What is the first thing that comes to your mind upon hearing the word virginity? Is it Purity? Honor? Maidenhood? Virginity refers to any person who has never participated in sexual intercourse. But thoughts of purity and honor are only associated with women. We have all heard the virginity jokes comparing potential brides who are not virgins to used products. In fact, last year, a professor from Jadavpur University in Kolkata compared virgin girls to a sealed bottle. He asked why anyone would be willing to buy a cold drink with a broken seal. Thus, taking a wife’s virginity is correlated to claiming ownership of her. This article discusses myths surrounding the hymen, the negative consequences of the concept of virginity and the social movements that have risen against virgin brides.
The Hymen Myths
The hymen is a thin, flexible tissue located at the opening of the vagina that is leftover from development during the embryonic stage. Hymens come in different shapes and sizes though most commonly, they are present in either a crescent or ring shape around the vaginal opening (Schaffir 2020). Despite the different appearances of the hymen in many women, it is considered the gatekeeper of female sexuality in almost all cultures.
There are many common myths surrounding the structure and presence of the hymen in women. These have been proven biologically inaccurate and are listed below.
Firstly, it is believed that the hymen is a ‘film’ covering the opening of the vagina. This is a false belief since the hymen surrounds the vagina instead of covering it. In most women, the hymen is shaped like a doughnut, meaning that it already has a hole in it. This is also supported by the fact that women need to menstruate through the vaginal opening.
Secondly, many people believe that the hymen can only be broken through penile penetration. Once more, this is untrue because the hymen is a thin tissue that wears down with age. Hence, daily activities like gymnastics, cycling, horse riding, masturbating or using tampons can lead to the break down of the hymen. This further proves that the hymen does not break the first time a woman has sex. Women often correlate losing their virginity with shedding some blood due to piercing the hymen. But in reality, most adult women are left with only fringes of flexible tissue surrounding their vaginal opening and thus may not bleed due to sex.
Thirdly, a very common myth is that virgins cannot get pregnant. Since the hymen is only present as a tissue in the form of a ring, if a man ejaculates near the vaginal opening, the women may get pregnant. Statistically, the chances of women becoming pregnant in this manner are rare, but it is still a possibility.
Fourthly, it is a common misconception that studying a woman’s hymen can provide answers regarding her sexual history. Hymens are present in all types of shapes and sizes. According to a European study, female infants were observed to have seven different types of hymens (Mor et al. 1986). Moreover, some women are also born without a hymen at all. Hence, any inspection of a woman’s hymen to determine her sexual activity is unscientific.
As previously pointed out, virginity tests are invalid since they are biologically inaccurate. This is exemplified by the fact the United Nations World Health Organization recommended the end of virginity testing through the ‘two-finger test’ in 2014 since it had no scientific validity (UN 2014). In India’s case, the Supreme Court ruled that victims of sexual assault must not be subjected to the two-finger test in 2013. Consequently, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Health Research banned the test in 2014.
Two Finger Test
The two-finger test was initially used on rape and sexual assault victims to determine the attack’s validity. The doctor would slide two fingers into the woman’s vagina. If they faced difficulty in inserting the fingers, the woman was deemed to be a virgin. On the other hand, if the fingers were inserted smoothly, then the woman was presumed to be active sexually. The doctors would submit such reports as proof of whether the woman’s hymen was intact or not. Later, many Indian families began using this test on soon-to-be-brides to determine their purity. This test is not medically valid since a hymen’s status doesn’t provide answers to a women’s sexual past. The hymen can be torn due to multiple activities listed previously and many women are also born without a hymen.
This test had many negative impacts on the women subjected to it. Often, the doctor conducting the test was male. This led to it being a traumatic and humiliating experience for the woman. Moreover, the two-finger test is also painful for some women, which resulted in them feeling violated. Finally, the test is not socially ethical since it ignores women’s autonomy and refuses to trust their experience.
The ‘trial by fire’ requires a bride to carry a red-hot iron in her hands while walking on a path of burning coals. She is provided with a plate constructed of leaves and dough to protect her hands from the heat. If the woman leaves halfway, she is considered impure. As a result, the woman is forced to disclose the name of her previous sexual partner.
Pani Ki Dheej
The ‘purity by water’ test asks women to hold their breath underwater while another person walks a hundred steps. Failure to do this meant that she was not a virgin. Similar to other tests, she is required to reveal the name of her previous lover.
Kukari Ki Rasam
The ‘thread ritual’ is conducted to test a bride’s purity. On the first conjugal night of the marriage, a white thread is placed on the bed. The next day, the groom’s family checks the thread for the presence of blood. The thread stained by blood is supposed to act as evidence of the breaking of the bride’s hymen. In case the thread is unstained, the bride is declared a non-virgin. In such a case, she is forced to provide the name of the man she had previous relations with. Later, either the man or the bride’s family is supposed to pay compensation to the groom’s family. This is done so that they may accept an ‘impure’ bride.
Hymenoplasty refers to a surgical procedure that restores a woman’s hymen that may have broken due to sexual or other strenuous activities. A flap from the vaginal lining is used to recreate the hymen approximately an inch within the vagina. The procedure has a four week recovery period. Revirgination is not the same as hymenoplasty. Revirgination restores all the genital changes that occur due to repeated sexual intercourse. Thus this procedure includes hymenoplasty, vaginoplasty (securing the vaginal walls) and bulbospongioplasty (correcting the labia).
Hymenoplasty is a legal procedure in India. Young unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30 avail this surgery to avoid humiliation. The cost of hymenoplasty ranges from Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 in public hospitals and Rs.75,000 at private hospitals (Gangopadhyay 2019). Doctors Anup Dhir and Anita Kant, cosmetologist and obstetrician at Apollo Hospital and Asian Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi respectively, agree that there has been a steady rise in the number of hymenoplasties conducted in the last ten years (“Women going under” 2015).
Since the cost of such cosmetic surgeries is quite high, many women also opt for other non-invasive options. Artificial hymens are membranes made of cellulose that a woman can insert inside her vagina before having sex. After penetration, the membrane would rupture and spill some blood thus giving the impression that the bride was a virgin. Other than artificial hymens, there are also pills containing red dyes. A woman can insert the pill into her cervix, that would then melt and release the dye during sex. Recently, a Twitter user expressed her outrage that an i-Virgin pill was for sale on Amazon India. Many others joined her in condemning the product, which led to the removal of the product from Amazon.
Image source: India Times
Dr. Manisha Singh, a gynecologist at Fortis Bangalore, advised women against using such products. According to her, these products were made of unknown substances and could be harmful to women’s health. Moreover, she believed that such artificial virginity products worked against women’s empowerment (Handa 2019). This is an example of how even in the 21st century, technology and innovation are being used to promote regressive notions rather than promoting social growth.
Mythological Origins of Virginity
The previous section highlights how seriously the virginity of a woman is taken in India. This leads us to ask when India’s obsession with purity began and how virginity came to be associated with chastity. In the Ramayana, Sita was forced to prove her purity through the fire ordeal, because Ram her was unsure of her fidelity. The Mahabharata showcases Draupadi, who was shared as a wife by the five Pandava brothers. She provided each of her husbands with a son, but before moving to the next one, she walked through fire to reclaim her virginity. These stories are deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and propagated by modern society. The belief that a woman is only worthwhile if she is pure is still shared by Indian men. Even those that claim to be progressive, unconsciously circulate this idea. Take the example of Hindu wedding rituals. Kanyadaan literally translates to ‘gift of a virgin’. The father of the bride gives his daughter away the same way he would gift a brand new car. If she were second hand, no one would want her.
It has become clear that the myth of virginity is a sexist and regressive phenomenon. The double standards surrounding virginity shame women for losing it before marriage, whereas men are congratulated for it. But the concept of virginity has much harsher consequences than disgracing a woman. Over the years, women’s vaginas have become sites of exploitation and violence. During the India-Pakistan partition of 1947, both Hindu and Muslim men, raped women from the other community as a sign of invasion. Many Hindu men killed their own wives because they believed that their women would be better off dead than polluted by Muslim blood. A similar mentality has led to the attribution of modern day rape survivors as ‘damaged goods’. The concept of virginity has placed the burden of honor of her entire family or community on every single Indian woman. Why must a woman’s right to a happy life be dependent on the most fragile tissue in her body?
Apart from inciting violence, virginity also acts as a barrier for women seeking healthcare. Several Indian women have been denied a trans-vaginal sonogram (TVS) because they were unmarried, and doctors feared to rupture their hymen. Procedures like TVS help in the early detection of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and pregnancy etc. The sonogram provides a more desirable view of a woman’s internal organs such as her ovaries. But since it requires the ultrasound wand to be inserted inside the vagina, many healthcare professionals refuse to do the procedure. Adity Sen was diagnosed with PCOS at an early age but denied a TVS in many top hospitals of Kolkata. It is important to note that the glorification of virginity is costing women access to a healthy life. Once again, women are not granted autonomy over their own bodies.
The concept of healthcare is also relevant to the next point. Child marriages or marriages at a very young age are prevalent in India among girls. Once more, virginity rears its ugly head. When a girl child reaches puberty, her family immediately starts working towards protecting her purity. She is married off at the earliest possible age so that reproduction would only occur in the correct context. In urban areas, women are engaged between the ages of 22 and 26. Unfortunately, many rural areas such as those within Rajasthan have continued the tradition of child marriage. This is a driver of early pregnancy. Young mothers face the challenges of poor nutrition and physical health later resulting in high rates of maternal and infant mortality rates. Thus, this country’s obsession with virgin brides is putting its female population in danger.
Finally, the concept of virginity is also extremely heteronormative since it only considers penile-vaginal intercourse as sex. This invisibilizes the queer community by invalidating their sexual experiences.
Raising Our Voices
Some in the Indian community have recognized the harmful effects of the concept of virginity and the prevalence of virginity tests. Pune is an advanced and cosmopolitan city in West India. But within this city, lies a deeply conservative community. The Kanjarbhat tribe practices virginity testing for every young bride. The newlyweds are provided with a white sheet to use during intercourse on their first night. The groom is required to repeat thrice that his wife is a virgin. If he fails to do so, the panchayat orders beatings for the bride along with a monetary penalty from her family. In December 2017, many young members of the community raised their voices against the village council’s abusive and misogynistic attitude towards women. Several youth created a Whatsapp group called “Stop the V-Ritual”. In January 2018, three young men belonging to the anti-virginity campaign were beaten up in Pune’s Pimpri-Chinchwad by almost 40 people. The men of the Kanjarbhat community were unafraid to use violence when they felt their power was being threatened. The panchayats in such communities hold a conservative grip over their members. They consist of unelected male bodies and are spread all over India. The Supreme Court has condemned the tradition of virginity testing and yet it is endorsed by society. The government must intervene in ensuring the fundamental human rights of every Indian are protected, as promised in the constitution.
Many privileged Indians take the concept of virginity very lightly. But we all must realize that the fetishization of virginity has many severe consequences. Globalization and the spread of popular culture has led us to believe that Indians have been blessed with a progressive mindset. The Indian sexual revolution must not be measured by the number of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey sold and instead by the whispered conversations behind closed doors. It is time for us to stop asking women Kitne Aadmi The?
Gangopadhyay, J. (2019). Pure patriarchy: Hymenoplasty commodifies women, breaches privacy rights. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/health/pure-patriarchy-hymenoplasty-commodifies-women-breaches-privacy-rights-67050
Handa, E. (2019). Amazon takes down fake virginity product amid outrage and debate in India. Retrieved from https://theprint.in/india/amazon-takes-down-fake-virginity-product-amid-outrage-and-debate-in-india/322465/
Mor, N., Merlob, P., & Reisner, S. H. (1986). Types of hymen in the newborn infant. European journal of obstetrics, gynaecology, and reproductive biology, 22(4), 225–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/0028-2243(86)90069-9
Schaffir, J. (2020). The Hymen’s Tale: Myths and facts about the hymen. Retrieved from https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/myths-and-facts-about-hymen
UN: WHO Condemns ‘Virginity Tests’. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/01/un-who-condemns-tests
Women going under knife to restore virginity. (2015). Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/beauty/Women-going-under-knife-to-restore-virginity/articleshow/5715442.cms