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In seeking justice for victims, let us not perpetuate a stereotype that would hurt all victims of sexual violence

The Kathua case shook the conscience of the entire nation, and rightly so. There possibly can’t be a more heinous crime than an innocent, defenceless child being brutalised. While the enormity of the crime was just about dawning on the rest of the country, usual vested interests began to politicise and communalise the matter. However, politicisation and communalisation of crime aren’t new, and frankly, it has stopped surprising me.

What did shock me, however, is sub-par, borderline illiterates passing absolutely irresponsible statements about the medical procedure of establishing the occurrence of sexual assault. One such sample came from the wildly moronic journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai. This tweet was deleted later.

Rajdeep claims that he is in possession of the ‘full post-mortem report” that specifically mentions “hymen not intact”, indicating that a girl’s hymen not being intact is an indication of sexual assault. The fact that he even mentioned “hymen not intact” indicates the sheer idiocy of the conversation that revolves around sexual assault.

A hymen is a thin membrane that partially closes the opening of the vagina. Firstly, the myth that the hymen covers the entire vaginal opening must be dispelled. If it did, women wouldn’t be able to menstruate. Secondly, it must be borne in mind that many women can be born without a hymen and that, obviously, has nothing to do with intercourse. The myth that a hymen is the mark of virginity (which means that intercourse and/or sexual assault happened if the hymen is not intact) is perhaps the greatest lie, and a lie, which has foisted innumerable horrors on women.

The hymen, which is just another tissue can rupture for various reasons. Running, exercising, horseback riding, cycling, or pretty much any physical activity. Often, there is some blood discharge when this happens, but that too is not a norm.

The notion, that was also perpetuated by Rajdeep Sardesai, of connecting a woman’s non-intact hymen to sexual assault/intercourse is a horrible myth that undermines the trauma of victims and reinforces age-old, regressive practices against women.

This notion gave rise to the wildly unscientific and invasive “virginity test”, or the “two finger test”. This basically meant a medical examiner (or pretty much anyone) inserting two fingers into the vaginal cavity and checking if the hymen is intact. If it was, the conclusion was made that the woman is a virgin, if not, it was concluded that the woman, well, was not a virgin. This abrasive “test” was used to suppress and humiliate women in all forms.

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the military agreed that they had subjected women protestors to virginity tests. Their reasons for doing so were even more shocking. “The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said.

“These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs). We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).”

These are the words of an Egyptian general who presumably used these ‘tests’ to humiliate women enough to stop them from protesting and ensure none of them come forward with rape allegations.

In 1979, there was a massive outcry when it was revealed that authorities were subjecting immigrant women to virginity tests at the Heathrow Aiport. This was to ensure their bona fides when they claimed they were in the country to marry. In fact, at the time, even the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, Mr Alan Nazareth, had registered a strong protest with Evan Luard, an Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, saying that the Indian government was outraged and wanted the practice banned.

I quote from a January 23rd, 2018 India Today article, the group Rajdeep Sardesai works for :

“On January 22, three young men were beaten up by a mob of people for trying to find women a respectable standing in society. These three victims belong to the Kanjarbhat community and are part of a WhatsApp group, called Stop the V Ritual.

This is NOT the first time someone trying to oppose this ritual has faced a backlash. On November 25, 2017, one of the members of this WhatsApp group, 21-year-old Siddhant Indrekar, filed a complaint against the caste panchayat at the Vishrantwadi police station. Siddhant claimed he had recorded members of the caste panchayat accepting Rs 10,000 from a bride and a groom to approve their marriage. No action has been taken since, even though he was told that the police would “look into the matter”.”

The ‘two-finger test’ (also called the virginity test) that is perpetuated by the ‘hymen not intact’ statement made by Rajdeep Sardesai has been condemned by the World Health Organisation.

“The WHO handbook upholds the widely accepted medical view that ‘virginity tests’ are worthless,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Health authorities worldwide should end the practice of ‘virginity testing’ in all cases and prohibit health workers from perpetuating this discriminatory and degrading practice.”

Coming to the use of the two-finger test of the application of the hymen theory to ascertain sexual assault.

A medical journal published in the USA draws this conclusion from their study :

“Despite the lack of evidence of medical utility and the potential harms, health professionals in multiple settings continue to practice virginity testing, including when assessing for sexual assault. health professionals must be better informed and medical and other textbooks updated to reflect current medical knowledge. Countries should review their policies and move towards a banning of virginity testing”.

In fact, if one looks at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s ‘Guidelines and Protocols, Medico-legal care for survivors/victims of sexual violence’ the two-finger test has been clearly banned. It also categorically states that the condition of the hymen is no indication of sexual assault. Sexual assault can still have occurred if the hymen is not intact, and sexual assault might not have happened even if the hymen is not intact.

A screenshot of Page 28 of the manual :

In 2013, after the ghastly Nirbhaya rape and murder case, the Verma Committee had also come down strongly on the two-finger test and recommended that it be banned.

“The two-finger test, which has been found to be not only unscientific and unnecessary but also subjects the complainant to further trauma and humiliation should be immediately stopped,” said Kirti Singh, of the All India Democratic Woman’s Association.

The Supreme Court has said that such tests are inhuman and should be banned. Even after the Delhi gang-rape case of December 2013, Justice Verma Committee had also recommended the same thing that two finger tests are like another assault on the victim and the test should be stopped. The Delhi Government has conceded in its guidelines that two-finger test should be banned for the cases of sexual assault and advised doctors to counsel the victims.

Thus, after all the evidence against including “hymen not found intact” in reports, it was shocking to see the Jammu and Kashmir police use the phrase explicitly in its press release today.

The Forensic Labs reportedly say that the vaginal swab matches with the accused. The vaginal swab matching the accused would prove sexual assault by the accused beyond reasonable doubt. I have absolutely no reason or evidence to doubt what the Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch asserts in their press release. I am sure due procedure was followed to conclude sexual assault, as media has reported.

However, I am forced to wonder why the Crime Branch wouldn’t mention the vaginal swab evidence but rather focus on the “hymen of the victim not found intact” argument that doesn’t even prove sexual assault by the MoHW’s own guidelines. It is indeed painful that Rajdeep Sardesai and now even the Jammu Crime Branch decided to reinforce and perpetuate a terrible, false stereotype that has subjugated and humiliated women since time immemorial.

The hymen, its existence or the lack of it, has nothing to do with sexual assault. And asserting that it does, leaves hundreds of other victims vulnerable to the intrusive test that would humiliate and violate them further after the assault.

It is thus my humble submission. In our quest for justice, let us not perpetuate extremely regressive and prejudicial arguments. Let us not, in our quest to bring the perpetrators to book, reinforce tools that will, going forward, humiliate other victims of sexual assault. If we cut our nose to spite our face, it would only hurt the thousands of victims of sexual assault that seek justice.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, since October 2017

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