Standing Up for Women and Girls in Afghanistan: PHR and Allies Challenge “Virginity Testing”

A lavish wedding ceremony was recently held in Afghanistan, and the bride left her family’s home to join the family of her husband. But when the bride did not bleed on her wedding night, her in-laws took her to the hospital and requested that a hymen test be conducted to ensure that their son had married a virgin. Despite the doctor’s assurances that the young girl had indeed been a virgin, her skeptical in-laws rejected her and sent her back to her father’s house.

Afghan physician Dr. Tamana Asey finds such hymen examinations to be “total abuse.” Working with the Afghanistan Forensic Science Organization (AFSO), which PHR helped establish in 2011, Dr. Tamana is at the forefront of change on this issue. As she notes, there is no scientific or medical validity to these exams, and she is working to stop the abusive practice.

“It has physical, emotional, legal, and social consequences,” says Dr. Tamana, who recently attended a PHR training in Istanbul to build her teaching and facilitation skills. “[The women] feel valueless, they feel like they cannot protect themselves… Depression, anxiety, feeling deprived – these feelings are so common… They will not have their normal family relationships, or in the society, or with their friends.”

So-called virginity testing is widely used in Afghanistan and in many other countries to determine whether a bride who does not bleed on her wedding night had intercourse prior to marriage – something impossible to ascertain by inspecting the hymen. In addition, women suspected of adultery are subjected to hymen examinations by doctors at the state-run Legal Medicine Directorate, and the results are used as evidence to convict and imprison them for “moral crimes.” Indeed, the vast majority of women imprisoned in Afghanistan are there for “moral crimes,” victims of this specious test.

The troubling prevalence of hymen exams prompted PHR to issue a scientific brief debunking virginity testing as illegitimate and completely unscientific. The brief is now being used by AFSO both to challenge the practice and to review the many cases of women imprisoned on the basis of such a test.

Dr. Tamana works with prosecutors, judges, government officials, medical doctors, and community leaders to explain how hymen exams cannot reveal a woman’s sexual history, and that such procedures violate the medical tenet to “do no harm.” With her colleagues, she runs workshops to raise awareness and advocates for a ban on the practice altogether.

Despite resistance, Dr. Tamana is confident that the tide is turning. “After ten years, there will be no victim of hymen examinations in Afghanistan,” she told PHR.

You can find PHR’s brief on virginity testing, in multiple languages, here.