A movement to stop newly-wed brides from a nomadic tribal community having to take a virginity test has begun in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, and campaigners are determined to put an end to the “humiliating” practice, reports BBC Marathi’s Prajakta Dhulap.
Anita*, 22, says the ordeal of her wedding two years ago still reduces her to tears every time she thinks about it.
Like the other women in the Kanjarbhat community – made up of around 200,000 people and mostly found in Maharashtra – Anita was forced to undergo a “virginity test” on her wedding night in order to ascertain whether or not she was “virtuous”.
The test is seen as an integral part of any wedding conducted within the community and is enforced by the highly influential panchayat (local village council).
The couple are given a white sheet and taken to a hotel room rented by the village council or one of the families. They are expected to consummate the marriage while the two families and council members wait outside. If the bride bleeds during intercourse she is seen as a virgin, and if she does not, the consequences can be severe.
Grooms are allowed to annul their marriages if their wives have not “proven” their purity, and the women in question are publicly humiliated and even beaten by family members because of the “shame” they have caused.
This continues despite many experts having debunked the theory that a woman always bleeds the first time she has intercourse.
“There can be many reasons a woman will not bleed the first time she has sex,” Dr Sonia Naik, a Delhi-based gynaecologist, told the BBC.
“If the woman in question has done a lot of sports or has masturbated there is a chance she will not bleed. Also a gentle partner can help prevent bleeding even if it is the first time the woman is having penetrative sex.”
In Anita’s case, she always knew that the virginity test would be a sham, as she already had a sexual relationship with her husband before their marriage. But she said she was not prepared for what happened next.
“I thought my husband would stand up for me in front of the village council, but when they asked if I was ‘pure or impure’, he pointed to the unstained sheet and called me a fake,” she said.
“I was stunned. I had been in an intimate relationship with him for six months on his insistence.
“The village council pronounced me ‘impure’ and went away and I was left alone. I just could not stop crying.”
Anita’s husband, who had initially wanted the marriage annulled because she had “failed” the test, was forced to continue with the marriage after some social workers who had heard about the incident got the police involved.
But she claims that he made her life a living hell, beating her regularly and humiliating her.
Matters were made worse because the village council had banned the “fake” couple from attending any community events. “Things did not improve even after I got pregnant. My husband kept asking me repeatedly: ‘Whose child is this?’ The council members still ask him that as well,” Anita said.
Two months ago she was thrown out of her marital home along with her newborn son and is living again with her parents. But she says the stigma of failing the virginity test has impacted her whole family, with her sisters unable to find husbands because of it.
Vivek Tamaichekar, 25, started the campaign among youth in his community to reject the virginity test. He insists that the “regressive” practice must end.
“It’s a complete violation of a couple’s right to privacy and the way it is done is very crude and traumatising. They are forced to consummate the marriage with many people sitting outside the room, and the groom is often given alcohol and shown pornography in order to ‘educate’ him,” he says.
“The next day he is called for a ceremony and is asked in very derogatory terms to answer if his bride was pure or impure.”
When he was 12, Mr Tamaichekar attended a wedding where suddenly people began attacking the bride with their shoes and slippers. “I didn’t understand then what was going on,” he says. “It was only when I was much older I realised what had happened.”
Due to get married later this year, Mr Tamaichekar and his fiancée have already informed the panchayat in the city of Pune, where they live, that they will not undergo the test. But he also wants other youth from his community to take a similar stand and break what he calls the “conspiracy of silence”.
He has started a WhatsApp group called “stop the V ritual” which has around 60 members, of which roughly half are women. Together, they try and convince other people in the community to put a stop to the practice.
But this stand has come at a heavy social price.
Some members of his group were attacked by irate wedding guests when they attended a community wedding in Pune. The panchayat has already warned that families of the group’s members will be subject to a “social boycott” unless the group is disbanded and they apologise for trying to “defame” the Kanjarbhat community.
But Mr Tamaichekar is determined to continue with his campaign. The attack on his group received wide coverage in Indian media, and as a result, the virginity test itself has become a topic of discussion in the country.
He now hopes that the spotlight on the issue will help put an end to it once and for all.