The test usually starts with a request from the prospective groom and his parents. But the bride-to-be’s family can exert pressure as well. The result, whatever the test’s stated findings, is a “human rights violation” that damages women psychologically and only strengthens gender inequality, according to the United Nations.
Tajikistan is among some 20 countries that still carry out so-called virginity tests – examinations of females’ hymens to determine whether or not vaginal intercourse has occurred.
No scientific basis exists for this test. The World Health Organization has stated that, no matter what the technique used, “there is no known examination that can prove a history of vaginal intercourse.”
Yet, still, Tajikistan’s state-funded Republican Center for Forensic Medical Examinations continues to issue virginity certificates.
In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, about 600 women applied for a virginity certificate from the Center, the only institution that issues such documents.
While the United Nations has called for such tests to end, the Tajik Ministry of Health states that “virginity testing” is performed only upon request and is not mandatory for a legal marriage.But in a country with one of Central Asia’s bleakest records for women’s rights, those disclaimers do not always make a difference.
Most often, the procedure is carried out before a wedding. But women also sometimes consult with a doctor after their wedding night if a lack of heavy bleeding after intercourse causes their husbands or in-laws to doubt the new brides’ “chastity.”
In Tajikistan’s still prevalent “culture of silence” about mistreatment of women, the virginity tests are an experience and practice not openly discussed. Most of the individuals interviewed for this article agreed to speak about the tests only on condition of anonymity or if their full names were concealed.
To clarify what this examination entails for Tajik women, I decided to take a virginity test myself.
The first physician I saw at the Republican Center for Forensic Medical Examinations was quite surprised that I was alone. He advised me to come with relatives – either my own or those of my spouse. No explanation was given about why I should come accompanied. I was just told that this would be better.
When I came the second time, a different doctor met with me. He did not ask superfluous questions.I filled out a form and paid 32 somoni ($3.30). I was then sent for the examination.
The procedure is unpleasant. Using his thumbs and forefingers, wrapped in gauze, the doctor gripped the outer folds of the vulva, spread them apart, and slightly up. At this point, the nurse started taking pictures of the vagina with a cell phone.
According to the doctor, the photos are stored for a while in the Republican Center’s medical archive as proof of the test’s results.
Nobody forced me to check if my hymen was intact. This was an experiment I conducted as a journalist. But many women in Tajikistan are compelled to go through with this procedure.
“I felt humiliated,” recalled one 28-year-old woman, originally from the northwestern Tajik town of Panjakent. “I was very offended both for myself and for the many girls whose words they (the women’s families, prospective husbands and in-laws) do not believe. There’s very strong psychological pressure since some mothers come and stand in the office until the gynecologist throws them out.”
This woman’s parents forced her to take the test after they decided to marry her against her will to a distant relative. Her correspondence with an ex-boyfriend about sex had prompted her mother to accuse her of “probably” being a prostitute, the woman said. The marriage appeared intended as a preventive measure.
Most females come to the forensic center in Dushanbe with their parents, their fiancé’s parents, or with their fiancé. “In a patriarchal family, it’s accepted that the father or your future husband drags you to a forensic test to check if you’re a virgin or not,” the woman commented.
Whether they appeared to come from a traditional, Islamic-observant family or not, all the females taking the test “came and went in tears,” she added.
“They were virgins, but for everyone it was stressful,” she continued. “I was very worried about what would happen if the gynecologist said that I was not a virgin. Mother would renounce me.”
In the gynecologist’s office, she said, “I sat in a chair, spread my legs. The gynecologist began to examine my vagina; what is and what is not there. They did this with their fingers.”
The doctor confirmed that she had not had sexual intercourse. “But he said that my hymen is around and close to the vagina, and it is likely that I will not bleed [after intercourse for the first time],” the woman said. “I got scared and asked the gynecologists if maybe I should have a hymenoplasty.”
In the end, the woman did not marry. Now a journalist, she left Tajikistan to work abroad. The woman’s parents turned down her relative’s marriage proposal after her sister and brother explained to them that “she is an educated and modern girl,” and incompatible with the prospective groom.
“Having an education was my salvation,” the woman said.
“If you’re not a virgin, nobody needs you,” said the 24-year-old Dushanbe homemaker. “The wedding can be canceled. The guy (your fiancé) can ruin your reputation.”
Before her wedding, this woman’s fiancé requested that she undergo such a “virginity test.”
“Mom told me that I have to do this. She explained that this is for my own good. That if something goes wrong tomorrow, we can prove that I did not have sex before the wedding.”
“I was very worried, despite being a virgin,” she recalled. “My ‘virginity’ was confirmed, and I received a certificate. I went out of there (the clinic) and cried. I was upset. I felt like a product that was checked for defects.”
Ultimately, she said, the test found that “I was not ‘defective.’”
“My mother was happy, and so was my husband. This meant that the wedding would go ahead.”
Translation Of Tajik Virginity Test Certificate
Examination Facts: The body of the subject is well-developed, lean, without birth defects. Height: 173 centimeters. Weight: 68 kilograms. Head circumference: 52 cm. Right forearm: 21 cm; right thigh: 45 cm; right calf: 36 cm. Skin color is pinkish. Secondary signs of sexual development are discernible. Hair growth in the area of the armpits and abdomen is well-developed. The mammary glands are round. Their size is 15x13 cm each. During palpation, they become elastic. The areolas are pinkish in color. No liquid discharges from the nipples. The external genitalia are well-developed. The labia majora covers the labia minora. The hymen has an oval shape and is fleshy. Its height is 0.3 - 0.5 cm. The free edge is uniform and pink. The hymen’s opening when elongated is 0.5 - 0.8 cm; an annular elongation is felt. No fluid discharges are observed from the vagina. The mucous membranes of the labia minora, hymen, and vagina are pink. No bodily injuries are observed on the subject’s body.
Conclusion: The density of the anatomical and physiological hymen of the citizen --- for the period of -- is not damaged.
(This is a selective translation from the final page of the certificate.)
Twenty-five-year-old Nulifar’s wedding never happened because she refused to take the “virginity test.”
Since 2016, medical examinations have been mandatory in Tajikistan for registering marriages. The examinations test for a familial relationship, whether the man and woman are carriers for genetic diseases, and if they have hepatitis or sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.
Before Nulifar, a former Dushanbe resident, and her prospective spouse took these tests, she said, her fiancé asked his mother to tell her to also obtain a virginity certificate. In keeping with traditional practice, Nulifar’s mother was also informed.
“My mother was furious, but she gave her consent. But when my mother told me about this, I couldn’t take it and raised the roof because it was unacceptable to me,” Nulifar continued. “I’m a virgin, but I don’t want to prove it to anyone.”
Her parents conveyed that message to her fiancé’s family, who declined the marriage. But the struggle over the test did not end there.
“After that, they started telling everyone that I ruined the wedding, that I refused to undergo the procedure, and that I am not a virgin, and that their family did not need such a defective bride,” Nulifar alleged. “Rumors spread really fast in our country. And people usually believe them.”
Nulifar, however, who now works in Moscow as a restaurant hostess, stands by her refusal to prove her virginity. “But this situation has ruined my relationship with my parents,” she added. “They are ashamed of what happened. And the rumors give them a lot of anxiety.”
One middle-aged woman why she had insisted that her own daughter receive a virginity certificate before her wedding. “This is a kind of insurance,” said the woman, a 47-year-old homemaker from the western town of Hisor. “Not all young people understand that a lack of blood on the wedding night does not always mean that the girl is not a virgin. I would not want my daughter to be reproached later.”
Media stories about wives being kicked out of the house for not bleeding on their wedding night and then hanging themselves troubled this woman. “I did not want such a fate for my daughter.”
Her family gave the certificate that confirmed her daughter’s virginity to the girl’s fiancé and future mother-in-law. But her daughter also kept a copy, she said, “just in case.”
Virginity checks most often occur before a wedding, but, sometimes, women are brought in by their husbands or mothers-in-law after the wedding night.
“There is only one reason: There was no blood,” said Makhfirat Badalova, a gynecologist at Dushanbe’s Polyclinic No.13.
The polyclinic’s gynecologists explain to patients and their relatives that bleeding does not always occur after sexual intercourse with a virgin, Badalova stressed. Sometimes, she said, they even show husbands hematomas near unbroken hymens to make that clear.
An elastic hymen or a penis that is smaller than the woman’s vagina can mean that the hymen does not break and bleed or only issues “a pale pink discharge,” she elaborated.
“This is normal,” Badalova underlined. “But some men believe that there must be blood.”
Fear of disgrace prompts some Tajik females who had sex before their weddings to have a hymenoplasty, an operation for restoring or repairing the hymen.
One 23-year-old Dushanbe homemaker is among these women. Now the married mother of a 3-year-old daughter, she used hymenoplasty to conceal a sexual relationship that she had as a 16-year-old with a boy who had promised to marry her.
The boy, who lived in Dushanbe, changed his mind after their encounter. Through “hidden” phone numbers, the girl finally tracked him down.
“He accused me of being easy. He said that if I had agreed to sleep with him, this meant that I would also cheat on him in the future.”Her parents ultimately decided whom she would marry – a man who lived in Dushanbe and did not want his wife to study or work.
At a loss about what to do, she decided to travel to Dushanbe for a hymenoplasty. This procedure costs between $200 to $350 in Tajikistan.
With assistance from a female cousin who lived in the Tajik capital, she had the operation before her wedding.
“My husband did not guess anything, and he still does not know,” she said.
Not knowing his fiancée before their wedding prompted one 26-year-old unemployed man in Dushanbe to demand that his wife-to-be undergo a virginity test before their wedding.
His mother had selected his bride, but that did not allay his concerns.
“I demanded that she prove her purity because you never know. Maybe she had sex with someone before me. Everything can be expected from girls nowadays,” he commented. “But I needed a pure and decent girl. She proved her modesty. On the first night, I saw blood and calmed down.”
One 24-year-old video blogger, also a resident of Dushanbe, can identify with that state of mind. He says that he wants to marry “a virgin only,” and also will verify his financée’s sexual status before their wedding.
Like the former love interest of the woman from Panjakent, he asserts that a female who has had premarital sex likely will cheat on her husband.
“We should not forget about our traditions, customs, and values,” he said. “If a girl sleeps with someone before marriage, she brings shame on her family.”
But other Tajik men see no basis for such a view.
“Suppose that the girl slept with someone. So what?” commented Nuriddin, a 24-year-old bank employee. “This doesn’t cause any changes. The sex will not get worse after that. It won’t make the children sick. This doesn’t affect anything.”
Unlike most Tajik men interviewed for this story, Nuriddin believes traditional Tajiks’ insistence on female virginity before marriage is hypocritical. The same standard does not apply to men, he noted.
“In our society, men can sleep with anyone they want, but women cannot,” Nuriddin said. “This is absolutely unfair. There should not be some kind of social label to define our behavior in society. It’s like, you’re a girl, and right away there’s a label that you must be decent, good, not sleep with anyone. But a man can.”
That imbalance concerns Russian-Tajik Slavonic University sociologist Alla Kuvatova, who specializes in gender studies. “Traditionally, Tajik girls should not have any kind of relationship [with a male], especially sexual, before marriage,” she elaborated. “For some reason, this does not apply to boys.”
Kuvatova believes that education is needed to change this situation.
A “lack of education, lack of culture, and a disregard for the laws” has led to the increased popularity of the “virginity tests,” she said.
The tests violate women’s rights under Tajikistan’s Law On State Guarantees of Equal Rights for Men and Women and Equal Opportunities for Their Implementation, Kuvatova underlined.
The law’s provisions for gender equality “should be discussed, explained to both boys and girls” as well as parents, she advised. Perhaps, then, she concluded, men will “abide by these rules.”