International Opinion

Virginity and violence in Tajikistan

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Tajikistan remains unequal between the sexes (image by Steve Evans via Wikimedia Commons)

In Tajikistan, women are still subject to discrimination and sexual repression, writes Johanna Higgs

"The situation for women in Tajikistan is really bad," said Dilraboi Davlatnazar, a Tajik lawyer. "It’s still a very traditional society and there are very young girls who get married at 16 or 17. I think that this is very bad. If a woman gets married then she should be a virgin. If she’s not, then it would be a shame for the family."

We were sat in Davlatnazar’s office in the small mountainous village of Khorog, Tajikistan in the northeast of the country, bordering Afghanistan. I had come to Afghanistan to learn more about the situation of women’s rights as part of my global work to raise awareness about violence against women and girls.

I have come across many forms of violence and discrimination against women throughout the world, however, arguably one of the least acknowledged forms of discrimination is against women’s sexual rights. Sexual rights being the right to have control over one’s own sexual behaviour and choices.

Throughout the world, patriarchal norms and values continue to subordinate women and girls right to making their own sexual choices. In many cases, this subjugation of women’s sexual rights is justified by religious, cultural or political ideologies that oppose or deny the existence of women’s right to be sexual, or at least seek to restrict or control them.

Part of this discrimination is the expectation that women be virgins before marriage. Expectations that are not placed on men.

So much is the case in Tajikistan.

This emphasis on a woman’s virginity stems from so-called traditional values, that see a woman’s central role in society as being that of motherhood. Gender stereotypes and traditional attitudes dictate that a woman’s value and honour are directly linked to her sexuality, more specifically, ensuring her virginity before marriage.

Women who are not virgins before marriage may face social stigma, rejection, violence, or divorce which in some cases can lead to harmful practices such as early and forced marriages, polygamy, or bride kidnapping.

Such beliefs are essentially informal customary laws which are supposedly intended to protect the honour of a family. However, men are not subject to the same expectations and do not suffer the same social stigma for not remaining a virgin before marriage.

Davlatnazar said:

One of the biggest problems in Tajikistan is that people expect girls to be virgins when they get married. If she’s not a virgin, everyone will say something bad about her and she will be treated really badly. There was a story where a man married a young girl who was only 18 years old and he was much older than her. He found out that she wasn’t a virgin and he told his relatives. She was sent to the doctor who confirmed that she wasn’t a virgin, so she killed herself.

For Fatima, a young Tajik woman in the nations capital Dushanbe, such cultural practices are not fair.

"Boys are not expected to be virgins, it is not fair," said Fatima. 

"We should respect traditions but it’s my body and I should do what I want to do without being punished," added Davlatnazar.

Islam is the most widely practiced religion in Tajikistan and while some of these cultural practices are derived from long-running local traditions, customs and norms, some gender-based discrimination may also be justified or reinforced by conservative interpretations of Islam.

However, one of the more concerning elements of such cultural expectations has been the use of virginity tests, despite protests from human rights groups. Virginity tests typically involve a two-finger examination which has the purpose of determining a woman’s sexual history and whether or not vaginal intercourse has occurred. Some men may demand that their brides undergo virginity tests before or after the wedding to prove their purity and fidelity.

Virginity testing has been documented in at least 20 countries spanning all regions of the world. Some of these countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Morocco, Philippines, Turkey, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Malawi and Iran. Cases have also been reported amongst migrant communities in Canada, Spain, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.

While the Tajik Ministry of Health states that virginity tests are performed only upon request and are not mandatory for a legal marriage, many women may not have a choice or may be coerced into taking the tests by their families or partners. According to the Republican Center of Forensic Medicine, for example, about 78 per cent of women who seek a virginity test before their wedding do so under pressure from their grooms or their families. As a result, some women resort to surgical procedures to restore their hymen which can be risky and expensive.   

Furthermore, the tests are often performed in unhygienic and humiliating conditions by unqualified personnel. The tests may also cause physical and psychological harm to women, especially if they have experienced sexual violence or have medical conditions that affect their hymens. In many cases, virginity tests have also been used on survivors of rape and are often forced.

Back in Dushanbe one evening, I was sat with a small group of young Tajik men and women who described how traditionally, informal virginity tests would involve families scrutinising bed sheets the morning after a wedding. They explained how there would be a great celebration when the white bed sheets would be stained with blood, illustrative of the loss of virginity after marriage.

When I asked how they felt about such practices, they all said that they didn’t like it.  

Numerous international bodies and human rights organizations have expressed their condemnation of virginity testing and have called for them to be banned. The World Health Organisation, for example, has stated that virginity tests have no scientific basis and can result in severe social, psychological and physical harm. Human Rights Watch has called virginity tests severe violations of human rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women have called for the Tajik authorities to ban virginity testing.

While the Tajik government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993 and its Optional Protocol in 2014, they still have not made significant steps to banning virginity testing as part of their commitment to upholding women’s rights and eliminating all forms of discrimination against women in accordance with the above conventions.

Virginity testing is the ultimate violation of women's and girl’s rights. Aside from being unnecessary and humiliating, virginity tests reinforce stereotyped notions of female sexuality and gender inequality as these procedures, are not also enforced on men. They prevent women from gaining autonomy over their bodies or having the same sexual rights as men which not only violates women’s rights to physical integrity but fundamentally aims to disempower.

In the 21st Century, virginity cannot be an indicator of a woman’s dignity or morality. Sexual freedom is a right, a right that men demand for themselves and so women must be able to demand them too. This means not judging a woman’s worth based on her sexual behaviour or allowing demeaning and humiliating acts, such as virginity testing to take place.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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