(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – France is divided over its plan to ban virginity testing, with some activists calling the procedure barbaric and others warning of violent repercussions for some Muslim women.
Women from at least 20 countries are subjected to virginity tests, sometimes forcibly, as families, lovers or potential employers use them to assess their virtue, honor or social worth, according to the World Organization. health (WHO).
In Europe, tests are delivered in Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden and Spain, according to the WHO.
In France, it is most commonly used by Muslims and also by some Roma families who want proof of virginity before marriage.
The United Nations says the test is painful, inaccurate, and a violation of human rights, with no place in modern society.
But not everyone agrees, with some experts predicting unintended fallout from France’s proposed ban, which is part of a broader Islamic separatism bill due to be presented to parliament this month. next.
Doctors say it could mean women pay excessive fees for illegal tests or risk violent repercussions from putative family members, partners or in-laws if they lack evidence.
“To penalize doctors is to close the only door to patients, where they could have found help and advice,” said Ghada Hatem-Gantzer, gynecologist in Paris and chief doctor at the Maison des Femmes, a local refuge against violence against women.
“It’s definitely about promoting a black market for certificates that dubious pharmacies will charge dearly,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Before issuing a virginity certificate, a doctor usually inspects a woman’s hymen – the thin tissue that can partially cover her vagina – by checking for tears or measuring the opening.
It’s unclear how many tests are done each year, but doctors say they mostly screen teenage girls or young women, often under pressure from family.
“There is no data, official or otherwise, on the number of requests for virginity certificates,” said Martine Hatchuel, another Paris-based gynecologist.
“Personally, I have about two to four requests a year… almost always very young girls brought in by their mothers.”
Doctors say single women fear rejection if they cannot show a certificate to families where traditional gender expectations prevail regarding premarital sex.
“Their motivation is always: ‘it’s my parents / my in-laws / my in-laws who demand it, if it were up to me I wouldn’t ask for anything,” said Hatem-Gantzer.
But she said the girls and young women who came to see her were unanimous in saying, “I don’t want to be an old maid.”
The French government does not collect such data, but think tanks and statistical groups claim that France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe: around 5 million, or 7-8% of the population.
Virginity certificates can help protect women suspected of having illicit sex from possible reprisals, said Liza Hammer of Collectif Nta Rajel, a French feminist collective for North African emigrants.
“If you want to fix this problem, women need to be taken care of, not prevented from having a piece of paper they need to save their lives,” she said.
Under a bill, President Emmanuel Macron offers one year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros ($ 17,875) for any healthcare professional who issues a virginity certificate.
The rules are part of legislation aimed at strengthening secular values and tackling what Macron calls “Islamist separatism” which he says threatens to overwhelm some communities.
The French Ministries of the Interior and of Health were not available for comment.
Although they do not support the tests, doctors and women’s rights groups fear that some girls and women may be abused without a certificate attesting to their virginity.
“In some extreme situations, the only way out for women is to break up with their family or turn to the virginity market (screening),” French abortion counseling group ANCIC said in a statement.
“Professionals must make the choice that seems most ethical to them,” the association said.
In an open letter to a French newspaper, a group of 10 doctors called the tests barbaric, backward and sexist.
But they said their ban could be even worse, if doctors fear women are in danger without their certification.
“Preventing (the test being performed) would do the patient’s cause a favor,” they said.
Better education would do more than a ban to end traditional gender constraints, said abortion group ANCIC.
Punishing doctors does not tackle the root cause – fear and ignorance in Muslim communities, the group of doctors said.
Claudia Garcia-Moreno, WHO official on violence against women, agreed, saying that “culturally sensitive” education must go hand in hand with any ban to prevent testing from going underground.
“Women and girls need to understand their rights and protections,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For Hatem-Gantzer, who sees the fallout from virginity fights firsthand in his Paris refuge, a ban won’t quickly change such deeply rooted attitudes.
“Our only way out is to educate young people relentlessly and to meet their parents to convince them. It’s more tiring and costly than a ban, but it’s more effective, ”she said.
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