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Can we finally end the ‘two finger test’?

The ‘two finger test’ (TFT), also known as the ‘virginity test’, is one of many distressing travails a woman rape survivor experiences in Pakistan after an already traumatic ordeal.

Once a rape or sexual assault case has been registered, police take the survivor for a medical examination, during which the majority of medico-legal officers (MLO) perform the TFT as a routine — and usually without the person’s consent. TFT comprises a vaginal examination where the MLO inserts two fingers in the victims’ vagina to determine if intercourse has occurred by assessing the size of the vaginal opening or the hymen tear.

This humiliating and inhumane ‘test’ is said to be rooted in our society’s misogynistic and patriarchal mindset, wherein it is held that if a woman was sexually active before the incident of rape, she is probably lying and her ‘character’ is thus questioned. Moreover, in some instances, prospective in-laws of a woman also ask the bride’s family to prove the girl’s virginity by undertaking the test.

Scientific and medical findings state TFT as medically unreliable and humiliating for women, especially for survivors of an already-harrowing event.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “There is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex – and the appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether she had sexual intercourse, or is sexually active. Apart from the violation of human rights, the [TFT] test could cause additional pain and mimic the original act of sexual violence, leading to re-experience, re-traumatisation and re-victimisation.”

In October 2018, various bodies of the United Nations, and the WHO, said in a joint report that virginity testing was a long-standing tradition documented in at least 20 countries, including Pakistan. “Women and girls are subjected, and often forced, to undergo virginity testing for various reasons. These include requests from parents or potential partners to establish marriage suitability, or from employers for employment eligibility,” the report stated, while calling for the elimination of the practice.

Court case

In March 2020, a group of human rights activists, journalists and civil society members filed a petition in the Lahore High Court seeking a ban on TFT.

Challenging the intrusive and demeaning practice, the petition states that medico-legal teams use TFT to determine if a woman was sexually active or is ‘habitual to sex’, thus leaving no chance of a rape finding and bringing her character into question. Moreover, such findings are given even if there are marks of violence on the body or the vaginal area. The petition also pleads that phrases like “habituated to sex”, ‘being of “easy virtue” or “loose morals”’ should be dropped as part of medical reports and MLOs should be barred from inquiring into the victim’s sexual history.

As the case was heard on September 12, the Punjab government agreed there is no statutory basis for such practices. The hearing was then adjourned and the respondents, including the provincial health department and medico-legal surgeon, were directed to submit their replies.

Talking to Sabaat, Sahar Bandial, the lead counsel on a similar petition filed before the court and now clubbed with the earlier one, said that despite welcome changes in the conducting of rape trials in 2016 by the Supreme Court, medico-legal reports are still mentioning TFT which is why they have approached the high court to put an end to this practice.

Regarding the proposed form of medical examination after rape, she said they have suggested the use of speculum — a metal instrument used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection —, which is the standard gynaecological procedure, instead of TFT. Bandial also pointed out an acute shortage of female MLOs in the country which leads to such practices.

Psychological trauma

Mirat Gul, a senior clinical psychologist, asserted that TFT is the worst kind of trauma a rape victim can be put through and also weakens the case.

“This is a practice from colonial times, wherein due to our deep-rooted patriarchal mindset, it challenged the virginity of women to protect men. The aim is to prevent an FIR being lodged, and doctors become party to it,” claimed Sidra Humayoun, a rights activist who has worked with rape survivors.

“If two fingers penetrate an unmarried or married woman, it is enough to prove she is habitual [in sex] and thus loses ground to even file a case.” Highlighting the lack of training of doctors in this regard, Humayoun asserted that medical students avoid classes that deal with reproductive organs and sex due to cultural barriers which results in them having partial knowledge about these issues. Moreover, she added, “the syllabus also needs to be updated along with compulsory classes on the subject for students of all genders.” Talking about the notoriously slow investigation and trial processes, she said, “the judicial system should be more efficient and speedy trials need to take place, along with training of medico-legal teams on examining victims and proper use of rape kits.”

Reasserting the trauma related to TFT, Dr Asha Bedar, a clinical psychologist, said, “Women feel violated and unsafe by the system meant to protect them. Usually, the victim’s consent is not taken or is done superficially; if the woman is unaware of her rights she takes it as part of the procedure and agrees.”

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