UK Shamed By 1970s Immigrant Virginity TestMay 10, 2011 No Comments
Wikileaks isn’t the only one to reveal the dirty secrets of the planet’s governments. Two Australian academics, Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, uncovered documents from the National Archives in London that suggest that at least 80 South Asian women were subjected to “virginity tests” upon their entrance to Heathrow Airport and at Home Office bureaus overseas in the 1970′s.
Yes, you read that correctly, virginity tests. Confidential Home Office files revealed that many of the women who were leaving countries such as India or Pakistan for the United Kingdom to get married underwent gynecological exams in order to “check their marital status.”
That this practice once existed is not unknown; but until now it had only been confirmed on three instances. Back in 1979, The Guardian reported on one of these events after a 35 year-old Indian teacher was asked to undergo a virginity test upon her arrival at London’s Heathrow airport on January 24th, 1979. She was coming in to marry a British citizen of Indian descent but because of her age and because she was traveling with her fiance, immigrations officers suspected she might already be married. So out of fear that she might be sent back to India, she signed a consent form for a “gynaecological examination, that may be vaginal if necessary.”
Except her account of the event shows the doctor ignored that “if necessary” clause of the agreement. He reportedly told her that he could see whether she had previously been pregnant by simply looking at her but that “there was no need to get shy.” The examination logs show that he conducted a vaginal exam by penetrating her by half an inch to conclude that her hymen was intact. They also show that she went through an X-ray for which she was bare chested.
“I have been feeling very bad mentally ever since. I was very embarrassed and upset,” she told The Guardian at the time. She had never been through a gynecological exam and had asked for a female doctor but was denied.
What was the logic behind such a practice? Belinda Luscombe, of the TIME.com blog Healthland, explains it best:
- The British Home Office [...] 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.
This has got to be one of the most vile ways to restrict immigration. I understand there may be a need to limit the number of foreigners entering a country but this practice stinks of the worst kinds of racism and sexism. What is the point of having such a distrustful attitude toward immigrants? Especially from a country whose history is intricately linked with yours?
At the time, immigration laws stated that a women coming into Britain to marry did not need a UK visa if her wedding was scheduled within the next three months. If Britain really wanted to close up its borders, it should have looked toward rethinking the policies that allowed new residents in without visas. Innocent people shouldn’t have had to pay for a loophole the British government created itself.
And even if some of these women intended to enter the UK using a false pretense, it does not automatically mean they were not going to become valuable and productive residents of the country. This policy used the women’s fear of being sent back to submit them to a useless exam, which Indian newspapers said was “tantamount to rape.”
No real apology was ever given to the women who had to go through this ordeal, even though it unrightfully suggested women, but also South Asians in general, were not people to be trusted. After the incident of 1979 became public, the British Home Office and Britain’s Labour prime minister at the time, James Callaghan even initially denied the events, but without forgetting to offer £500 to the subject of the Guardian article so she would not sue.
A UK Border Agency spokesman recently told The Guardian that “These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong” and current immigration laws respect immigrants’ human rights. But rejecting to admit any kind of blame because of the time that has passed is denying that these women were ever affected by the procedure and ignoring that this kind of policy set up the current frame of lingering sexist and racist feelings. Someone up there needs to swallow their pride and apologize now.
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