It was 35 years ago, but my mother still remembers the day she arrived in the UK from Pakistan. My dad, like many men from the subcontinent, was already living and working here, a doctor in the National Health Service (NHS). Immigration rules meant my mom had been forced to wait a year before she was allowed to join him.
She stood in the immigration line at London Heathrow Airport, impatient to get through and finally join her husband. Then, right there in the airport, at the order of British immigration officials, she was subjected to a virginity test. Why? She has no idea.
“I went through immigration and then I was sent aside for a medical,” she said. “They took me to a room. They asked me to undress and made me lie down, and then they did it.”
My mom can’t recall now whether the doctor was male or female, but she still remembers the deep embarrassment.
“I was young. I went along with it. All I wanted was to get outside and join my husband. We were newlyweds and I couldn’t wait to see him,” she said.
She never told my dad about it; she thought, or was given the impression, that it was normal procedure.
“You forget about things when you start a new life, but when I think about it now, it was a violation of my rights,” she said.
A few other young Pakistani women, who had also been on her flight, were similarly taken aside for tests.
“They were only asking the women who were traveling on their own to go to one side,” she said. “It was embarrassing, and also it felt a little shameful.”
Being forced to prove whether or not you are a virgin is degrading, humiliating and belittling. It happens in other parts of the world to some women on their wedding nights, when in-laws demand to see a blood-stained sheet the morning after; it happens in some Zulu tribes; and it happened two months ago during the Tahrir Square protests, when the Egyptian army rounded up 18 women, strip-searched them and then checked whether they had yet had sex.
So why were virginity tests happening at Heathrow airport, of all places, to young Asian women traveling on their own?
This week, a study by two legal academics in Australia, Marinella Marmo and Evan Smith, revealed that in the late 1970s, more than 80 south Asian women were ordered to have a virginity test. My mom was one of them.
At that time, immigration rules stipulated that an engaged woman coming to Britain to marry her fiance within three months did not need a visa, whereas a bride required a visa in order to join her husband. If immigration officers suspected a woman was married, but was pretending to be engaged to avoid the wait for a visa, she would be taken away for an examination.
Although it was known before this week’s report that Indian and Pakistani women arriving in the UK had been subject to virginity tests, it was not thought to be so widespread. In 1979, the Home Office admitted to just three tests (after initially denying the practice). Its admission came only after the Guardian reported the story of a 35-year-old Indian woman who was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow. Virginity testing was subsequently banned.
But while researching for a paper on immigration practices for an academic journal, Marmo and Smith, of Flinders University in Adelaide, found evidence of at least 81 cases of virginity testing in confidential Home Office files. Marmo said there could be many more.