Activists say the Kanjarbhat community's centuries-old ‘virginity test' violates women's fundamental right to privacy and dignity. Photo: Pexel
Young members of an Indian tribe are fighting to end the 400-year-old practice
A conflict is brewing within the Kanjarbhat community, one of the tribes in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where young members are challenging the centuries-old tradition of "testing" the virginity of brides on their wedding night.
The practice, said to be 400 years old, determines whether the bride is a virgin or not by looking for bloodstains on a white bedsheet that the newly-wed couple is instructed to use for intercourse on their wedding night. If the bride is determined not to be a virgin as a result of this "test", her family faces being heavily fined or even ostracized from the community.
A group of Kanjarbhati youths who have been actively trying to stop what they consider to be a heinous ritual have petitioned the government to make it illegal. However, orthodox community leaders are also pushing to keep alive what they see as a "tradition". They have even threatened the youth group and their families with a social boycott that would see them excluded from normal social and commercial relations in the community.
But through their activism, the young protesters have been able to attract the attention of the government. Last month, Ranjeet Patil, the Minister of State for Home, met a delegation of social organizations to discuss the issue of virginity testing. As a result, the minister said it will be considered "a form of sexual assault" on the female subject, and will soon be made a punishable offense by law, according to a report by the Press Trust of India.
The virginity test
The son of a local municipal corporation official from Pune who had studied in London recently married a girl from the same community who is a highly educated architect. Following Kanjarbhat traditions, on their first wedding night, the couple was sent to a hotel room with a white sheet on the bed. Meanwhile, the family members and pancha(judges) of Caste Panchayat (Caste Council of the community) waited outside.
The scene of when the groom came out of the room and talked to family and Jat Panchayat members was recorded by a social activist present at the post-wedding ceremony on December 31, 2018. The recording, accessed by Asia Times, showed Panchayat members asking the groom whether the "Mal (Product) was pure or not?" The question meant whether or not the girl was a virgin, something that is decided by the presence of a post-coital blood stain on the bedsheet. The groom replied, "Khara, Khara, and Khara", which meant she was "pure".
But if a bride does not bleed on her first wedding night, she is considered not to be a virgin. In which case, her whole family is either boycotted by the community or heavily fined, even though social boycott has been illegal in Maharashtra since 2017.
Kanjarbhat is one of the de-notified tribes in Maharashtra. Like other de-notified tribes, Kanjarbhat was listed as a criminal tribe when the British were ruling India. After India's independence in 1947, although the Indian government de-notified them, they remained "backward". According to the 2011 census, the state has over a hundred thousand Kanjarbhats. They are mainly involved in the business of producing alcohol and thus, the community is economically well off.
The community, headed by an informal caste council (caste panchayat), still follows a number of age-old traditions including the virginity test. Caste members are compelled to go to the caste council to solve their problems instead of relying on India's constitutional legal system. In this way, traditions, no matter how regressive, continue to exist.
The practice is also thoroughly unscientific. Minaskhi, a psychological counselor from Pune, said, "(a) bloodstain means the hymen breaks and the girl bleeds. That is considered to be evidence of her having no earlier sexual relations. But the hymen (can) break due to many reasons like extensive physical exercises or accidents. Another issue is that this is the way of dominating girls and her sexuality. Why men do not have to (undergo a) virginity test?"
Violation of privacy and dignity
Two years ago, the right to privacy became a fundamental right in India as an important aspect of the right to life. At the time, Vivek Tamaichikar, a youth from the Kanjarbhat community, wrote on Facebook opposing the virginity test. He pointed out that the practice violates a person's right to privacy and received support from other youngsters. He said, "Following this, we made a Whatsapp group of over 60 youngsters to spread awareness about why the tradition should be scrapped. Our campaign is known as "Stop The V Rituals". But members of the caste council threatened the families of those youngsters. The council said if the youths did not (leave) the group, the panchayat will boycott the families. A few left the group and the rest stayed back."
Tamaichikar said, "Since I was going to marry after we started the group, I decided not to follow the tradition. I married in April 2018. The caste council members tried to physically attack invitees who were participating in my wedding ceremony. I have filed a police complaint with the Pune Police regarding the same. In October 2018, I and my wife were even evicted from a community festival."
Prashant Indrekar and his wife, married last year, also chose to not follow the tradition. But the majority of couples give in to the pressure from families and caste councils.
Krishna Indrekar, a senior government officer in Maharashtra government, who married in 1996 without following the tradition and who has been working to stop the "V Ritual", said, "My family was socially boycotted and later had to pay a hefty fine to get back into the community. We have been living in the 21st century and middle age traditions are being followed. Caste panchayat members do not like to be questioned and they do not believe in the constitution or the judicial system."
Indrekar added, "I have been trying to spread awareness among youths against the tradition. But I was (threatened), attacked and letters were sent to my department complaining against me. Our activists have been video recording meetings of council members and the groom telling them the "girl is virgin" and we are keeping track of it. Recently on February 14, the V-Ritual was followed by a couple in Pune." He remains hopeful regarding the Maharashtra government's promise of banning the virginity test.
But members of the caste councils insist that they do not conform to a virginity test, and say they will approach the state government asking that their traditions should be protected.
Mukesh Minekar, a senior member of a Kanjarbhat caste council, said, "All members of Kanjarbhat community are proud of all age-old customs and traditions and we will follow them. However, there is no tradition called virginity test as being raised by a few. The "first night of wedding" tradition is followed in front of family members of the bride and groom and not in front of council members or anyone else."
However, the youth activists of the community remain determined to uproot this tradition. For them, a law banning the virginity test would be the perfect tool for them to go forward.