After being married for a few hours, “Amal” entered the National Center for Forensic Medicine in Amman, accompanied by her mother, her groom and her mother-in-law. Feeling ashamed, Amal signed a paper giving her consent to undergo the “Virginity Assessment Test”. As she entered the examination room, a mood of silence and gloom dominated the faces of the bride’s chaperones, who sat waiting for the definitive medical answer. According to official records, Amal is one out of 150 women who have been examined at forensic medical institutions in the capital of Jordan–Amman, as well as in the North and South of the country. Although this practice contravenes the law and medical facts, it continues to be practiced due to the culture’s social norms and traditions: simply because the so-called “signs of virginity” — the bleeding due to the ruptured hymen — did not materialize at the first sexual encounter. The unofficial figures might be higher due to the fact that some newly-wed brides are taken straight to private gynecology clinics, or to midwives. Private records of midwife Huda Al Zagha; who worked from 1941 to 2000, have shown that she examined 30 women throughout her career. All these exams took place with the women’s consent, which was primarily based on the request of the husband, the parents, judicial authorities and/or clan elders.
The standard layout of the medical exam results presented to the party who requested it is as follows “I, Hoda Al Zagha, midwife, hereby testify that I performed the required exam on Miss…. ruling that she is a virgin, so help me God”Amal returns to the crowded waiting room, to find her husband; a mason in his thirties, and his mother waiting anxiously for her daughter-in-law’s pre-marital record to be revealed– merely because she did not bleed after having sexual intercourse for the first time. Amal’s mother sat alone, holding her head down, imploring God to spare her and her family shame and dishonor .
A few seconds later, Amal’s mother raised her head when she heard the voice of the doctor who assured them all that “the hymen has been recently torn”. She wore a big smile.The doctor also informed the husband that “his wife has a hymen with a large aperture, thus she will not bleed as expected after her first sexual intercourse. The bride took the arm of her husband and left the center, heading towards their home in the impoverished town of Zarqa, 25 km South of Amman.
The brunt of ignorance
Despite the scientific and cultural modernization that has changed the face of Jordan since its establishment in 1921, the practice of this custom continues in rural and urban areas alike, despite the fact that it is legally prohibited. According to the Jordanian legislation, the three parties involved in the act of forced Virginity Assessment Tests (the husband, the wife and the doctor performing the exam) should receive punitive punishment. As Sheikh Salim Ali Al Masri; an inspector of Islamic courts at the Department of Justice and member of the advisory committee for the legal guide for marriage notes. However, up to this day, no legal action has been taken against the practice to help its impediment.The Civil Status law permits the performing of a virginity exam in case the wife claims that the husband is impotent, and is not able to reach the hymen. After granting the husband an entire year to do so, the judge “issues an order to refer the wife to a legal midwife in order to check whether coitus happened or not” as Sheikh Al Masri explains. Court records in Jordan show that the number of separation cases due to impotence reached 12 cases between 2002 and 2006, from a total number of 4202 separation cases registered. Between these years, a total of 281981 marriages took place.Father Salem Madanat, a member of the ecclesiastical court of the Greek Orthodox Church, confirmed that there have been a few marriage annulment cases filed as a result of the non-virginity of the wife. He said that out of hundreds of weddings registered, these cases did not exceed two during the last two years. Father Madanat also pointed out that Article 249 of the Byzantine law grants the wife the right to ask for divorce in case of the impotence of the husband, but only after three years of marriage Sheikh Al Masri explains that it is the right of the wife who underwent a virginity test to file a compensation lawsuit in case she feels offended by a husband who doubted her virginity, and made her a victim of many immoral accusations simply because “virginity signs” did not show. The lawsuit, however, does not compensate her for psychological pressure and social duress, all elements that made her undertake the test.Dr. Hani Jahshan, consultant of forensic medicine at the National Institute For Forensic Medicine at the Ministry of Health, said that the wife who reaches eighteen years of age can apply for the test personally while the application for the wife who is still under age is made by the husband.The personal status law in Jordan set the legal age for marriage at 18.
Nevertheless, the judge is able to make exceptions allowing boys and girls who reached fifteen to get married. Yet, the law does not “specify” what these “circumstances” entail.
Furthermore, Sheikh Al Masri explained that according to the legal guide for marriage, which was published in 2006 by the Supreme Judge and the National Council for Family Planning, the definition of a “virgin” does not include the presence/absence of the hymen. Rather, a virgin is defined as “the girl” who has not been previously married.He also confirmed that the absence of the hymen does not give enough reason for the husband to apply for a marriage annulment unless it has been previously determined in the marriage contract that the wife has to be a virgin. In case the husband finds out that she is not a virgin, then he has to file for marriage annulment in the presence of the judge, who in turn refers the wife to a midwife in order to have a medical opinion.Two out of eight brides interviewed for this report said that they preferred to go through a divorce than to continue their lives in a conjugal home lacking trust due to a husband who insists his wife take a virginity test. Although the doctors confirmed that the standards of virginity applied to all of them, the remaining five brides chose to stay with their husbands, despite their unhappiness, simply to avoid facing the cruel comments of society.
Hayat is one out of 24 women who visited the National Institute For Forensic Medicine in the Northern region last year. According to its director Dr. Ali Shoter, two such cases appear per month. The region encompasses the city of Irbid, home to one million individuals, and the second most populated city after the capital Amman.
Shoter explained that it takes several hours of testing to prove the virginity of the female, and the intactness of the hymen. Doctors have to examine the signs of injury in the genital area such as bleeding, rupture of the hymen, bruises, or the presence of sperm.
In case the examination is delayed for several days or weeks, then it will be difficult to prove the date of the loss of virginity.
Hayat’s face exhibits mixed expressions: feelings of happiness mixed with tears of sorrow, as she tries to catch her breath after her dreams were shattered on her wedding night. She could not give her husband an answer as he continued to hit her whilst asking “Who took away your virginity?”
Tears drowned the face of this college bride until the next morning, when she went to the National Center for Forensic Medicine in Irbid, 80 km north of Amman. She was the first girl to undergo the “virginity test” at this center, and the examination revealed that she still was a virgin.
Hayat thought that her problem was solved, unaware that her husband will not settle for the results of the governmental center. He was looking again for answers regarding Hayat’s virginity, and the reason why Hayat did not bleed as a “sign of virginity”.
So he struck her again. The couple then resorted to a private doctor who assured them that the hymen is “still intact”. The groom remained furious until the doctor explained the scientific facts concerning the “elastic” hymen, a type of hymen which is not ruptured during sexual intercourse.
Despite Hayat’s resentment of the incident at the “first night” she decided to hold onto him for fear that society will judge her as her colleagues at work will do.
The director of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine in the southern region; Dr. Aouad Tarawneh, confirmed that the number of women who undergo the test do not exceed one case per week, reaching an utmost of 50 cases per year.
“Samah” sat in her modest home across the center, recalling what happened 19 years ago, on the night of her wedding. Her mother was determined to spend the night at her daughter’s conjugal home, along with the mother-in-law, to make sure that the “signs of virginity” were there, displayed on a white cloth. The next morning, the mother left, bringing the good news to her anxious father.
“Samah” considers that what she underwent on the first night of her wedding is a social custom well-known amongst many families in the south, thus making it easier for her to recount her story. The different types of hymens
“The examination of the hymen does not prove the virginity of a woman, as it is wrongfully assumed”, said Dr. Jahshan. However, it does indeed “show that she hasn’t had sexual intercourse before”. Dr. Jahshan explains that there are different types of hymens which allow for sexual intercourse without its rupture.
Gynecologists also affirmed that there are different types of hymens. A global study published by Lancet; the world’s leading journal of medicine, reports that 16% of married women do not lose their hymen until they give birth.
Dr. Tarawneh further explained that the hymen might face atrophy, either due to genetical reasons, to disease or to a fall, or simply because of friction against a “blunt” or “sharp” object causing trauma on the genital area. This latter point especially occurs in young girls who ride on swinging seats, play games or ride bicycles.
The center confirmed that a girl, 6, was admitted to undergo the virginity test, after she fell on a steel construction pole, which caused major injuries in the genital area, thus rupturing her hymen. Hence, a hymenoplasty was performed to repair the injury.
Dr. Tarawneh notes that another virginity test was performed on a college student who faced a sharp trauma on her genital area due to a car accident. In both cases, medical reports confirming their medical condition and their virginity were issued.
A study was conducted by the National Institute For Forensic Medicine on 211 intact hymens over a period of three years to showing the biological variety in the anatomy of the hymen. Of them, 122 hymens were termed as having large apertures, permitting sexual intercourse without hymen rupture, making it difficult to confirm whether sexual intercourse happened or not.
Sheikh Al Masri urged all responsible parties to stop the “virginity test” unless a court order is issued, or a judge orders a referral to a forensic doctor, because of the” emotional and social distress” they inflict on the subject.
“No wife has filed a lawsuit for compensation for the psychological damage that is caused by forcing her to undergo the virginity test, therefore, the department cannot issue an order calling for the end of such tests”.
Psychiatrist Jamal Al Khatib confirmed that undergoing the virginity test causes some unexpected rupture in marital ties because the wife gets the feeling that her honor was questioned.
“The bride is not able to overcome or easily accept this, and the deterioration might carry on for a long period of time, during which trust is lost between the couple and the husband starts to doubt her due to his lack of sexual education and knowledge.”
Amal, Hayat, and Samah are examples of women who were forced to undergo the virginity test because they feared outdated social traditions. The question on their mind remains: who will end their suffering and the suffering of other girls in the future, by banning the virginity test? unless used in extreme cases which are considered to be legally documented by law and medical charters or those involving sexual assault.