The quest to rid the British of their reputation for prudery — carried on so valiantly through the decades by the likes of Benny Hill, the third page of several tabloid newspapers and Russell Brand — took a blow Monday when news surfaced that British immigration authorities carried out “virginity tests” of female immigrants in the 1970s, both at Heathrow Airport and at Home Office bureaus overseas, more often than previously thought.
The putative virgins were all women from India or Pakistan who were moving to Britain to get married. In order to “check the marital status” of the women, officials subjected some of them to the kind of treatment a woman usually only gets from her gynecologist. Initially it was thought that very few women had to endure the ordeal. But new research suggests the practice was much more widespread than the British Home Office admitted.
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The findings were published in the journal Gender & History by two Australian academics, Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo, of Flinders University in South Australia. They dug out documents from the National Archives in London suggesting at least 80 women had been so examined.
One woman who was subjected to a virginity exam in 1979 — and whose story was reported by the U.K.’s Guardian, helping lead to a ban on the practice — said she had requested a female gynecologist for the procedure and been denied. After the incident became public, the Home Office offered her 500 pounds to keep her from suing.
The British Home Office, despite the playful headline of this article, didn’t particularly care about the women’s sexual lives. It was more interested in weeding out women whom it suspected of trying to enter the U.K. under false pretenses. The Home Office assumed that women from the subcontinent would be more sexually conservative than those at home; so those who were not virgins, the reasoning went, would not be marriageable in their Indian or Pakistani communities and would therefore be likely to be sneaking into the U.K.
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But the impact on the women, who were stuck in an airport in a brand new country, in no position to refuse what the immigration officials demanded of them or offer any alternative proof, can only be imagined. One woman who spoke up at the time was a 35-year-old doctor. Her “advanced age” was what made officials suspicious of her in the first place, she said.
“It is deeply regrettable that no apology has ever been rendered to those women who underwent this degrading and discriminatory practice,” Hina Majid, the legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told the Guardian. “Whilst in 2011 we may no longer be virginity testing South Asian brides, the sad reality is that many migrant women continue to be denied equal treatment, and the full enjoyment of their human rights.”
In related news, the quest to rid the Brits of their reputation for decency is going quite well.