Jordan: 'Virginity assessment tests' continue despite illegality

Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism
Despite the scientific and cultural modernization that has changed the face of Jordan since its creation in 1921, the practice of this custom continues in rural and urban areas alike.
Although this practice contravenes the law, and medical facts, they continue because they of social customs and traditions: simply because the so-called “signs of virginity” -- the bleeding due to the ruptured hymen -- did not materialize at the first sexual encounter.
After being married for a few hours, “Amal” entered the national center for forensic medicine in Amman, accompanied by her mother, her groom and her mother-in-law. Feeling ashamed, Amal signed a paper giving her consent to undergo the “Virginity Assessment Test".

As she entered the examination room, a mood of silence and gloom dominated the faces of the bride’s chaperons, who sat awaiting the definitive medical answer.

She is one of 150 women who have been examined at the forensic medical institutions in the capital Amman, and in the North and South of the country during the last year, according to official records. The unofficial figures might be higher due to the fact that some newly-wed brides are taken to straight to private gynecology clinics, or to midwives. Private records of midwife Huda Al Zagha, who worked from 1941 to 2000 have shown that she examined 30 women throughout her work experience. All exams took place with the women’s consent, based on the request of the husband, the parent, judicial authorities or clan elders.

The format of the examination results that are presented to the party that requested the exam state: “I, Hoda Al Zagha, midwife, hereby testify that I performed the required exam on Miss...."ruling that she is a virgin, so help me God"

Returning to the crowded waiting room, where Amal’s husband, a mason in his thirties, is sitting, anxiously smoking his cigarette. Sitting next to him is his mother, waiting on tenterhooks for the bride’s pre-marital record to be revealed because her daughter did not bleed after sexual intercourse. The bride’s mother sat alone, holding her head down, imploring God to spare her and her family the shame and dishonor. After a few seconds, the mother raised her head high on the voice of the doctor assuring them that “the hymen has been recently torn”. She wore a big smile.

The doctor also informed the husband that “his wife has a hymen with a large aperture, thus she will not bleed as expected after her first sexual intercourse. The bride took the arm of her husband and left the centre, heading towards their home in the impoverished town of Zarqa, 25 km South of Amman.

The brunt of ignorance

According to the law, the three parties involved in act -- the husband, the wife and the doctor performing the exam – get punitive punishment, says Sheikh Salim Ali Al Masri, inspector of Islamic courts at the department of Justice and member of the advisory committee for the legal guide for marriage. However, and to date, no legal action has been filled against the practice to help stop it.

The Civil Status law permits the performing of a virginity exam in case the wife claims that the husband is impotent, and is not able to reach the hymen. After granting the husband an entire year to do so, the judge “issues an order to refer the wife to a legal midwife in order to check whether coitus happened or not”, according to Sheikh Al Masri.

Court records in Jordan show that the number of separation cases due to impotence reached 12 cases between 2002 and 2006, from a total number of 4202 separation cases registered. Between these years, a total of 281981 marriages took place.

For his part, Father Salem Madanat, member of the ecclesiastical court for the Greek Orthodox Church, confirmed there are few marriage annulment cases filed as a result of the non-virginity of the wife. He said out of hundreds of weddings registered, these cases did not exceed two during the last two years.

Father Madanat pointed out that Article 249 of the Byzantine law grants the wife the right to ask for divorce in case of the impotence of the husband but only after three years of marriage

Sheikh Al Masri explaines that it is the right of the wife who underwent a virginity test to file a compensation lawsuit , in case she feels offended by a husband who doubted her virginity and made her a victim of many immoral accusations simply because “virginity signs” did not show. The lawsuit, however, does not compensate her for psychological pressure and social duress, all elements that made her undertake the test.

Dr. Hani Jahshan, consultant of forensic medicine at the National Institute for Forensic Medicine at the Ministry of Health, said that the wife who reaches eighteen years of age can apply for the test personally, while the application for the wife who is still under age is made by the husband.

The personal status law in Jordan set that the legal age for marriage at 18. Nevertheless, the judge is able to make exceptions allowing boys and girls who reached fifteen to get married. Yet the law does not “specify” what these “circumstances” are.

Furthermore, Sheikh Al Masri explained that according to the legal guide for marriage, which was published in 2006 by the Supreme Judge and the National Council for Family Planning, the definition of a “virgin” does not include the presence/absence of the hymen. The virgin is defined as “the girl" who has not been previously married.

He also confirmed that the absence of the hymen does not give enough reason for the husband to apply for marriage annulment, unless it has been previously determined in the marriage contract that the wife has to be a virgin. In case the husband finds out that she isn’t, then he has to file for marriage annulment in the presence of the judge, who in turn refers the wife to a midwife in order to have a medical opinion.

Two out of eight brides interviewed for this report said that they preferred to go through divorce than to continue their lives in a conjugal home lacking trust due to a husband who insisted that his wife takes the virginity test.

Although the doctors confirmed that the standards of virginity applied to all of them, the remaining five brides chose to stay with their husbands, despite their unhappiness, simply to avoid facing the cruel comments of society.

By: Suhair Jaradat