Calls for apologies for 1970s virginity tests

Welcome to Britain sign at Heathrow airportThe Guardian have been running various stories lately over files released which show the extent of virginity tests which were being carried out on Asian brides, either on arrival at Heathrow or before they left their home country. The practice was banned in 1979 after the same newspaper exclusively revealed that it was going on (in particular, the case of a 35-year-old teacher arriving from India), but the files also show that officials ignored demands from the Government not to continue the tests, carrying out possibly 81 such tests in India (but not in Pakistan) after the order was given. In Friday’s G2, Huma Qureshi tells the story of her mother’s immigration, during which she herself underwent such a test.

One of the articles mentioned that the tests were justified on the basis of “dark age prejudices” about Asian women: two Australian legal scholars, Dr Marinella Marmo and Dr Evan Smith, say that the women were presumed to be “submissive, meek and tradition-bound” and always virgins before marriage. They also point out that the tests were of no use, because not every woman has a hymen (and it is often perforated before marriage, particularly if they marry at 35). The assumption was therefore that if a woman was a real bride, she would be a virgin. However, it is not reported that these kinds of tests happened anywhere else, even though women from other non-white parts of the Commonwealth, such as Nigeria, came to join settled spouses.

Could it have been, regardless of the excuses offered, that the tests were nothing more than gratuitous sexual abuse, perhaps intended to make immigration to the UK as unpleasant as possible? One recalls that Enoch Powell’s notorious speech specifically mentioned the inflow of thousands of dependents, not immigrant workers. Immigration officials knew that, in general, there is a much stronger taboo about extramarital or premarital sex in South Asian society and that men and women do not touch each other unless they are married or closely related. They knew, then, that the woman would enter her marriage having suffered a traumatic and humiliating experience which they would be unable to tell anyone for fear of rejection or, in some cases, violence. It is odd that no more stringent investigation, with a view to prosecuting those responsible if they are still alive, has taken place.

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