July 14, 2009

How to Conduct A Wedding

Anindita Sengupta

WITHOUT BEING hyperbolic, let me just say that this nearly made me upchuck my morning tea. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh subjected 151 women to ‘virginity tests’. The women were to be part of a mass marriage scheme in Shadol near Bhopal. To avoid ‘complications’, the state government saw it fit to conduct physical examinations to make sure they were virgins. Most of the women were poor, tribal women.

From the BBC story:

Eyewitnesses said the women had to queue up before undergoing an extensive physical examination by a female doctor before they were given a special badge which allowed them to participate in the ceremony.

Several of the women were quoted as saying that they had at first refused to submit to the test – but were told by officials that they would receive their wedding gifts worth 6,500 rupees (about $132) only if they took the test.

Imagine the women. Perhaps a bit shy. Definitely a bit hopeful, anticipating relief if not joy. You see, they’d finally stop being a ‘burden’ on the collective chest of family and society. They turn up at the pandal or hall, dressed in their best. Then they’re lined up like cattle. Their privacy is violated (mentally and physically). Their bodies become the site of interrogation and censure. What should have been a happy day turns into a horrible humiliation, a nightmare–and they have to endure it so that they can get their gift of 6,500 from a benevolent government.

It’s a positive sign that the issue has been raised in the Rajya Sabha but I’m wondering what, if anything, will come of the protests. Will this end up being just the flavour of politics for the day–or will there be some real measures taken to see it doesn’t recur? Are there going to be strict rules built into mass marriage schemes? Of course, firstly, virginity cannot and should not be a criteria for a government-aided marriage. Mass marriages are often organized to counter dowry or lessen the financial burden of a wedding on the poor. To tie up the issue of economic deprivation with chastity, to allow people to benefit from schemes on condition that they are ‘pure’ enough, is just plain wrong.

I would also think that participants in any scheme should be informed of all details and conditions beforehand. If there are medical tests involved, they should be informed and their consent sought in advance–not at the last minute. These women were not prepared for this googly. Some of them probably felt confused or disoriented. Others might have felt an additional pressure because it was on the day, a sense of ‘how can I back out now, after all this?’

The other question is: How are these women going to be compensated for the shame and humiliation they have suffered? It’s all very well to use them as bullets in the spitfire but what happens to them now?

None of the news reports talk about any of this stuff. Amidst all the foam spewing from various mouths, nobody seems to have addressed any of this in concrete terms. Or the media wasn’t listening.

16 comments to How to Conduct A Wedding

  • An HIV test probably would have been more apt for everybody involved (guys & girls).

  • One report on this mentions the “logic” behind the tests. Apparently recently married couples were also trying to get into this scheme in the hope of getting the money. So in order to prevent “misuse” of the funds, some bright spark hit upon this idea.

  • @Sunita – It would still depend on whether or not participants were previously informed, as Anindita writes. Mandatory medical testing of any kind, without prior notification that such testing would take place, is a gross violation of privacy and personal rights.

  • This is sick… I hope people at least get some sense… How can they actually do this to someone on their wedding day.

  • […] read about it again on this site a while ago and trust me, it hit me again. Somethings just don’t stop shocking you, do […]

  • I had to read it a few times for it to sink in. Virginity test – bull…. ahem were the men tested? And to do it in a public venue and to line them up and provide a badge of certification!!! Makes my skin crawl that there is such gross violation of one’s very private lives and all in the name of helping them!

  • Another shameful episode in Indian history. And I am sure apart from being certain questions raised there won’t be any action. What Ms.Sunita have said would have been more apt.

  • Governments, *all* governments, attach conditions to every hand-out. Which is why a system of independent, foundation-level grant-awarding societies needs to be developed, ones that move away from religious or community affiliations if anti-dowry policy development & outreach is to be carried out successfully.

    Horrible story, but believable. It comes down to a basic thought– Is privacy of the individual respected in India? Perhaps there are pockets in society where it is, but for the most part?
    No, it isn’t. And the more you move away from the Center (which in India is rich, male, upper caste) the more your privacy is infringed upon. Good luck if you’re poor and female then. The scariest part of this story is

    1)that Rs. 6,500/- was worth it, in the end, to the women who agreed to go through with it despite having reservations
    2) the disenfranchisement of these women, who are raised to be dependents from birth and thus are at the receiving end of f*cked up strategies from both their community and whichever government agency shows up in their city/town/village.
    2) that the existing social structures in India still allow for things such as “government-aided marriages” and dowry, itself. It’s come to the point where it’s so endemic that we– the we that write about social issues, the we who follow news articles, that vote intelligently or try to, who volunteer at NGOs and write research papers and present at conferences and we the public, this vast collective– have chosen to live with it. For the most part. Or at least, as long as dowry cases don’t turn violent. Because it’s exhausting. Because perhaps, there are more important and time-sensitive issues to address, and win small successes within the existing structure. I’m not quite sure.

  • Were the men even ASKED if they were virgins too?

  • Takes me back to the 70s and the era of government planned family planning- give the man a radio for cutting his family short!!
    There should a big protest against this and not necessarily NCW style- lets see, last time we sent them PINK CHADDIS- can we think of something else this time?
    Wondering about your line on ‘what could possibly be a compensation to these wome who havebeen so badly conned and humiliated’ and thinking (on a different note)as to if ever the society will stop following the notion of marriage as the sole end a woman should serve.

  • sheetal

    i shudder to think of the fate of the women who were not virgins…they’ll become outcasts overnight. as for rape victims/ those who had their hymens broken in accidents or sports injuries, how many people will believe their chastity? what becomes of them?

  • apu

    Anu, I’d just been planning to write about this myself…upchuck is the right word! The government is of course denying it and simply calling them health tests, in which case one wonders why the men weren’t tested as well. First of all, governments needing to conduct mass marriages itself is sad, and purely because of dowry as well as the high cost of marriages; on top of that, to make it conditional! Also wonder if they haven’t heard that hymens break for a variety of reasons…

    plus, wonder if that meant widows too would be disqualified?

  • I am surprised at the sick levels to which the governments can stoop to?
    What next, really? DNA tests on children in case they are going to be given polio drops? Just so that the legitimate, pure ones get the government goodies?

    Even if someone were to be absolutely anti-feminist, anti-women, anti-people-making-their-own-choices, even if someone were dogmatic-fundamentalist-protectionist-male-chauvinist and hymen-fixated and so on, I can’t bring myself to understand how they could approve of “virginity as a prerequisite for marriage” in a country where there has been no history of criminalizing/convicting child sexual abuse. Doesn’t that happen? Doesn’t that destroy what these people are so bothered about protecting? What discourse would they employ to these victims, these women who simply had no choice?

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    I checked the ToI again today and it says they were pregnancy tests, not virginity ones. The only random reason I can come up with is that some bright spark thought they were protecting the bridegrooms’ interests by ensuring families were not trying to offload their already-pregnant daughters on an unsuspecting man and his family. Of course, this could just be my wild conspiracy theory. The act is despicable and must be publicly denounced in the strongest possible manner. An inquiry has been asked for. But how does that change the humiliation and invasion the women had to endure? And how do we change the deeply ingrained belief that a woman must stand up to the test when even mythology appears to support that stance?

  • Anindita Sengupta

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Sunitha, as Sharanya points out, all medical tests should require the consent of the people involved. One way of dehumanising people is to treat adults like children or dumb cattle. Just because they are poor doesn’t mean they don’t know what they want / don’t want / are okay with.

    Another good point raised is, of course, the sheer sexism involved in only testing the women.

    Going beyond that, as Priyanka and Apu point out, is what I see as two root evils — one is their poverty and disenfranchisement which made them vulnerable to this sort of violation, the other is inordinate importance given to marriage in our society (and dowry). The latter while closely linked to economics also goes beyond that. For the poor, it’s a double burden. As Priyanka points out, it’s horrible that the govt is promoting the mindset that a woman must get married at any cost and we are complicit with this — would the money spend on these mass marriages be better spent in education / employment schemes for these women? Why does marriage have to be so important that even state benefits must revolve around it?

  • Sharanya/Anindita, totally agree, any test needs prior consent. I agree this act is promoting a prejudiced mindset against women, virginity and singledom.

    Assuming people choose to get married this way, my point solely was around what does one need to test when such marriages are being arranged. I do not see any virtue in a virginity test and which again is just for women. An HIV test probably atleast is a health test that makes sense when a marriage of this kind is involved, where trust, love & faith are not factors but “compromise” on either sides just to get the “married” status.

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