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45 Years Ago: Virginity Tests and South Asian Women in 1970s Britain

Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 1st February, 2024 6 min read

45 Years Ago: Virginity Tests and South Asian Women in 1970s Britain

Today [01/02/2024] marks 45 years since the publication of an influential article by journalist Melanie Phillips in The Guardian. Published on 1 February 1979, this piece exposed the harrowing story of a 35-year-old Indian woman’s experience of arriving at Heathrow Airport. The bride-to-be arrived in the UK on 24 January 1979 with the hopes of marrying her fiancé, a British resident of Indian descent. Yet she was subjected to a degrading virginity test in order to prove her status as a fiancé. 

The Immigration Act of 1971 allowed female family members, such as wives, children, and fiancés to join their male family members in Britain. Under the terms of this Act, women who were engaged to be married were allowed to enter without a visa, providing that they got married within three months of their arrival. Despite this law, the immigration officers at the airport had suspected, due to her age, that the subject of Phillips’ article was lying about being engaged so as to gain entry into the UK without a visa. In order prove whether she was a legitimate bride-to-be, the immigration officer insisted upon a gynecological examination at the airport.

The Guardian, 1 February 1979. 

The woman told Phillips that she only consented to the test out of fear of deportation and lack of knowledge of Britain’s immigration policies. In the examination room, she was asked to remove all clothing, an unnecessary demand for an internal examination. Despite requesting a dressing gown for modesty, the medical team dismissed her plea. The test was performed by a male doctor on duty. She asked for a female doctor, but this request was refused as the airport did not have any. The woman told Phillips how the doctor had informed her that “he was deciding whether I was pregnant before”.1 She then explained how “he could see that without doing anything”, but that he proceeded to say “there was no need to get shy”.2 After the test confirmed that she was a virgin, she was granted entry into Britain. 

Phillips’ article sparked widespread public outrage, both nationally and internationally, leading to protests at Heathrow Airport and debates in the Indian Pariament.3 Initially, the Home Office denied that the tests were part of immigration policy. Following the publication of Phillips’ article in The Guardian, however, it came to light that the humiliating test had also been performed by the British High Commission throughout South Asia. Alex Lyon, former Minister of State, admitted how he knew “that between 1974 and 1976 such gynecological examinations had been performed in Dacca”.4 He added that this was common practice so as to confirm if a woman was claiming to be a wife or a fiancé. This was confirmed in the House of Commons when Labour MP, Jo Richardson, revealed that there had been “at least 34 cases of virginity testing undertaken at the British High Commission in New Delhi”.5  

In the early 2010s researchers Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo unearthed more incidents in Home Office records at The National Archives. In their book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control (2014) they demonstrated how, by the 1980s “the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had uncovered many more instances” of virginity tests.6 These scholars also revealed how this figure was between 123 and 143, in comparison to the 34 admitted to by the Home Office in 1979.

The fact that a woman’s sexual history was used as legitimate evidence for whether she could obtain entry into Britain was a shocking violation of human rights, causing both physical and mental trauma. Women who were subjected to such tests were already at their most vulnerable — migrating to another country when English is not your first language can be extremely overwhelming. The women were also most likely traveling abroad for the first time in their lives and also on their own. Yet instead of making their experience easier, immigration officers conducted invasive internal examinations. 

“I have been feeling very bad mentally ever since. I was very embarrassed and upset. I had never had a gynecological examination before.”7  

The practice of virginity tests reveals a great deal about the deep-seated colonial, sexist, and racial attitudes that were prevalent in 1970s Britain. A report by Foreign and Commonwealth Office advisor, David Stephen, published in March 1979, revealed how the virginity tests were conducted on fiancés because of the “reasonable assumption that an unmarried woman in the sub-continent would be a virgin”.Thus, government policy reflected the age-old colonial view that South Asian women were meek, helpless, and obedient to men. It is rather ironic that the government justified the practice of virginity tests via recourse to the stereotype that South Asian women are all virgins before marriage at a time when Britain itself was undergoing a sexual revolution, marked by more progressive attitudes towards women engaging in pre-marital sex.

The government’s denial and concealment of, as well as lack of apology regarding, the practice of virginity tests evidences the racist outlooks adopted by Britain’s political elite and the hollow rhetoric of unity that underpinned the British imperial project. The practice of virginity tests likewise illustrates the power that the British government had over immigrants of colour. If the tables were turned, and white immigrants were told to prove their virginity for entry into another country, the response would have been vastly different.

Endnotes

  1. “Virginity Tests on Immigrants at Heathrow”, The Guardian, 1 February 1979.
  2. Ibid. 
  3. “Virginity Tests for Immigrants 'Reflected Dark Age Prejudices' of 1970s Britain”, The Guardian, 8 May 2011. 
  4. Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo, “Uncovering the “Virginity Testing” Controversy in the National Archives: The Intersectionality of Discrimination in British Immigration History”, Gender & History 23, no. 1 (2011), 156. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. “Research Notes: Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control”, University of Oxford Blog, Available at: https://microform.digital/boa/posts/category/articles/548/from-the-archive-britains-civilisation-of-india-and-the-legacy-of-colonial-mentality  
  7. Virginity Tests on Immigrants at Heathrow”, The Guardian, 1 February 1979.
  8. David Stephen, ‘Immigration Control Procedures at Delhi and Dacca: Report on My Visit’, 9 March, 1979, 9, FCO 50/662, National Archives, London. Also see Evan Smith and Marinello Marmo, " Virginity Testing: Racism, Sexism, and British Immigration Control", Imperial and Global Forum, available at https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/08/25/virginity-testing-racism-sexism-and-british-immigration-control/ 



Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.


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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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