Addressing the control of women’s bodies through surface solutions meant to win easy votes will only result in the continued subjugation of women. This obvious fact was proved (yet again) during a recent controversy over forced virginity tests in India.
Under a public scheme of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Madhya Pradesh, a state in Central India, 151 women married in a mass wedding organized by the state government were forced to undergo virginity tests. Women refused the test, but were told they would get a promised wedding gift of 6,500 rupees (about $132) only after the test.
There are two important points to note here. First, in India, a woman’s family must traditionally pay dowry, which includes hosting a wedding. These costs can be exorbitant, especially for poor families, who often must take on huge levels of poverty- exacerbating debt to marry- off their daughters. Various states governments have tried to address the dowry problem by organizing mass weddings that make marriage affordable for the poor.
A second notable point is that the BJP represents the interests of right wing Hindu nationalists, hardly a champion of women’s or minority rights. Cleverly, they were able to win a lion share of votes in the Madhya Pradesh state assembly elections last year through the mass marriage scheme, which appealed to poor rural tribal communities who are disproportionately crippled by the cost of marrying off their daughters.
The BJP party and others defended themselves stating that the tests were not virginity tests, but rather to ensure that fraudulent cases were not being made. Fourteen women were found to be pregnant after the tests were conducted and were unable to participate. Missing in this defense is a concern and recognition of basic human rights. That so many women were made to undergo such abhorrent tests under a publicly funded program is completely unacceptable on all grounds and a fact for which elected officials must be held accountable. Missing also is a recognition of the reality that unmarried people are having sex, and that women and girls often have little choice and decision-making over their bodies.
It is certainly encouraging that the Indian media created a national uproar over the issue. This resulted in debates in the Parliament (although likely more as fodder for party politics rather than a genuine concern for women’s rights.) It is also encouraging that less than a month after the episode occurred, the National Human Rights Commission of India issued a report which called out the forced virginity tests for being exactly what they are – a human rights violation.
Marriage remains a vehicle for the abuse of large proportions of women in India. While mass marriages and cash incentives may provide short-term relief for poor families and decrease pressure for dowry, eligibility criteria must never limit participation based on pregnancy or virginity. More importantly, such band-aid efforts must exist alongside longer-term investments in women’s education, job training and political empowerment as well as broader cultural change efforts that promotes a greater respect for the worth of women.