What is the worth of a woman’s ‘purity?’ It’s an interesting question because of its absolute absurdity. It wants to quantify an abstract concept in monetary terms only to use it as a weapon against a newlywed bride.
It unpacks several stigmas in society against sexual liberation and freedom of choice for women. But, at the same time, the question is inherently demeaning. It is reducing an entire being to a wad of cash. Unfortunately, Sansi, a local tribe of Rajasthan, claims to have the answer.
The community of Sansi, called the ‘vagrants and criminals,’ engages in the infamous ‘Kukari ki Rasam.’ The humiliating tradition entails a white sheet being placed at the newlywed’s bed on the wedding night, which the groom’s family later checks for blood. The blood from the broken hymen is their requirement for purity which has so many things wrong with it.
In some cases, the villagers go as far as to ask women to go through a fire test to attest purity, where they have to carry a red hot piece of iron through flimsy leaves. Women have also had to hold their breath underwater for as long as it takes a randomly assigned person to take 100 steps.
These tests are insanely inhumane and, more importantly, not related to one’s sexual history at all.
To start, a broken hymen is not exactly a great indicator of pre-marital sex. However, it indeed can break during day-to-day activities, at a pretty young age. Furthermore, I don’t think I have to nitpick the patriarchal ideologies behind having newlywed brides give proof of virginity while the groom gets a free pass.
It adds to the harmful idea that sex is something a man takes and a woman gives. We will never truly respect women’s choices until we accept that a woman does not lose as soon as she ‘gives in’ to sex.
And lastly, and most significantly, what is virginity if not a social construct?
It not only is an arbitrary concept to decide the morality and prudence of a person, but it also denies them a fundamental right to safe and healthy sex in order to maintain respect in society. Nothing physically changes about one’s genitals (except perhaps the hymen if not broken) after intercourse for the first time.
Because of the lack of physical existence, we can confidently conclude that virginity is a made-up concept with a highly misogynistic agenda at play that should not be a parameter to earn basic respect.
Sadly, this virginity test is not the most prominent social evil that plagues the Sansi community. If a girl is declared to be ‘impure’, she is now ostracized by the community and asked to name the person she has been sexually associated with in the past.
This man is now supposed to pay hefty compensation to the groom’s family for apparently stealing their honour. If he refuses to pay, the matter can be taken up in the Panchayat, which is overall an expensive and cumbersome process in itself.
One does not take time to point out the loopholes of this specific reform. Families can very easily misuse it as a money-making scheme. Daughters in law are brutally tortured and forced to claim to have sex before marriage and are then compelled to name random men so that their in-laws can earn a buck.
Interestingly, after adding this monetary compensation, a virgin bride almost becomes a misfortune but is met with the same fate.
This policy has not reduced the plight of young women in the tribe but increased it manifold. They are now expected to go through constant harassment and violence from their new families for an act they never committed. They oblige, along with the men who are now forced to pay due to the daunting power of the patriarchal structure in the community and the caste panchayat.
Virginity tests are not a new practice to us. Historically, they have been continued in numerous country regions, but the added economic advantage makes this process incredibly traumatizing for a young woman. When blatantly sexist and objectifying traditions like these become recognized by the local law, it spreads a harmful message across regions that normalize these acts.
The perpetrators also get an airtight case because the impact on the victim is not accounted for in the policy. The Indian Penal Code does not cover virginity tests as a crime, so a case cannot be filed against these practices. This makes women stuck in generational cycles of oppression under the tribe incapable of reaching out for help.
It is therefore extremely tricky to provide concrete solutions to the problem. Moreover, it is unclear if interference by law or external bodies will dismantle the communities’ notion about women being the property and right of men. Still, it may very well halt the symptoms of this root cause.
However, the first step is to make sure the privileged communities are aware that such issues persist. In most cases, that strata of people are blinded towards such social injustices they cannot directly view in their vicinity. To spread the word and make it an inter-class and caste issue should pave the way for change.
Written by: Srishti Ghulani