Mass Marriages and Virginity Testing in India

Deepali Gaur Singh

For most communities in traditional communities in India, a bride is expected to be a virgin and concepts of honor and dignity run deep. Now the government is accused of promoting virginity testing at mass weddings.

Mass marriages in India have been used by
communities to help parents with inadequate resources to manage the colossal expenses
demanded by cultural norms incurred in hosting a wedding, especially since the
bride’s parents are the ones who bear the costs of the ceremony. Added to this
is the omnipresence of the social custom of dowry,
paid by the bride’s parents pay for the alliance to the groom’s family. Hence,
social organizations have over the years engaged in this practice of community
marriages where young couples solemnize their wedding at communal functions which
not only reduce the cost of the wedding but often are also free.

The success of such events has meant that
state governments and political groups have also joined the fray. As a
consequence mass marriages in recent years have constantly courted controversy
like instances of minor girls being married off at such functions. The latest
in a series of such controversies was generated at a mass wedding in the central
Indian state of Madhya Pradesh where hundreds of would-be brides reportedly underwent
virginity tests
, tests they were informed of only when they reached
the venue. Many were apparently bullied into the ‘medical examination’ as they
were told that their refusal would mean that they would be denied their wedding
gifts worth 6,500 rupees (approximately $132) and even the wedding ceremony. Under
the state-run scheme marriages are solemnized free of cost, all arrangements are
made by the district administration and every couple is also provided
assistance in the form of household articles. Each woman underwent an extensive
physical examination before being given a special badge which allowed them to
participate in the ceremony. Almost all of the prospective brides who were from
poor, tribal families complained of the shame and humiliation they felt
following the exercise.

This scheme, started by the state
government in 2006, was to aid girls from poor families to get married on the
government expense. The denials and explanations have come fast from the local
administration.  While some
officials refute that the virginity tests took place there were others who said
the tests were conducted to ensure that “…the women were not pregnant.”  Still others said many of the would-be
brides did not have ‘proper documents’ and looked “dubious” which led to the necessity
for a doctor’s examination of the candidates.  What really prompted this controversial measure is believed
to be the earlier incident of a woman going into labor pains during the course
of the wedding ceremony sending shock waves throughout her community.

For most communities in the traditional
Indian context the bride’s virginity is expected. With concepts of honor and
dignity deeply woven into women’s role in society and closely tied to her
sexuality, pre-marital sex is frowned upon and a young woman’s virginity is highly
prized. Juxtaposed against this are powerful concepts of male virility and
masculinity which sends confusing signals to young boys and girls especially in
rural areas with fewer avenues for information on sexuality.

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Still other accusations
surfaced following the controversy with allegations that ‘fake marriages’ were
being held since “middlemen produce recently married couples as unmarried” and earn
their ‘cut’ or commission from the government’s financial assistance to the
couples. It is believed that these allegations prompted the local authorities to
order the virginity and pregnancy tests in their desperate attempts to weed out
already-married brides kicking up a storm in the bargain. Of the virginity
and pregnancy tests
ordered on the 152 prospective brides, 14 were pregnant
while one girl turned out to be a minor. In the process violating the privacy
of every young woman waiting to be married. Thus the ‘virginity test’ which for
centuries has been traditionally conducted in the groom’s household to test the
chastity of the new bride was converted into a state-sponsored circus.

The National Human Rights Commission
(NHRC) issued a notice to the state government even as the national woman
rights watchdog, the National Commission for Women (NCW) launched an
investigation. On its part, state government insists the ‘procedural medical
examinations’ aimed to keep the event free from any fraudulent entries. Even as the incident shows
signs of taking on political colors as two tribal girls, who had alleged that a
virginity test was conducted on them ahead of the mass marriage function later retracted
their statement the truth is that
the state machinery violated the
human rights and dignity of the women present.

Is the concerned state
department then perpetuating the notion that only virgins should be married and
those non-conforming to this primary requirement can be denied the courtesy of
mass wedding? And yet the scheme claims to be applicable to poor unmarried,
widowed, divorced or abandoned women who have found a prospective spouse. How
does that explain a virginity test? While a bride’s virginity is a contentious
issue in traditional Indian context, activists working amongst the tribal
communities claim that many such tribal communities actually have a culture of
boys and girls living together before they decide to marry.

A study titled ‘Youth
in India, Situation and Needs
’, conducted across six states
representing
different geographical and socio-cultural parts
of the country carried out by the International Institute for
Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai and the Population Council, New Delhi
comments on the incidence of premarital sex amongst the youth. According to the
survey, around 19 percent of rural and 10 percent of urban male youth indulge
in pre-marital sex. And young men from certain tribal regions showed a higher
incidence than the national average. Eight percent of young rural women indulge
in pre-marital sex as compared to two percent urban female youth.

 

Could then also be a case of the state
administration’s own disconnect with local cultural practices; or the actions
of an insensate grassroots bureaucracy who, in its attempts to nab ‘fraudsters,’
infringed upon both tribal and women’s rights. With the government’s financial
aid for such families hinged on the chastity of the girl, this humiliation was
the price the poor women paid for government largesse.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Selects Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to Join His Ticket

Ally Boguhn

And in other news, Donald Trump suggested that he can relate to Black people who are discriminated against because the system has been rigged against him, too. But he stopped short of saying he understood the experiences of Black Americans.

Donald Trump announced this week that he had selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) to join him as his vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, and earlier in the week, the presumptive presidential nominee suggested to Fox News that he could relate to Black Americans because the “system is rigged” against him too.

Pence Selected to Join the GOP Ticket 

After weeks of speculation over who the presumptive nominee would chose as his vice presidential candidate, Trump announced Friday that he had chosen Pence.

“I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate,” Trump tweeted Friday morning, adding that he will make the official announcement on Saturday during a news conference.

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The presumptive Republican nominee was originally slated to host the news conference Friday, but postponed in response to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Nice, France. As late as Thursday evening, Trump told Fox News that he had not made a final decision on who would join his ticket—even as news reports came in that he had already selected Pence for the position.

As Rewire Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson explained in a Thursday commentary, Pence “has problems with the truth, isn’t inclined to rely on facts, has little to no concern for the health and welfare of the poorest, doesn’t understand health care, and bases his decisions on discriminatory beliefs.” Jacobson further explained: 

He has, for example, eagerly signed laws aimed at criminalizing abortion, forcing women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds, banning coverage for abortion care in private insurance plans, and forcing doctors performing abortions to seek admitting privileges at hospitals (a requirement the Supreme Court recently struck down as medically unnecessary in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case). He signed a ‘religious freedom’ law that would have legalized discrimination against LGBTQ persons and only ‘amended’ it after a national outcry. Because Pence has guided public health policy based on his ‘conservative values,’ rather than on evidence and best practices in public health, he presided over one of the fastest growing outbreaks of HIV infection in rural areas in the United States.

Trump Suggests He Can Relate to Black Americans Because “Even Against Me the System Is Rigged”

Trump suggested to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he could relate to the discrimination Black Americans face since “the system [was] rigged” against him when he began his run for president.

When asked during a Tuesday appearance on The O’Reilly Factor what he would say to those “who believe that the system is biased against them” because they are Black, Trump leaped to highlight what he deemed to be discrimination he had faced. “I have been saying even against me the system is rigged. When I ran … for president, I mean, I could see what was going on with the system, and the system is rigged,” Trump responded.

“What I’m saying [is] they are not necessarily wrong,” Trump went on. “I mean, there are certain people where unfortunately that comes into play,” he said, concluding that he could “relate it, really, very much to myself.”

When O’Reilly asked Trump to specify whether he truly understood the “experience” of Black Americans, Trump said that he couldn’t, necessarily. 

“I would like to say yes, but you really can’t unless you are African American,” said Trump. “I would like to say yes, however.”

Trump has consistently struggled to connect with Black voters during his 2016 presidential run. Despite claiming to have “a great relationship with the blacks,” the presumptive Republican nominee has come under intense scrutiny for using inflammatory rhetoric and initially failing to condemn white supremacists who offered him their support.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Tuesday, Trump is polling at 0 percent among Black voters in the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

What Else We’re Reading

Newt Gingrich, who was one of Trump’s finalists for the vice presidential spot, reacted to the terrorist attack in Nice, France, by calling for all those in the United States with a “Muslim background” to face a test to determine if they “believe in sharia” and should be deported.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton threw her support behind a public option for health insurance.

Bloomberg Politics’ Greg Stohr reports that election-related cases—including those involving voter-identification requirements and Ohio’s early-voting period—are moving toward the Supreme Court, where they are “risking deadlocks.”

According to a Reuters review of GOP-backed changes to North Carolina’s voting rules, “as many as 29,000 votes might not be counted in this year’s Nov. 8 presidential election if a federal appeals court upholds” a 2013 law that bans voters from casting ballots outside of their assigned precincts.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the election goals and strategies of anti-choice organization Susan B. Anthony List, explaining that the organization plans to work to ensure that policy goals such as a 20-week abortion ban and defunding Planned Parenthood “are the key issues that it will use to rally support for its congressional and White House candidates this fall, following recent setbacks in the courts.”

Multiple “dark money” nonprofits once connected to the Koch brothers’ network were fined by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this week after hiding funding sources for 2010 political ads. They will now be required to “amend past FEC filings to disclose who provided their funding,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum and Ben Weyl explain how Trump’s budget would end up “making the deficit great again.”

“The 2016 Democratic platform has the strongest language on voting rights in the party’s history,” according to the Nation’s Ari Berman.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Some Men Base Condom Use on Women’s Looks

Martha Kempner

This week, a study suggests some men are less likely to have safer sex with women whom they find attractive. There's now a study of women's pubic hair grooming habits, and a lot of couples don't have wedding-night sex.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Men Less Likely to Have Safer Sex If Partner Is ‘Hot’

The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is apparently easily forgotten when it comes to judging potential sex partners. A new study in BMJ Open found that men said they were less likely to use a condom if their potential partner was hot.

In this small study, researchers showed pictures of 20 women to 51 heterosexual men. The men were asked to rank how attractive the woman was, how likely they would be to have sex with her if given the opportunity, and how likely it was they would use a condom if they did have sex with her. The results revealed that the more attractive a man found a woman, the less likely he was to intend to use a condom during sex with her.

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Men also rated how attractive they consider themselves, and the results showed that this was also related to condom use. Men who thought of themselves as more attractive were less likely to intend to use a condom.

Researchers also asked the men to estimate how many out of 100 men like themselves would have sex with each woman given the opportunity and finally, how likely they thought it was that the woman in the picture had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The results of these two questions turned out to be related: The men assumed that women whom other men would want to sleep with were more likely to have STIs.

This did not make the men in the study any more likely to intend to use a condom with those women. In fact, the men were most likely to intend condom use with women they found less attractive, even though they considered these women less likely to have an STI.

This was a small study with a relatively homogenous group of men ages 18 to 69 near Southhampton, England, and it measured intention rather than behavior.

Still, the results could present a challenge for public health experts if men are making condom decisions on a broader scale based on attraction rather than risk assessment.

How and Why Women Groom Their Pubic Hair

A new study published in JAMA Dermatology is the first nationally representative survey of U.S. women’s pubic hair grooming habits. The study included more than 3,300 women ages 18 to 64.

Overall, 84 percent of women had engaged in some pubic hair grooming. Pubic hair grooming was more common among younger women (ages 18 to 24); among white women; and among women who had gone to college.

Before you start thinking everyone is out getting Brazilians, however, grooming means different things to different women. Only 21 percent of women said they took all their pubic hair off more than 11 times, and 38 percent of women say they’ve never done so. Moreover, waxing lags behind the most popular hair removal methods; only 5 percent of women say they wax compared with 61 percent who shave, 18 percent who use scissors, and 12 percent who use electric razors. (Respondents could choose more than one answer in the survey.)

Most women (93) do it themselves, 8 percent have their partners help, and 6.7 percent go to a professional.

The researchers were most interested in the most common reason women groom their pubic hair. The most common reason was hygiene (59 percent), followed by “part of my routine” (46 percent), “makes my vagina look nicer” (32 percent), “partner prefers” (21 percent), and “oral sex is easier” (19 percent).

Tami Rowen, the lead author of the study and a practicing gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times, “Many women think they are dirty or unclean if they aren’t groomed.”

But while people may think that, it’s not true. Pubic hair actually exists to help protect the delicate skin around the genitals. Rowen and other doctors who spoke to the Times believe that women, especially teenagers, are taking up grooming practices in response to external pressures and societal norms as reflected in images of hairless genitals in pornography and other media. They want young people to know the potential risks of grooming and say they’ve seen an increase in grooming-related health issues such as folliculitis, abscesses, cuts, burns, and allergic reactions. As some may remember, This Week in Sex reported a few years ago that emergency-room visits related to pubic hair grooming were way up among both women and men.

This Week in Sex believes that women should be happy with their genitals. Keeping the hair that grows does not make you dirty—in fact, it is there for a reason. But if shaving or waxing makes you happy, that’s fine. Do be careful, however, because the doctors are right: Vulvas are very sensitive and many methods of hair removal are very harsh.

Wedding-Night Sex May Be Delayed, But That’s OK With Most Couples

Summer is a popular wedding season, with couples walking down the aisle, exchanging vows, and then dancing the night away with friends and families. But how many of them actually have sex after the caterer packs up and the guests head home?

According to lingerie company Bluebella—about half. The company surveyed 1,000 couples about their postnuptial sex lives and found that 48 percent of them said they did “it” on their wedding night. Most women in those couples who did not get it on that night said they were just too tired. The men, on the other hand, said they were too drunk or wanted to keep partying with their friends. (It is unclear whether the survey included same-sex couples.)

By the next morning, another 33 percent of couples had consummated their marriage, but about 10 percent said it took 48 hours to get around to it.

But whenever couples did have that post-wedding sex, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) said it lived up to their expectations.

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