Written by Sophie Whitehead
Content warning: This article discusses racial prejudice, sexism, and invasive medical procedures.
In August 2022 the British government made a monumental step forward – the criminalisation of virginity testing and hymenoplasty. Through the passing of The Health and Care Act 2022, the British government criminalised the practise of testing virginity for the first time, exercising both territorial and extraterritorial jurisdiction rendering it illegal to carry out, offer, or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK – or for any UK national or resident to do these things outside of the UK. The Act is in line with policies on female genital mutilation and categorises the two practices as ‘honour-based’ abuse, considering them to have “a similar level of seriousness to assault occasioning actual bodily harm (assault to injury in Scotland)”. According to the World Health Organisation, virginity testing is known to be practiced in at least twenty countries and according to a 2020 BBC investigation there were 21 clinics in the UK that offered ‘virginity testing’ for around £150 to £300. Whilst the criminalisation of such barbaric pseudo-medical practices is a vital step forwards, it should not be used to cover up the UK government’s direct involvement of the promulgation of such practices used against Indian and Pakistani women migrating to the UK in the 1970s. A traumatic practice which is a dark stain on our history.
Under the Immigration Act 1971, women joining their fiancés in the UK who were to be married within three months of entering did not have to get visas; however, wives joining their husbands would be subjected to long waiting lists in order to obtain their visa. Suspicion from the government that women were claiming to be unmarried to avoid these waiting lists led to the implementation of virginity testing. The extent of this practice is unknown, according to The Guardian, Home Office files suggest that at least eighty female migrants from India and Pakistan have undergone such tests; however, the true number is unknown.
The use of ‘virginity-tests’ first came into public consciousness when, in 1979, The Guardian broke a story of a 35-year-old teacher who had undergone virginity testing after arriving at Heathrow to meet her fiancé who was a British resident of Indian descent. The 35-year-old was told that her examination was to be conducted by a male gynaecologist and that if she wanted to be examined by a female doctor she would have to wait. Whilst her electing to have the procedure conducted immediately was understood to mean her expression of consent by the immigration service, the unnamed woman told The Guardian that “she consented only because she was frightened she would be sent back to India”, a condition which means that her willingness to do the test cannot be seen as free consent.
Following The Guardian disclosure of the tests, every leading Indian newspaper placed the incident on their front pages – describing it as “an outrageous incident”, “tantamount to rape”. The backlash led to a response from the Home Office which confirmed the event but also stated that it was an isolated incident. However, this was proved to be untrue when Alex Lyon, the former Labour immigration minister, stated that he had discovered “‘virginity tests’ were being used in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while he was at the Home Office.” He also stated that once he discovered this practice was being used, he had ordered the practice be stopped in Britain. This order was not implemented outside of Islamabad and was contested by the Home Office who stated that “Mr Lyon’s instructions arose from a single case in Islamabad [not Dhaka], where in the course of a general medical examination of a fiancée the doctor noted in her report that she had detected signs of marriage although the applicant claimed to be unmarried”. However, a Foreign Office draft reveals that “there appear to have been nine cases in Bombay and seventy-three in New Delhi where it is possible that a vaginal examination might have taken place”. Whilst this was initially presented as being routine medical tests, two Home Office briefing papers refer to “some adult daughters applying for settlement who were referred to an Indian lady gynaecologist with questions about their marital status”. Whilst the true scale of the issue is unclear from documentation and equally unclear about the levels of complicity from the British government in the issue, it is highly revealing about the attitudes towards the sexuality of south Asian women in Britain.
The attitudes towards South Asian women are revealing on two fronts – the perceived benefit of having wives or fiancées immigrating to the UK, and then secondly the perception that if a woman failed a virginity test, then she must be lying about being married. During this period, it was considered by some members of parliament that south Asian women had one socioeconomic value; according to Malmo and Evans “their social, and economic, ‘value’ was determined only by the use of their female bodies, primarily in relation to other (non-white) men.” Thought remanent of the colonial era, propagated by the British government who considered women from the Indian subcontinent to be “‘downtrodden, housebound, and emotionally and materially dependent on her husband’, and would not enter into the workforce… Her economic value, either positive or negative, was largely determined by her association to the male migrant”. It was assumed that the role of the wife within South Asian culture would not be of economic value. This assumption is fundamentally untrue – although south Asian women’s work was chronically undervalued, as is evidenced by the Grunwick Strike of 1976, wherein workers walked out on the basis of poor working conditions and compulsory overtime. The average pay at Grunwick was £28 per week compared to the national average of £72 per week – it is also notable that 80% of the workers were of Asian origin.
The concept that the benefit of these women being in “relation to other (non-white) men”, is also deeply problematic. There was a consideration at the time, expressed by some of the government, the press, as well as anti-immigration groups, that there was a lack of men before the passage of the Immigration Act 1971, which allowed wives and fiancées to migrate to the UK as the imbalance of South Asian men and women was problematic. This concept has been developed by Malmo and Smith who describe the “colonialist anxiety about the ‘threat’ of the South Asian male’s sexual desire, [being] clearly still evident in post-war British society”. This idea is corroborated by the argument put forward by Conservative MP, Sir John Smyth, during a 1965 parliamentary debate on immigration, when he argued that “if we do not allow families to come into the country as units we shall have all sorts of trouble with women. The female element is absolutely essential”. The fear of relationships between white women and South Asian men within the public psyche as well as the “ghettois[ation of] non-white citizens within it”, is further evidence of how colonial attitudes were still perpetuated through Britain’s migration policies.
The second important issue is the issue that it was assumed that if a woman was not a virgin, then she must be married. It is firstly important to note that virginity tests are not an accurate gage of an individual’s sexual status, and the concept of virginity is a social construct which can mean different things in different contexts. For the purpose of this article the term virginity refers to vaginal penetrative sex. However, virginity tests are unreliable at proving whether an individual has participated in vaginal penetrative sex acts. This concept was well known at the time – contemporary to the virginity testing, feminist magazine Spare Rib stated: “Of course you can’t prove virginity by sticking a finger up a vagina – not every woman has a hymen”.
Aside from the issue of the unreliability of virginity tests, the fact that it was assumed that if a woman was not a virgin, then she must be married is also remanence of colonialist thought. Pratibha Parmar argues that the practice was “based on the racist and sexist assumption that Asian women from the subcontinent are always virgins before they get married”. The idea that the virginity testing was based on racist assumptions is further corroborated by the fact that as Amrit Wilson has stated “white women entering Britain are not subjected to these examinations”. The concept that South Asian women were “submissive, meek and tradition-bound” was used as a basis of the virginity-testing, and is further evidence that colonialist thought, and stereotypes pervaded into the mid-to-late twentieth century.
British immigration policies of the 1970s, both the consideration of the “female element [being] absolutely essential”, and the assumption that unmarried women would be virgins are evidence of the pervasive nature of colonialist thought in Britain in the 1970s. The lack of transparency surrounding the topic, alongside the fact that the government has not apologised for the use of virginity testing – an issue which is now considered to be similar in gravity to “assault occasioning actual bodily harm”, is deeply shameful. The passage of the Health and Care Act 2022 would have been an opportunity for the government to recognise its accountability in its complicities with the practice in the 1970s. It appears that once again it is considered necessary to criticise the actions of other countries, as is evident through the extra-territoriality principle which is invoked within the law, without having any introspection of self-criticism, through the apology for the former abhorrent actions done in the name of serving the British government.
The Rights collective, The History of South Asian Women in the UK: Dec 9, 2020, available at: https://www.therightscollective.com/post/the-history-of-south-asian-women-in-the-uk
Smith, Evan, and Marinella Marmo. “Reorienting the South Asian Female Body: The Practice of Virginity Testing and the Treatment of Migrant Women.” In Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, 75–100. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, n.d.
Smith, Evan, and Marinella Marmo. “Uncovering the ‘Virginity Testing’ Controversy in the National Archives: The Intersectionality of Discrimination in British Immigration History.” Gender & history 23, no. 1 (2011): 147–165.
Marmo, Marinella, and Evan Smith. “Is There a Desirable Migrant? A Reflection on Human Rights Violations at the Border : the Case of ‘Virginity Testing.’” Alternative law journal 35, no. 4 (2010): 223–226.
Smith, Evan and Marinella Marmo “Virginity Testing: Racism, Sexism, and British Immigration Control”, CIGH Exeter (August 25, 2014) available at: https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/08/25/virginity-testing-racism-sexism-and-british-immigration-control/
Travis, Alan. “Virginity tests for immigrants ‘reflected dark age prejudices’ of 1970s Britain”, The Guardian (May 8, 2011), available at: