The ‘virginity testing’ controversy 35 years on

Part of the artwork 'She Loved to Breathe -- Pure Silence' from 1987 by Zarina Bhimji, which tackles the issue of 'virginity testing'.

Part of the artwork ‘She Loved to Breathe — Pure Silence’ from 1987 by Zarina Bhimji, which tackles the issue of ‘virginity testing’.

On February 1, 1979, Melanie Phillips wrote an explosive piece in The Guardian about the practice of ‘virginity testing’ that was experienced by an Indian woman at Heathrow during her attempt to pass through border control. Over the following two months, it came to light that theses ‘tests’ were much more widely practiced than initially thought, with many tests occurring at British High Commissions in South Asia. As Marinella Marmo and I wrote in this 2011 article, Phillips’ initial article set in motion a much broader questioning of how the British immigration control system functioned and the gap between the ‘official’ version and what really happened behind the scenes:

On 24 January 1979, a 35-year-old Indian woman arrived at Heathrow airport, wishing to enter Britain to marry her fiancée, a British resident of Indian descent. At this time, people entering Britain to marry their fiancées did not need a visa if the marriage was to occur within three months of arrival, but the woman was subjected to an extensive investigation into her plans to settle in Britain. According to internal Home Office documents, the Immigration Officer suspected, primarily because of her age, that the woman may have already been married and ‘asked the doctor to determine whether she had had children’.[i] A male doctor, acting under a debatable notion of ‘consent’ from the woman, made a rudimentary gynaecological examination of the woman, who was then given conditional leave to enter Britain. This ‘virginity testing’ gained nationwide notoriety a week later when details of the practice were published in The Guardian newspaper. On 1 February 1979, journalist Melanie Phillips reported that the woman was examined to ‘test’ whether she was a genuine wife-to-be, who had not borne children and who was still a virgin. The woman, cited by Phillips, described the procedure:

He was wearing rubber gloves and took some medicine out of a tube and put it on some cotton and inserted it into me. He said he was deciding whether I was pregnant before. I said that he could see that without doing anything to me, but he said there was no need to get shy.[ii]

An internal – and only recently disclosed – Home Office document, dated 1 February, 1979, detailed the doctor’s version of the events:

[P]enetration of about half an inch made it apparent that she had an intact hymen and no other internal examination was made. The doctor then examined her chest with a stethascope [sic], but she was not asked to remove her blouse or bra for this. The only time she was bare chested was for the X-ray examination… The doctor told the immigration officer verbally that the lady had not had children and she was then given conditional leave to enter for 3 months as a fiancee [sic].[iii]

Despite the fact that the newspaper report and the internal document were both issued on the same date, when the story first broke on a national scale, the Home Office denied that an internal vaginal examination had taken place, stating that ‘there was no internal examination and that [the medical officer] very quickly and decently established that she was virgo intacto’.[iv] Nevertheless, the revelation of this practice in The Guardian provoked severe criticism of the Labour Government, particularly the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees.  As details emerged over the next few days, the Port Health Control Unit at Heathrow told The Guardian that two other gynaecological examinations had taken place at Heathrow in the past seven years since the Immigration Act 1971 had come into effect. Furthermore, there was speculation from other sources, including the former Minister of State for the Home Office, Alex Lyon, that this ‘testing’ was a much more common practice off-shore, with more than 30 ‘virginity tests’ occurring in British High Commissions in South Asia.[v]

Only after these further revelations did the Home Secretary Rees announce that the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees, would conduct an internal investigation into the practice, alongside other medical examinations conducted upon migrants. However, this proposed action was seen by critics – in Parliament, the media and the black communities – to be an attempt to stem further discussion of the subject and to deflect further criticism of the Government in the lead up to the 1979 General Election.[vi] The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) also pushed an independent investigation of immigration control procedures and suspected racial discrimination within the immigration control system, which eventually brought the CRE into legal action with the Home Office.[vii] Alongside these criticisms, the British Government was condemned at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva by the Indian representative.[viii]

Using documents that have been released by the National Archives over the last decade, Marinella and I have been able to put together a picture of the widespread scrutiny, interrogation and physical abuse suffered by South Asian women as they tried to pass through the immigration control system between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The culmination of this research into the discriminatory and abusive actions of the immigration control system is the forthcoming book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which, we are pleased to announce, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year as part of the Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship series. More details of the book will put up on this blog when available. 

Picture credit: Zarina Bhimji.


[i] Letter from Mr Hillary to Mr Flesher, 1 February, 1979, HO 418/29, National Archives, London

[ii] The Guardian, 1 February, 1979, p. 1

[iii] Letter from Mr Hillary to Mr Flesher, 1 Feb 1979

[iv] The Guardian, 1 February, 1979, p. 1

[v] The Guardian, 2 February, 1979, p. 24; p. 1; House of Commons, Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w

[vi] ‘Immigration tests in Britain’, Spare Rib, 79, February 1979, p. 10; Brixton Black Women’s Group, ‘Black women organizing’, Feminist Review, 17, Autumn 1984, pp. 84-85

[vii] See: Home Office v Commission for Racial Equality, 1981, All England Law Reports, pp. 1042-1050

[viii] Commission on Human Rights, 35th Session, 23 February, 1979, para. 26-27, E/CN.4/SR.1494; Commission on Human Rights, 35th Session, 5 March, 1979, para. 1-22, E/CN.4/SR.1506

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