Ministers in the British Home Office are facing calls to apologize to at least 80 Asian immigrant women who were subjected to “virginity tests” as they sought to enter the UK in the 1970s. Australian researchers Marinella Marmo and Evan Smith of Flinders University law school, Adelaide, reviewed files from the National Archives in London that revealed that the practice was not, as British officials first claimed, infrequent, but “far more widespread, especially at British high commission offices in India and Pakistan.” The British government had previously claimed that only two women had had to undergo the tests.
The Guardian has also seen the files from the Natonal Archives. The practice was banned in 1979 after the Guardian “exclusively reported” about a 35-year-old Indian woman teacher who was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow airport. More details about what the Indian government and others has ruled a “humiliating and obscene” practice:
The Home Office initially denied that any internal examination had taken place. The woman told the Guardian’s then social services correspondent, Melanie Phillips, that she only signed a form consenting to a “gynaecological examination, that may be vaginal if necessary” because she was frightened she would otherwise be sent back to India.
“A man doctor came in. I asked to be seen by a lady doctor but they said ‘no’,” she told Phillips. “He was wearing rubber gloves and took some medicine out of a tube and put it on some cotton and inserted it into me. He said he was deciding whether I was pregnant now or had been pregnant before. I said that he could see that without doing anything to me, but he said there was no need to get shy.
“I have been feeling very bad mentally ever since. I was very embarrassed and upset. I had never had a gynaecological examination before.”
The recently released Home Office files report the doctor’s version of the examination: “Penetration of about half an inch made it apparent that she had an intact hymen and no other internal examination was made … The only time she was bare chested was for the X-ray examination… The doctor told the immigration officer verbally that the lady had not had children and she was then given conditional leave to enter for three months as a fiancee.” But the file also reveals that after the incident became public the Home Office offered the woman £500 to ensure she did not sue. The payment, offered through her solicitors, was to be “in recognition of the distress she had been caused” but she also had to agree “not to initiate any proceedings against the Home Office”.
It was stressed that the payment was not “compensation”, which would have implied that immigration staff had acted improperly, and the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, while expressing his “deep regret” carefully, did not make an official apology to her.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which was involved in the original 1979 case, supports the demand for an apology to the women subjected to the tests. Said the Council’s legal director, Hina Majid:
This represents yet another shameful chapter in the ignominious history of British immigration control.
“It is deeply regrettable that no apology has ever been rendered to those women who underwent this degrading and discriminatory practice.
“Whilst this is a practice of the past, it is demonstrative of a wider, and indeed ongoing tendency to sideline women in immigration policy making. Whilst in 2011 we may no longer be virginity testing South Asian brides, the sad reality is that many migrant women continue to be denied equal treatment, and the full enjoyment of their human rights,” she said.
The virginity tests were indeed a gross infringement, and violation of, the women’s human rights. An apology barely seems like enough, but it is a small start.