On this day (February 19) in 1979, Labour MP Jo Richardson led the criticism in the House of Commons of the Home Office and the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees over the gynaecological and physical examinations conducted upon South Asian women migrating to the UK, colloquially known as ‘virginity testing’. During this session of parliament, Rees announced:
a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at.
However a month later, Richardson stated that the Indian government was aware of at least 34 cases. The following post is an excerpt from our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which discusses how much we know from the archival records about the number of cases of ‘virginity testing’ there were between 1968 and 1979.
We will never know how many women underwent virginity tests, in part because the government pursued a policy of denial and minimisation. Its reconstruction of the facts – and the shielding of evidence – suited its strategy of maintaining ‘good race relations’. For example, on 19 February 1979, Home Office Secretary Rees asserted in Parliament that ‘a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at’.[i] Yet in contrast to this assertion, we know from Amrit Wilson’s visits to immigration detention centres in 1977 that ‘“virginity tests” were routine’[ii], suggesting a completely different picture of what was taking place on British soil. From official and internal documents, we could only establish that the practice was mainly recorded offshore, at the High Commissions on the Indian subcontinent.
In mid-march 1979, more information emerged at the official level about offshore cases. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Jo Richardson, citing the Indian Minister for External Affairs, revealed that ‘at least 34 cases of virginity testing’ had occurred at the British High Commission in New Delhi.[iii] Behind closed doors, stories of these cases and others were already emerging and being shared amongst certain parties at the Home Office. In a letter in early March 1979 from the FCO to 10 Downing Street staff, Private Secretary J. S. Wall stated that ‘[t]he facts, as far as India is concerned, are that since October 1975 … there appear to have been nine cases in Bombay and 73 in New Delhi’.[iv] By January 1980, the FCO had a much clearer picture of the figures, but was reluctant to make them, or the extent of their impact, known. This was evident in a handwritten note to D. W. Partridge from the Migration and Visa Department of the FCO that we identified, which noted that those 73 cases that had occurred at the British High Commission in Delhi since October 1975 were examinations that ‘formed part of the normal medical examination’ and ‘all examinations [of the genitals] had been visual only’.[v] The same note said there had been 10 cases in Bombay, three of which involved internal vaginal examinations, with it unclear whether the other seven examinations were internal or external examinations of the genitals.[vi]
The note to D. W. Partridge also stated that in Islamabad there had been ‘no requests specifically for vaginal examinations made since 1975’, but acknowledged that ‘in some cases ECOs had asked [the] doctor to report “signs of marriage”’, which was a euphemism amongst High Commission staff for scrutiny to be placed upon the applicant’s genitals, breasts and stomach.[vii] It further stated that ‘no record of the number of such cases’ existed but that ‘they may account to a total of under 20 a year in the past two years’.[viii] The note emphasised that in Dacca, where Alex Lyon knew of previous cases of virginity testing occurring in the mid-1970s, ‘[n]o women were ever referred for vaginal examination’, but admitted that ‘one virginity test’ (emphasis in original) was performed in 1978 ‘by purely external examination, not involving examination of [the] vagina’.[ix]
The same note also referred to the Dacca High Commission, where it was much more common for women to be examined for physical evidence that they had borne children, upon the request of an ECO, which involved doctors examining the breasts and stomach for stretch marks. These cases numbered 20 to 30 per year.[x] The note mentioned that on ‘rare occasions’ women were examined ‘to establish whether they were pregnant when they claimed not to be but obviously were’, and ‘whether the applicants had borne children if conflicting evidence from other family members’ was available.[xi] The note concluded that ‘it is not possible for us to quote a precise and accurate figure’, but gave the approximate figures for the number of women given some form of physical examination to determine whether they had borne children or had ever had sexual relations, as requested by ECOs in South Asia:
Dacca 40–60 (over 2 years)
There is no evidence in the file that this note was ever typed up and distributed within the FCO other than to Mr Partridge. We also do not know whether and, if so, how Mr Partridge communicated with others on this matter. However, this is the most detailed document that we have identified in our research that records the number of victims of virginity testing and other forms of physical examination imposed upon South Asian women by the British immigration control system. Even though we have captured these figures, there remains a sense that the total picture is difficult to access. Yet these numbers do help us appreciate that virginity testing was far from an isolated practice.
This handwritten note to D. W. Partridge also attempted to draw a distinction between the examinations that occurred at Heathrow and those that occurred in South Asia. Discussing the examinations carried out in Delhi, the note stated that these ‘formed part of a normal medical examination’, but acknowledged that the gynaecologist ‘had been asked to advise on the marital status of the female applicants’.[xiii] However, even though the gynaecologist later stated that ‘all examinations had been visual only and that she had not carried out any internal examinations’[xiv], the examination of the genitals for administrative immigration control purposes, rather than for a medical purpose, was a violation of the human rights of the women involved. The note confirmed that the 10 cases in Bombay involved examinations of daughter dependants (all over the age of 18), with three definitely involving a vaginal examination, as mentioned previously.[xv] While the FCO claimed that these cases were ‘part of a normal medical examination’, a telegram from the High Commission in Delhi stated that it was ‘the practice at all posts in India not … to refer or encourage wives and children under 18 for settlement to have a routine medical examination’.[xvi] The telegram claimed that in the second half of 1979 no women or children under 18 had been referred for medical examination in India, in contrast to 281 husbands.[xvii] This suggests that the physical examination of women at British High Commissions in India was carried out but was not officially recorded, as were medical examinations for men seeking to migrate to Britain.
[i] Hansard, 19 February, 1979, col. 221.
[ii] Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles, p. 78.
[iii] Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w.
[iv] Letter from J. S. Wall to N. Stephens, 5 March, 1979, PREM 16/2000, National Archives, London (hereafter NA).
[v] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.
[vi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.
[vii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.
[viii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.
[ix] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.
[x] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.
[xi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.
[xii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.
[xiii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.
[xiv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.
[xv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, pp. 1-2.
[xvi] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980, FCO 50/676, NA.
[xvii] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980.