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‘The Pain Was Unbearable’: Thousands of Women Subjected to Banned ‘Virginity Tests’

by Suddaf Chaudry September 17, 2021

This story was published in partnership with VICE World News and The Fuller Project.

What you need to know
  • In Pakistan, if a woman is believed to have a sexually active past, the courts are more inclined to rule that a rape survivor is lying and that the alleged rape was consensual.
  • Thousands of women, still raw from the trauma of rape, continue to be subjected almost immediately afterwards to the fresh shock of a virginity test, which involves inserting two fingers inside the vagina of a rape survivor to check if their hymen is intact.
  • The controversial practice was banned by the president in December and was declared unconstitutional by states and supreme courts in January. But medical records, interviews with survivors subjected to tests and an interview with a doctor show that police and doctors continue to defy the bans with impunity.

KARACHI, Pakistan— Gul didn’t think too much about it when the doorbell rang late at night last November. It was past midnight, but her father often came home late from work.

Instead, it was her landlord’s son — with some form of powder in his hand, which he blew into her face, and then raped her.

“When I opened the door, there was smoke. Then when I woke up, I was locked in a closet,” said Gul, who was 14 at the time.

Later, a relative of her rapist offered her some money to stay quiet. They took her on a bike and dropped her off in the woods, in the middle of nowhere.

Later that day, her father took her to report the case to the police. She was greeted with indifference, she said. “When I told the officer what happened to me, it was as if he was listening to something on the radio,” said Gul, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity as an underage sexual assault survivor.

After much persuasion, the officer finally agreed to issue a police report, the first step in registering a case. The next step for a still shell-shocked Gul was to undergo the notorious “two-finger test”. Known more widely as virginity testing, it involves inserting two fingers inside the vagina of a rape survivor to check if their hymen is intact. If not, the woman is believed to have a sexually active past, and the courts are more inclined to rule that the survivor is lying and that the alleged rape was actually consensual.

In Pakistan, these tests have been standard procedure in the thousands of rape cases filed every year.

The controversial practice was banned in December by the president, and then declared unconstitutional by state and supreme courts in January. But a dozen medical certificates obtained by The Fuller Project and VICE World News — together with interviews with survivors and a doctor who continues to perform the test — show that police and doctors continue to defy the bans and conduct the test with impunity. The result is that thousands of women, still raw from the trauma of rape, continue to be subjected almost immediately afterwards to the fresh shock of a virginity test.

Related coverage: A Test With No Answer: Why Are American Doctors Performing Virginity Tests?

The entire justice system is set up to let down women who have been assaulted, said Shiraz Ahmed, a survival support officer at War Against Rape, an NGO based in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city.

“The police are the frontline responders, and there are often significant delays in the submission of evidence, up to six months on some occasions,” he said. Specimen collection and analysis is also difficult in Karachi, with only one DNA lab for a city of 15 million people.

Ahmed said the police often play a more active role in harassing rape survivors than simply delaying a case. Gul’s father said the police threatened their family because one of her assaulters has a family member who is a cop. He feels further disillusioned by the health system and the judiciary.

“The medical examination further traumatised my baby girl,” said Gul’s father, who also asked not to be named to protect his daughter’s identity. He added that he seeks support from non-profits like War Against Rape rather than seek out a defence lawyer he believes would not treat his daughter with sensitivity or take her fight seriously.

“I am a father, but also now forced to be a part-time document collector so I can assist my daughter’s case,” he said. “We live in a male-dominated society in which the judge is a man, the prosecutor is also a man, and the investigating officer is also a man. So obviously no one will support the victim and her family.”

Among the men involved in Gul’s case, the investigating officer Mazar Hussain Shah said the main reason rape cases like hers don’t end in convictions is that the survivor’s statements fail to hold up in court.

“Big stories get created here,” he said, referring to how survivor statements to police don’t always match up with what their husbands, friends, or parents say.

But while police have been criticized strongly by anti-rape activists and sympathetic judges and politicians, little attention has been paid in comparison to the role played by the Health Ministry.

“I haven’t told my parents. If they knew they would tell me not to fight. You have to realise, it’s a privilege to be vocal about the crime of rape. Here, [poor] women like me have to continue our fight in silence.”

— Khush, a rape survivor in Pakistan

Perhaps the most important factor for the courts in evaluating the survivor’s credibility is the evidence submitted by the Medico-Legal Officer (MLO), the doctor who performs the virginity test, said Mavra Ghaznavi, one of the lawyers who led the Lahore High Court case that resulted in the ban on virginity testing. She said an MLO’s role in probing a survivor’s sexual history becomes a humiliating tool that supports the perpetrator.

“The Medico-Legal Officers are poorly trained, they are not gynecologists,” she said. “Since the judgment, there still hasn’t been any revision of the curriculum at medical schools in the country,” meaning MLOs continue to engage in outdated practices, whether willfully or out of ignorance.

“You know, when I went to the MLO, she asked if I went to see a boy before she inserted her hand inside me,” said Gul. “I said ‘no’, but she didn’t care”.

Inside Civil Hospital Karachi, victims are examined in a bare room with a dark grey fold-out bed leaning against a wall. There were no medical instruments in sight — the only other furniture is a large desk on the far side of the room with a few chairs. This is the workspace of Dr Aman Khurshid, the Civil Hospital MLO who conducted the two-finger test on Gul.

“We request that the victim sit in the lithotomy position, a common position for vaginal examination,” she said, describing the typical childbirth position of lying on your back with legs raised at 90 degrees to the hips. “First we discuss what happened to the victim, and look for physical marks to determine if there has been a struggle or violence. Then the two-finger vaginal test which will represent the integrity of the hymen.”

When questioned about the relevancy of virginity testing in sexual assault cases, which the World Health Organisation says has “no scientific validity”, Dr Khurshid defended its use, saying it’s very rare to find other physical evidence of “resistance” that supports a survivor’s allegations of assault.

Following the president’s ordinance and court decisions against virginity testing, it may seem as if the movement to end virginity testing in Pakistan has won. And when asked in June in an in-person interview if the exams were still conducted in Karachi, Sindh High Court’s Judge Arshad Hussain Khan responded with a straightforward “No”.

‘I have to do this so others don’t suffer’

But the reality on the ground for rape survivors is very different. In the middle of our interview with Khurshid in Karachi, a survivor arrived for an examination. She was turned away when it came to light that her case fell under a different jurisdiction, but when asked if she would have performed the two-finger test if it was under her jurisdiction, Khurshid said yes.

And since the interview with Judge Khan was conducted, The Fuller Project and VICE World News have interviewed two sexual assault victims who say they were subjected to the tests well after the bans, and obtained a dozen medical certificates which show that the exams are still performed routinely by MLOs.

Shazia was only 14 years old when she said she was raped this past May. The experience of undergoing the virginity test the next day, several months after the various bans, is still painful for her to think about.

Shazia, whose real name is also being withheld because she is an underage sexual assault survivor, put her hands on her stomach. “I’m still in pain,” she said. “First the doctor placed her hand inside me, and then she used a stick. My mother was banging on the door, and the doctor went to the door and verbally abused her.”

The MLO did not take her medical history, or brief Shazia on the examination she was about to conduct. Nor was she given any information about the dubious legal status of the virginity testing. She says that throughout her time at the police station, the only question she was asked about her assault was: “How many men were there at the scene, and do you know them?” A woman officer was present, but did not ask any questions.

When she needs to process what happened to her, the person Shazia turns to is her mother. “She tells me not to think too much,” she said.

In an environment deeply hostile to rape survivors and their families, the violence often doesn’t end after the assault itself. War Against Rape’s Ahmed says virginity tests act as yet another form of attack on women, and they sustain a culture of impunity that then allows perpetrators to keep harassing survivors, especially those from poor backgrounds.

Khush, 21, was about to make breakfast one morning this past April when two men from her neighbourhood broke into her house and raped her. Her husband, a dishwasher, was at his job. When he came home that night, Khush couldn’t bring herself to share what happened to her.

“I was very sick, because I’m pregnant,” said Khush, who spoke on condition of anonymity as a sexual assault survivor in a deeply hostile environment. “I hadn’t eaten all day. And when my husband came home, he was also very tired, he hadn’t eaten or rested. And the next morning he had left for work before I even got up.”

The next day the two men returned, with two others. This time they had a pistol, and they raped her again and hit her at gunpoint. Before they left, they told her that her husband looked like a child.

Tears streamed down Khush’s face as she retold her story. Her husband stared at the floor while his wife told her story.

After the second assault time, she told her husband as soon as he came home. The couple then went directly to the police, who took her to the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital in Karachi to conduct a virginity test.

“[The MLO] opened my legs and slid two fingers inside me, it felt like a needle was piercing me. I was so fragile, the pain was unbearable,” she said.

The harassment didn’t end there. Khush said the family of several of her rapists offered her 7 lakh Pakistani rupees, about $4,200 (£3,100), to make the case go away. When her husband rejected it, they threatened to use that money instead to bribe the police and medical officers involved in the case. Eventually, Khush said the police called her in and told her to take the money the rapists’ had offered. When that failed to make Khush and her husband withdraw the case, her attackers intensified the intimidation campaign – Khush and her husband received sudden notice from their landlord, giving them just three days to leave their home.

“They were very threatening,” said Khush’s husband, referring to the rapists’ efforts to bully them. “I flatly refused [their money]. I said it is a matter of honour, the case will not end.”

At one point, an officer asked her why she wanted such a big stain on her honor. “I’m not lying, I’m telling the truth,” she responded.

“I haven’t told my parents,” Khush said. “If they knew they would tell me not to fight. You have to realise, it’s a privilege to be vocal about the crime of rape. Here, [poor] women like me have to continue our fight in silence.”

She looks down, holds her near-term stomach, and says with conviction: “I have so little. But I have to do this so others don’t suffer”.

On the 10th of August, the Lahore High Court issued a stinging rebuke to the chief of police, denouncing the “sheer negligence” of not having taken any steps to follow up on the President’s ordinance, ITO 2020, in the 7 months since it was passed.

“Astonishing rather shocking fact [sic] is that provisions of ITO could not be complied with in a single case, which means law was violated on thousands of occasions,” the court wrote.

But the courts chastising the police have little direct impact, as the MLOs who actually conduct the tests are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, which have not updated their practices following the ruling. Their role in rape investigations have not been acknowledged as prominently in comparison to that of the courts and police.

The Fuller Project and VICE World News tried several times to contact the national Health Ministry and the Sindh Health Ministry by phone and WhatsApp, as well as the Punjab and Sindh police departments, but did not receive any response.

While Sindh High Court’s Judge Khan and several politicians have praised the introduction of female-sensitive court hearings, with separate entrances for the survivor and a protective screen during their cross-examination, the reality is these cosmetic changes do little to make survivors and their families feel less helpless when the larger system is still pitted against them.

Like Khush and her husband, Gul’s family say they have also faced intimidation from her well-connected rapist, and are skeptical about their chances of success in court. In June,her father and very ill mother made the hour-long journey by rickshaw to Sindh High Court from their home in the outskirts of Karachi to attend a hearing for their case. They waited patiently for hours in the crowded lobby, only for the hearing to get adjourned because the accused failed to turn up.

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