One community’s battle over virginity tests in western India

Leelabai, a 55-yearold divorcee, recalls how she was put through the virginity test four decades ago, when she was 12.

Pune (India): In the run-down neighborhood of Bhatnagar in this sleepy Indian city, a small rebellion is underway. The new generation of the close-knit Kanjarbhat community is staging protests at weddings to end the centuries-old practice of virginity tests.

The tests typically happen like this: The bride and groom consummate their marriage on a white cloth. The virgin bride proves her “purity” by staining the cloth with blood from her broken hymen. The following day, a council of community elders publicly asks the groom, “Were the goods pure?” The goods refer to the bride.

Virginity tests are rare in modern India and happen only in small pockets, such as among the Kanjarbhat, a once-ostracized gypsy tribe. But the predominantly Hindu country is seeing waves of change brought about by a new generation that has benefited from policies ensuring that members of India’s lower castes, long disadvantaged in the hierarchical social system, receive an education and employment opportunities. And the youth have focused much of their attention on women’s rights, pitting them against community elders who want to uphold ancestral traditions and value systems.

Leelabai, a 55-year-old divorce who goes by only one name, recalls how she was put through the test four decades ago, when she was 12. “At the time, I was young,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

For many years, Leelabai hid her anger over the test, and even allowed it to be performed on her daughter. Now, she and a group of widows and divorces in the Kanjarbhat community are denouncing the ritual, triggering a violent backlash from those who want to preserve the practice.

A rift in the community began after Vivek Tamaichikar started a WhatsApp group of Kanjarbhat youth who want to end virginity tests. Tamaichikar, who hopes to marry his fiancee later this year, said he won’t allow his family to put her through the test, which he thinks is misogynistic and cruel. Members of the community have threatened to alienate the couple if he doesn’t follow tradition, he said.

A number of Kanjarbhat – both men and women – said that Tamaichikar’s campaign has put an unwanted spotlight on the community’s rituals. Some described how Kanjarbhat girls at colleges were taunted by their peers who waved white handkerchiefs with red ink stains as they walked past. Others said marriage offers from other Kanjarbhat communities who live outside the state had diminished.

Women who spoke about going through virginity tests said members of the community lied to outsiders about the existence of the ritual.

“They’re all liars,” said Leelabai, the divorce who has been through the test.

Community members are afraid to speak against the village council of community elders, or panchayat, Tamichikar added. Those who do face boycotts and intimidation.

Stigmatized for decades by police and government after being classified as a “criminal tribe” under India’s colonial rule in 1871, the Kanjarbhats prefer to keep the authorities out of their affairs. Legal disputes within the community, from marriages to murders, are presided over by the panchayat.

Despite having access to benefits through India’s affirmative action policies from the 1960s onward, poverty remains rampant in Bhatnagar. Kanjarbhat millennials are the first generation to have widespread access to higher education and Western media.

The resulting differences in education levels have cleaved the community in two. Those against virginity tests are “defaming” the Kanjarbhat people, community members said.

“Why are they doing all this in front of the media?” said Jitendra Karalekar, a Kanjarbhat man who denied that virginity tests happen. “If they want to do all this, they should do it behind a curtain. We want people in Washington and everywhere to think of us highly.”

Tamaichikar is not the first in his community to speak out; he is carrying on a battle that his uncle and aunt started in 1996. Krishna and Aruna Indrekar married after a 10-year romance and refused to go through the virginity test, the pair recounted, which distanced them from the community.

Krishna, who got a university education and later a government job, was snubbed by members of his family and community who thought his years at college made him believe that he was superior to them. When he announced that he would marry Aruna in court rather than following the panchayat’s orders, he faced threats. “You’ve read three or four books and now you think you can overturn centuries of traditions?” he recalled community members saying.

Krishna’s stepbrother, Irani, who sits on the panchayat, said he thought his brother’s refusal to follow tradition was arrogant. “He’s very self-righteous. He won’t listen to us. The test that you’re talking about, it will never stop. It has been going on for years and it will go on for years.”

Irani said that turning the community’s virginity rituals into a cause was disingenuous. “If he really wants to help our community, why not do something for the widows who have no one to turn to? Why not help the unemployed youth?”

The women in the community are divided. Young, married women were unwilling to speak on the record out of fear of reprisals from the community.

Sapna Rawalkar, a community doctor, said that there is a practice of elders asking about the woman’s purity, but the term “virginity test” is a misinterpretation of their traditions, which she said protect women. Asking the husband to testify to his wife’s virginity publicly, for instance, is a practice that protects the bride from future allegations against her character. “They’ve taken this and exaggerated it and colored it in their own way,” she said.

But Priyanka Tamaichikar, Vivek’s cousin, said she thinks the protests signal the beginning of change.

“I thought I was the only girl in my community who thought the tests were wrong,” she said. “I’ve seen a bride being beaten. I’ve seen women going into the room to look at the stained cloth. All my life I’ve thought, one day, I’ll get up and show them they’re wrong. One day, I’ll do something.”

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