By Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, Volunteer at IKWRO 

The fixation with being a ‘virgin’ harms young girls from a young age. Defining a woman’s ‘honour’ by her virginity is a reductive ideology. The Cambridge dictionary defines honour as “a quality that combines respect, being proud and honesty” and therefore for many women, true honour can range from protecting their independence, fighting for their communities freedom, to their right to an education. We must challenge the idea that ‘honour’ is about a woman’s sexual history, because by doing so we will also combat the harmful belief that women are only worthy of respect depending on their sexual background. 

As a young Kurdish woman, it’s of paramount importance to challenge these notions which have long festered in our communities. Such ideologies lead to women losing their lives, freedom and voices. Both men and women need to have constructive conversations to oppose these belief systems. Changing the law is vital but in order to shift societal norms, we also need to challenge the myths and provide adequate support. 

The idea of ‘virginity’ stems from a place of misogyny. The false notion is that a woman’s sexual background is a way to measure her worth. Legal steps are being taken to safeguard those at risk from being harmed. Parliament has voted in a ban on both virginity testing and hymenoplasty under the Health and Care Bill. The offences will carry a maximum penalty of a 5-year custodial sentence and/or an unlimited fine. The law also applies if someone is taken outside of the UK for virginity testing or hymenoplasty. Such examinations and procedures leave young girls and women feeling traumatised, anxious and can lead to self-harm. 

Virginity testing is an examination involving the inspection of the female genitalia and hymen. Such examinations are completely flawed because hymens can rupture for multiple reasons: tampon usage, cervical smears, exercises or sports accidents. Around 50% of women and girls don’t bleed during their first time having intercourse. Not only is it scientifically and medically incorrect to use virginity testing as a way of deeming a woman’s sexual state, it also brings about multiple psychological pressures and can lead to “honour” based abuse.

Last week,the Health and Care Bill gained Royal Assent which, in addition to banning virginity testing, will make it illegal to perform any procedure that aims to reconstruct the hymen – with or without the patient’s consent. Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure which ‘recreates’ the hymen (a thin membrane at the lower end of the vagina), a scar tissue is created which means that sometimes bleeding can occur. The reason why I wrote ‘recreates’ in speech marks, is because some people with hymens are born with either a very small hymen or no hymen at all. These procedures are conducted with one thing in mind – to try to make the woman or girl bleed during intercourse. This perpetuates the dangerous myth that the presence of an intact hymen and bleeding demonstrate proof of virginity. 

Those who face these invasive procedures, do so under either a direct or indirect pressure to present as a ‘virgin’ on the night of their wedding – which is often a forced marriage, organised by their family. Not only does Hymenoplasty cause trauma, but in around half of cases, it fails to cause bleeding – leaving the woman incredibly vulnerable to ‘honour’ based abuse or even ‘honour’ killings. There is no honour in murder. 

On a daily basis, young women are subjected to multiple forms of control in order to protect and safeguard their ‘virginity’. It is common for many people who menstruate, especially those from MENA backgrounds, to not be allowed to use menstrual products like tampons or menstrual cups. This is the first step in shedding young people of their bodily autonomy. 

Girls are taught from an early age that their bodies will never truly belong to them, that they must safeguard their ‘virginity’ for a hypothetical, future husband. That women must be held responsible for their family’s ‘honour’. This simply reiterates the idea that women are only as important as their physical bodies thus forcing us to constantly think of external expectations that we must uphold. 

Everyone has a right to be free from coercive and controlling behaviour. If you or somebody you know could be affected by harmful practices such as virginity testing, hymenoplasty or other forms of ‘honour’ based abuse, don’t underestimate the risks involved. Please contact IKWRO. We offer specialist and confidential support. You are always welcome here.  

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