Humiliating ‘virginity tests’ at Heathrow revealedBy Shayoni Sarkar May 09, 2011 8:48PM UTC
At least 80 women from India and Pakistan were made to undergo intimate ‘virginity tests’ in the 1970s by UK immigration staff, according to confidential records released today.
Files discovered by two Australian legal academics at the National Archives in London and published by the Guardian reveal internal Home Office documents that disclose these ‘tests’, used to “check the marital status” of women from the subcontinent who were coming to Britain to marry, were far more prevalent than previously known. After an initial exclusive report by the Guardian about a 35-year-old Indian teacher who was made to undergo one such ‘virginity test’ by a male doctor when she arrived at Heathrow to assess whether she was a genuine virgin, these practices were made illegal in February 1979.
The Home Office, at the time, had denied any internal examination. However, the woman told the Guardian’s then social services correspondent, Melanie Philips, that she had signed a form consenting to a “gynecological examination that may be vaginal if necessary” on the fear of being deported back to India. She further stated that: “He [the doctor] was wearing rubber gloves and took some medicine out of a tube and put it on some cotton and inserted it into me. He said he was deciding whether I was pregnant now or had been pregnant before.”
Contradicting the Home Office’s denial of the event, the recent files contain the doctor’s version of the examination: “Penetration of about half an inch made it apparent that she had an intact hymen and no other internal examination was made … The only time she was bare chested was for the X-ray examination… The doctor told the immigration officer verbally that the lady had not had children and she was then given conditional leave to enter for three months as a fiancee.”
At the time, immigration rules stated that a woman coming to Britain to marry a resident would be granted a three-month period of stay without a UK visa, in which time the wedding should be held. The teacher in question had arrived on January 24, 1979, hoping to marry her British fiancé of Indian origin, when she was subjected to this humiliating test.
With the publication of the report, the woman was paid £500 as “recognition of the distress” caused but no apology was offered. Moreover, she had to also agree to “not to initiate any proceedings against the Home Office”, on receipt of this amount. It was also stressed by the Home Office that this money was not “compensation”, which would have implied that the immigration officers had acted improperly.
‘One of three’ false
Britain’s then Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, issued a message to Indian prime minister, Moraji Desai, telling him that “soon as we heard of it we made sure it would not happen again” and assured him that it was never a general practice to ask women to undergo such examinations. He also confirmed that although the incident had taken place, there had been only two other such cases in the last seven years.
The recent files reveal that the practice was not just more prevalent than that, but was especially common at British high commission offices in India and Pakistan. The papers report that British entry clearance officers in Bombay, New Delhi and Islamabad all “sought medical opinion on the marital status of some female applicants”. Senior Foreign Office officials reported some 73 cases in New Delhi and a further nine in Bombay over the previous three years.
The two Australian academics who discovered these files, Marinella Marmo and Evan Smith of Flinders University law school in Adelaide, along with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which was originally involved in the 1979 case, have called for an official apology.
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong. This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.”