Why Global Citizens Should Care
France might be cracking down on “virginity testing,” a procedure used to see if a woman is worthy of marriage or employment.
President Emmanuel Macron announced plans on Oct. 2 to introduce measures that would jail and fine doctors who provide virginity certificates for traditional religious marriages, according to the BBC.
The law has yet to be formally presented but proposes a year in jail and a fine of €15,000 (over $17,000) fine for any medical professional who issues a certificate.
Marlène Schiappa, French minister delegate in charge of citizenship, said the law should also punish parents or fiancés who request virginity certificates.
Virginity testing is not just an issue in France — it is performed in at least 20 countries. It is most common in North Africa and the Middle East, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and South Africa, and is practiced across religions and cultures.
Doctors, police, and community leaders examine a woman’s hymen or insert their fingers into the vagina to conduct the inspection, which hasn’t been shown to accurately determine if a woman has had vaginal intercourse. The procedure is also sometimes performed as a part of rape investigations or security force training. For a survivor who reports a sexual assault, virginity testing can cause physical pain, trigger the original act of sexual violence, and make the survivor feel disempowered and cause revictimization.
The new measures, which will be presented to parliament in December, are part of a new set of laws to stop “Islamist separatism,” which Macron claims is responsible for creating radical Muslim communities.
Marcon’s separatism laws have received backlash from Muslims worldwide. Nagib Azergui, founder of the Union of French Muslim Democrats political party, told Al Jazeera that he fears the set of laws could increase Islamaphobia, which is already rampant in France.
While banning virginity tests is an important step to addressing gender stereotypes and discrimination, laws need to be paired with education, Hillary Margolis, women’s rights division senior researcher at the organization Human Rights Watch, told Global Citizen. Training medical staff and law enforcement, plus providing public education to address stigma and raise awareness about why virginity tests are harmful is also essential, she said.
“Above all, there must be ample protection and support for women and girls who are pressured to undergo this practice or who are at risk if they don’t provide evidence of such a ‘test’ — without this, simply banning the practice will not put a stop to it, and may well leave women and girls at risk of further harm,” Margolis said.
Some women need the certificates as protection from their families and communities. French gynecologist Ghada Hatem said she is only asked for virginity certificates a few times a year, mostly by women from Muslim-majority Northwest African countries, according to the BBC. Hatem often issues the certificates to the women and girls that request them, because they are often afraid of physical violence from their relatives or being shunned by their family.
A national study has not been conducted to assess how many virginity tests occur, the anti-racist feminist association Lallab said in a statement issued to Global Citizen.
“In view of its low recurrence, or even near-absence, the government proves once again that making a law to prohibit these tests shows more its obsession with the bodies of Muslim women than its desire to protect them, as they are the ones who are indirectly affected,” the association said.
About 30% of French doctors say they have received requests for virginity certificates, the majority of them reporting that they usually refuse to provide them, according to the BBC.
Lallab is challenging the French government to focus its efforts on restoring fundamental rights for all women, including Muslim women, in regards to education, work, safety, and well-being.
Several religions, including Islam, ostracize women and girls for having sex before marriage, and “impurity” has been used as grounds for sexual violence, and even murder.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations have condemned virginity tests, calling them “medically unnecessary” and urged governments to ban the tests in a joint statement in 2018.