woman’s body, but for others, the process of change has begun, just as it has for those women who have begun to believe that virginity is not only an overrated concept, but one that should be thrown out of the door sooner rather than later, so that they can take control of their bodies themselves.
Urvashi Butalia co-founded India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, in 1984. She continues to publish and promote books for, on and about women in South Asia as the publisher of Zubaan. She has edited several collections, and is the author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India.


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