The Indonesian public lambasted the Indonesian police after Human Rights Watch released a report that police conducted “virginity tests” on female applicants in the police recruitment process.
Many pointed out the injustice of the practice. They argue that it is sexist, painful and traumatising. They also point out that virginity is irrelevant to whether or not an officer would be able to do her police duty.
But few have questioned yet the most dubious aspect of this harrowing practice: the validity of the test itself.
No one questions it.
Virginity testing is not unique to Indonesia. Women in many countries are often required to endure the test for reasons that often have nothing to do with the woman’s interests. Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq, to name a few, have had their fair share of controversial virginity testing.
In one case in Turkey in the early 1990s, a student committed suicide after undergoing a virginity test instructed by the principal of her school.
The ways the test is done could vary from one place to another. We are now familiar with the term “two fingers test” conducted by Indonesia’s National Police. In some places in Iraq, the test is visual. A woman is considered a virgin when there is no visible sign of “defect” on her hymen.
In one particular village in Morocco, the test is somewhat more imaginative. A bride to be is required to undergo “the egg test”. She is to lie on her back with her legs spread out. The examiner, usually an older woman, would then crack an egg open onto her vagina. If the egg slipped into her, she would be considered to be no longer sexually untouched.
Women walking the streets of Morocco.
No matter the method, there are two aspects often used to determine a woman’s virginity: an intact hymen and a tight vaginal opening. Both are still widely believed to signify virginity in women; neither is a reliable basis for such a conclusion.
The myth of the hymen
Let us start with the hymen. The hymen is a membrane in the vaginal canal. Doctors are still in disagreement on its function. Many believe that it has simply no particular use to the woman’s body.
If the use of this membrane is considered a mystery, the shape of its virgin state is one of the biggest medical myths around. Many are under the impression that a virgin hymen resembles either one of these two things: a balloon-like membrane covering the vaginal canal, or a ring-like flesh with a smooth edge.
Some believe that any disturbance to the hymen will result in its tearing. Hence it is not uncommon for girls to be advised to be careful when riding a bicycle or for young women to avoid using a tampon for fear that they can break their hymen.
In reality the hymen looks more like — using the words of a doctor who frequently performs hymen reconstruction — the petals of a flower. It has notches, folds and clefts, even in its virgin state. It is flexible with different densities. Some hymens are thin and some are thicker than others.
In the event of a penetration, the hymen might be scarred. Yet, quite often, the hymen stretches and is left undamaged.