The member of Parliament who proposed the changes to the law, Richard Holden, spoke of being “unmasked” after a radio story nearly two years ago made him aware of two intertwined practices. This strictness mainly affects immigrant women within the United Kingdom.
“I can’t believe it’s still happening or that no one is taking it out,” Holden told CNN. “I knew I had to campaign to change the law.”
A government spokesman told CNN that the amendments are evidence of a commitment to “protect all women and debunk popular myths surrounding women’s virginity and sexuality.”
Although the proposed changes have been welcomed, Britain has a history of virginity checks. In the 1970s, immigration officers failed to protect all women when the state conducted virginity tests on the same demographic they are now trying to protect.
The UK Home Office has experimented with women as a means of immigration control and for this, a formal apology has never been issued.
Balraj Purewal, director of the Indian Workers’ Association in the UK, recalls the day he learned of the violations taking place at the UK border.
It was January 24, 1979, and a confused-looking young Indian went to the office of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) to seek help. The man told Purewal he couldn’t figure out why his fiancée, who had just landed in London, was bleeding and appeared traumatized.
He explained to the young SYM activist that while he was waiting for his partner at Heathrow airport, medical and immigration officers sent her away for a “clearance interview”. When she finally walked out of the room, the 35-year-old Indian teacher didn’t speak. “Something definitely happened to her in the immigration room,” Purewal recalls when told.
It will take both men a few days to learn that she has undergone a so-called two-finger virginity test at the UK’s largest airport.
Archives from the Interior Department, seen by CNN, show immigration officials suspect the woman of lying about her age and marital status, and have sought permission from a doctor to conduct an internal examination. the set.
After the story became public, the department responsible for immigration, security, law and order, the Home Office, offered the young woman £500 amid news that her partner she planned to file a complaint against the Ministry of the Interior.
“We found that gynecological as well as other physical examinations were conducted on South Asian women at the British High Commission in India, Pakistan. [and] Bangladesh, as well as Heathrow,” Smith told CNN.
He adds that a 1980 document from the Office of the Commonwealth and Foreign Affairs estimated that “between 120 and 140 South Asian women underwent physical examination for immigration purposes in the decade up to 1979.” .” Of these, 73 were in Delhi, 10 were in Bombay and 40-60 were in Dacca – now Dhaka. The number of cases in Islamabad and Karachi is still unknown.
In March 1977, two years before the teacher’s case came to light, a journalist, Amrit Wilson, received a text message from a friend about a 16-year-old Pakistani national who had been detained in Heathrow.
Wilson, who is now a writer and activist on race and gender issues in the UK, said the girl had “come to Heathrow in full bridal attire, anticipating a wedding with her fiancé “. Instead, the teenager was held at Harmondsworth Detention Center for a week.
In Harmondsworth, the young woman described to reporters that she had undergone a forced “sexual test” to prove she was younger than she claimed.
In her 1978 book, Finding Voices: Asian Women in the UK, Wilson says the girl told her there were two men, one of them white, the other of them speaking Urdu and probably coming. from Pakistan. The examiner alleged that she was under 16 years old and as a result she was deported to Pakistan.
Wilson recounts other painful stories. Take the case of a heavily pregnant 18-year-old from Mumbai who came to the UK under an arranged marriage. The pair were separated at Heathrow and the woman was taken to Harmondsworth, where Wilson said she went into labor while being physically examined by a doctor and nurse. The delay to the hospital resulted in the death of the young mother. The loss of the child – and the trauma it causes – are both a direct result of gender abuse in immigration detention in the UK, explains Wilson.
‘A form of state rape’
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is one of a number of British organizations that has previously backed calls for a formal apology from the state. Its chief executive, Satbir Singh, said the conclusions drawn from the tests showed that UK Home Office officials had made “all kinds of assumptions about South Asian culture.”
Rahila Gupta, Interim Director of Southall Black Sisters, one of the groups campaigning against virginity checks at Heathrow Airport, said the immigration policy “is an insidious ploy using patriarchal values”. of the Asian communities against them”. “I would say that it is a form of state rape, an invasion of women’s privacy of the most appalling kind.”
Glimpse of a memorable history aside
In late January 1979, men and women, from the UK’s South Asian communities and beyond, protested at Heathrow Airport and on the streets of central London.
A wave of discontent has also swept through India following reports of the activity, leading to several protests in New Delhi. Indian author and activist Urvashi Butalia, then in her 20s, recalls civic actions vividly. “My mother Subhadra Butalia, along with feminist group Stree Sangarsh and lawyer Chandramani Chopra, who were at the forefront of the protests. We all landed in front of the British Commission in New Delhi and chanted slogans. My mother and one Others even jumped up the doors to enter the High Commission to file a memorandum seeking to cease this operation.”
Enduring increased scrutiny and condemnation, the Interior Department released a statement seen by CNN, February 2, 1979. In it, the department acknowledged the use of virginity testing and confirmed that the Home Secretary has now stopped the inspection.
The practice has stopped but the anger remains, fueled by a lack of accountability.
Singh of the General Council on Immigrant Welfare said the Home Office “never admitted guilt”. “They never admitted that they did something wrong.”
The Home Office did not acknowledge CNN’s request for comment on the use of virginity testing on UK borders in the 1960s and 70s, nor did it respond when asked if it would ever be released. Formal apology to everyone who had to carry out this procedure or not.
Nearly 43 years on from protests in the UK and India, Holden, the MP who proposed legislation to criminalize virginity testing and hysterectomy, is keen to acknowledge the positive actions of the state. water, then and now. “We stopped doing that as a government decades ago, but now we are ending those practices more widely in society,” he said.
But Rahila Gupta speaks of the “hypocrisy of the British state,” plans to protect today’s vulnerable women and sweeps “its not-so-smooth history aside.”
Additional reporting by Ladan Anoushfar. Edited by Meera Senthilingam