x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Proof of innocence a question of honour

There is a renewed debate in Jordan over new brides and brides-to-be being medically tested to confirm their chastity.

AMMAN // The humiliation and shame that threatened to tear apart a newly married couple and their families turned to joy after a medical test showed that the bride was still a virgin, proving her husband's claim wrong. Israa Twalbeh, a forensic doctor at the National Institute for Forensic Medicine (NIFC), said that as soon as she announced the news, the two families distributed cake and kunafa, a traditional Jordanian sweet.

Such testing is not uncommon in Jordan, a country that links a family's honour to the daughter's chastity and where at least 20 women are killed each year for having been seen to sully that honour. But the debate has been energised recently after the director of the NIFC, Mumen Hadidi, was reported to have said that 1,200 women undergo testing each year and that, in many cases, it was becoming a precondition for marriage.

Dr Hadidi said Alghad newspaper, in which he was quoted, had exaggerated a claim about it being a requirement for marriage, pointing out that many of the tests were conducted for victims of sexual violence. He said, however, that many women ask for the test when accused by their husbands of not being virgins. In the case of Dr Twalbeh's patient, "her family said if she was a virgin they were going to kill the groom because he doubted her virginity and if she wasn't a virgin they were going to kill her to cleanse their honour", he said. "But it ended peacefully."

It turned out the bride was in fact a virgin and the test proved it. The incident occurred three years ago in the south of Jordan, but remains one that Dr Twalbeh often cites as it shows how women can be wrongly accused. In that instance "the groom's family said there was no need for a medical report now that she was a virgin, but her family insisted on one because they wanted to make hundreds of copies to stick on the buses so that everybody would know she was a virgin," Dr Twalbeh said.

There are a number of cases each year, Dr Hadidi said, where men insist on a woman having a virginity test before they agree to marriage. "This is a new trend. We are against the testing unless to prove a crime or rape ... There is a dark number to the cases as the testing is done in private clinics ? This harms a female's dignity and undermines her honour. The testing reflects a backward society."

Sometimes a man will accuse a woman he has been legally betrothed to of sexual activity because he wants to break the engagement, Dr Twalbeh said. "He uses virginity as a card to annul the marriage. In society she is regarded as his fiance and not his wife yet, so he can stigmatise her. "Although women come voluntarily and ask for the testing, the other side of the coin is that they are under pressure to prove that they are virgins. This is humiliating."

Critics and advocates of women's rights describe the testing as discriminatory and emotionally searing for females. "It is shameful in my opinion for women to go through this testing," said Musa Shtewi, a sociologist. "It puts women in a position where their humanity is linked to their virginity as if they are suspects. It is degrading." For others, it only serves to give legitimacy to so-called honour crimes.

"This is an endorsement of honour that we are trying to get rid of," said Rula Qawas, the director of the knowledge production unit at the Jordan National Commission for Women, a semi-government commission set up in 1992 to promote women's issues. Although religious clerics joined in the chorus of condemnation, Jordan's Grand Mufti, Noah al Qudah, refused to issue a fatwa on the legitimacy of the testings.

"The issue is sensitive and he is embarrassed to discuss it," Mutaz Muheidat, the Mufti's office manager, told Alghad. Conservative zealots see the practice as necessary to counter exposure to western culture, which they say is harming public morality. "It is a negative phenomenon, but one has to look for the reasons behind it," said Mufid Sarhan, the director general of Alafaf, an Islamic non-governmental group that organises mass weddings.

"The testing dissipates suspicions and, if it is the only solution to ensure virginity, then there is nothing wrong with that. It is a proof of innocence. Ultimately what we aspire for is to safeguard the family's stability." smaayeh@thenational.ae