Does a Pakistan court's ban on 'virginity tests' go far enough to protect rape victims?

A woman holds an 'end rape culture' poster at a protest in Pakistan.
The judge said the tests were "humiliating" and with "no scientific requirement". Credit: AP

By Digital Presenter and Producer Mojo Abidi

Women's rights activists have welcomed a Pakistani court's decision to ban so-called 'virginity tests' on rape victims - but have questioned if the move is enough.

The outlaw, which will apply in the Punjab province, means women will no longer have to undergo physical checks for an intact hymen and the invasive 'two-finger test' during rape examinations.

In the historic ruling, Lahore High Court judge Justice Ayesha Malik said the tests were “humiliating” and had “no scientific or medical requirement.”

It is hoped the decision will pave the way for a nationwide ban on the practice, with a second petition pending in the Sindh province.

Pakistan’s minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, praised the judgement on Twitter.

Even though campaigners say they are "relieved" at the ban, many worry that the underlying attitudes towards women on which the practice was based will remain the same.

In Pakistani rape investigations, the majority of the case is based on the history of the victim; including their character, what they wear, where they live, their relationship to the defendant and whether they are judged to be sexually experienced.

This is deemed more important than physical evidence such as bruising, laboratory results and witness statements.

Credit: AP

But activists believe rape cases should not be about a victim's character.

They say until the misogynistic belief that a woman of 'bad character' is less likely to have been raped is changed, the barriers in place to report rape are unconquerable.

What is the 'two-finger test'?

The 'two-finger test' is performed by inserting one or two fingers into the vagina to test for tightness, to supposedly determine the extent to which a woman is sexually active.

Some claim that if only one finger can be inserted, then a woman has been penetrated for the first time. But if two can be inserted without pain, she is deemed to engage in regular sexual activity.

The test has been used to discredit victims of rape who are judged to be sexually experienced, as there is an assumption they are more likely to consent to sexual activity.

It is an inherited colonial practice and it discourages victims from coming forward to make a claim, due to fear of undergoing the procedure.

There is also the fear of being criminally charged if the test finds you to be sexually active, as premarital sex remains a crime in Pakistan and carries a five-year prison sentence.

The 'two-finger test' has no scientific merit.

The World Health Organisation has categorically discredited the test as having no scientific merit, saying "there is no known examination that can prove a history of vaginal intercourse".

The organisation also says the practice is a violation of the victim’s human rights.

What is the attitude in Pakistan towards rape victims?

Activists have long argued that 'virginity tests' are the symptom of Pakistan's patriarchal culture that shifts the blame onto women in sexual assaults.

There are at least 11 rape cases reported everyday, according to a 2020 report by the country's Police, Law, and Justice Commission.

But it is believed the actual figure is much higher, due to the stigma that victims face.

Rape conviction rates in Pakistan are also low because of weak laws. Since 2015, only 77 offenders in the country have been convicted.

This can leave women fearful of retributory attacks if they approach the police.

The gang-rape of a mother led to nationwide anti-rape protests. Credit: AP

In September, a woman in Lahore was gang-raped in front of her children when her car broke down by the side of a motorway.

It caused national outrage and country-wide protests, leading the Prime Minister to approve stricter anti-rape legislation, designed to speed up trials.

Is 'virginity testing' a global problem?

The practice of 'virginity tests' have been documented in at least 20 countries, according to the United Nations and World Health Organisation.

These include Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Jamaica, Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe.

India banned the practice in 2013 and Bangladesh in 2018.

'Virginity tests' have been documented in at least 20 countries.

In Afghanistan, a law requiring consent for virginity tests was introduced in 2018. But the country's Independent Human Rights Commission said in October that women were still being forced to undergo the examinations.

French politicians are currently debating jail terms and fines for doctors who provide 'virginity certificates'.

The practise is legal in the United States, with rapper T.I. causing uproar after admitting he takes his 19-year-old daughter to the gynaecologist every year for hymen testing.