Afghanistan this year adopted a new penal code that moves the country toward meeting international standards on criminal justice. At the same time, it underscores the continued difficulties of reinforcing rights for Afghan women and girls. One reflection of this is its preservation of the discredited practice of “virginity testing”—a decision that Afghan women increasingly have opposed.
A crude method of “virginity testing” is widely practiced in Afghanistan. As in many parts of Asia, Africa and Middle East, Afghan social codes holds unmarried women’s virginity as vital to an all-important sense of family “honor.” To help ensure this virginity, and to control other elements of women’s lives, patriarchal norms keep women under the constant control of their male relatives. In this system, women who exhibit any capacity for independence—such as literacy, education, careers or unsupervised movement or speech—can risk ostracism, prosecution for “moral crimes,” or execution by family members in an act known as “honor killing.”
Afghan women’s groups recently have driven unprecedented public debate over the “virginity tests.” In response, legislators offered a purported protection in the Penal Code: The “tests” now may be conducted only with the “consent of the female” or under a court’s order. But in the real lives of most Afghan women, constrained by extreme patriarchal boundaries, women and girls lack even the most basic control over their own bodies to offer informed consent. So the consent requirement has added confusion rather than protection.
Women’s Rights and Peace
As Afghans and the international community seek an end to 40 years of warfare, a real stabilization of Afghanistan will require changing a culture of abuse and violence toward vulnerable groups in society—notably women. We know from research that including women in peace processes increases the probability that any peace agreement will endure.
Afghan civil society groups working for human rights and women’s development are battling a spectrum of ills, from “honor killings” of women to the treatment of women as property, to marriages of girls. As in numerous countries of Africa and Asia, a rising issue is the harm to women caused by the abusive and discredited practice of “virginity testing.” (The Indian news website Firstpost described the practice.)
Many medical studies have discredited the purported test as unreliable and an abuse often tantamount to a sexual assault. The practice is “a violation of basic medical and legal standards” that any doctor should refuse to commit, the organization Physicians for Human Rights reported in 2015. India banned the abuse, but has failed to eradicate it, and the Bangladesh High Court banned it in April.
In Afghanistan, the test is routinely ordered by various officials, including police, judges or even representatives of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Women can be subjected to the examination repeatedly—a fate that some women have sought to avoid by falsely admitting to having had sexual relations.
Tests as ‘Torture’
“The circumstances of virginity tests are never humane,” according to Dr. Soraya Sobrang, a gynecologist who is a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The commission’s chair, Dr. Sima Samar, physician and former women’s affairs minister, has defined the procedure’s use as “torture”—and some women’s rights advocates have called for its abolition as a violation of laws banning torture.
Women subjected to “virginity testing” often have been charged with “moral crimes” such as “running away” from their homes or sex outside of marriage. Most females in Afghan prisons are charged with such crimes, a 2013 Human Rights Watch report found. These were women or girls who had fled forced marriages or domestic violence that included beatings, rape, forced prostitution, kidnapping, and threats of “honor killing.”
In December, the BBC reported the case of a teenaged girl from Bamiyan province who was arrested after accepting a ride home from male friends in their car, and subjected to a “virginity test.” While local prosecutors pronounced her innocent of the crime of extramarital sex, the social stigma of the accusation and exam forced her to withdraw from school and friends. “My family has to hang their heads in shame” in their community, she said. The report also signaled a vast, unmeasured scale to this trauma. It quoted a Bamiyan gynecologist as saying she is asked to perform as many as 10 such inspections of girls or women in a single day.
Afghan women activists, backed by international pressure, led former President Hamid Karzai to decree an “Elimination of Violence Against Women” law in 2009. But the decree has never been ratified by Afghanistan’s parliament, and so has been politically difficult to enforce. As officials drafted the new Penal Code, the proposed provisions for enforcing women’s rights would have undermined the existing decree, women’s advocates said, and they withdrew that section in hopes of passing a stronger enforcement provision later.
Afghan Women’s Campaign
Since 2015, Afghan human rights and women’s groups have protested the use of the virginity test. As in other facets of the Afghan women’s rights movement, the campaign against virginity tests has been focused in Kabul and a few other cities. Rural Afghan women tend to be more isolated because of their geographic inaccessibility, practices of purdah, or women’s confinement, and illiteracy.
An Afghan partner organization of USIP, Medica Afghanistan, held a conference in March that underscored the harm to women from virginity testing and called for its abolition. Medica and another group, the Afghan Forensic Science Organization, argues for testing to be banned as a violation of laws against torture.
Still, many Afghan men appear to understand virginity testing as a useful, reliable practice. In Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, a group of law students and practitioners gathered in March at a training workshop on women’s rights conducted by USIP. Almost all of the men in the group showed strong support for the test.
Following a public outcry by women, rights groups and some government officials, President Ashraf Ghani directed the Ministry of Public Health in May 2017 to instruct Afghan medical facilities not to conduct the test without the women’s consent. His office told the New York Times last year that the examinations are “a long-lasting practice used wrongly by law enforcement authorities.” It added: “However wrong, it is going to take some time to entirely be stopped and removed. But we are determined to change this practice.”
A key step in this campaign is to make clear that the demand for change originates not from outside Afghanistan, but from within—among Afghan women. For decades, conservatives in Afghanistan, both among government supporters and the Taliban, have portrayed women’s rights as an idea being imported from abroad, notably through foreign-funded projects. Some opinion research suggests that this portrayal has resonated among many Afghans.
But the Afghan women’s rights movement is rooted deeply in domestic politics and culture. It took root in Kabul a century ago in the campaigns for change waged by Soraya Tarzi, an educated Afghan woman who married into the royal family and became queen. The growing campaign against virginity testing is heir to that tradition, and reflects the reality that Afghan women more than ever are fighting for their own rights.
Marjan Nahavandi is a senior program officer and Muzhgan Yarmohammadi is a senior project officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul.