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Turks: Forced Virginity Control of Women

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TITLE: 6/5/94 State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey

June 5, 1994

In a report released today, the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project charges the Turkish government with the forcible imposition of virginity control examinations on women in police custody.  The report, "A Matter of Power: State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey," finds that police force female political detainees and common criminal suspects to undergo gynecological examinations for the purpose of determining the status of their hymens. It also finds that state officials, who place no similar emphasis on male virginity, have subjected female hospital patients, state dormitory residents and women applying for government jobs to such exams.  They also participate in virginity control exams instigated by private individuals.  The report concludes that, despite Turkish government pledges to address this problem, state agents continue to participate in this discriminatory and invasive practice in police custody and elsewhere.  Human Rights Watch urges Prime Minister Tansu Ciller and the Turkish government to publicly denounce this practice and to take action against those responsible.

Based on a July 1993 mission to Turkey, the report documents cases of forcible virginity control exams involving female political detainees, common criminal suspects and women in other state agencies.  In the case of political detainees, police argue that the exams are necessary protection against custodial abuse.  In fact, the exams are themselves abusive.  Women victims of virginity exams report that the exams are degrading and often painful.  In most instances, they involve the actual or threatened use of force and the insertion of a speculum or hand into the vagina.  In one case Human Rights Watch investigated, two female journalists were detained for their suspected political activity and twice forced to undergo virginity exams after a state doctor threatened, "You better do this or they [the police] will force your legs apart for you."  Political detainees are often taunted with the exams' results, threatened by guards that they will have their "virginity removed" (the report documents cases of custodial rape) and, on occasion, are subjected to exams as a form of punishment.

Where common criminal suspects are concerned, police defend forcible virginity control as legitimate under laws governing public morality and prostitution.  The report details how, rather than follow legal procedures, police abuse their power to monitor public behavior by detaining women arbitrarily and forcing them to undergo exams to determine their virginity or whether they have engaged in recent sexual activity.  In August 1992, Istanbul police detained a thirty-nine-year-old grandmother and two of her friends while they were eating in a restaurant.  Never charged, the women were subjected to vaginal exams against their will and held in a state venereal diseases hospital for over one week.

Police not only subject political detainees and common criminal suspects to virginity control exams, but routinely and unfairly focus on female virginity when investigating sex crimes. Virginity exams are a common element of police investigations into allegations of sexual assault, despite the fact that no such emphasis is placed by the state on male virginity, that virginity is irrelevant as evidence of sexual assault and that, according to many gynecologists, virginity is not medically verifiable.  Under Turkish law, gynecological exams should occur only pursuant to a prosecutor or judge's request, for the purposes of collecting evidence of sexual assault (not virginity) and then only with the consent of the individual woman.  Instead, Turkish authorities engage in the discriminatory and abusive practice of subjecting female complainants to virginity exams, often without their consent.

As the report notes, in societies as diverse as China and Italy, female virginity is emphasized as an important social norm that operates as a means of controlling women's behavior.  Women who compromise their reputations as virgins may be regarded as unmarriageable or may be reviled by their family members.  The threat of such consequences compels women to conform to the behavioral standards deemed honorable in their community.

The state's own use of forcible virginity exams legitimize the regulation of female virginity in Turkey more generally where social and legal norms combine to equate the maintenance of female virginity with family or male honor.  A woman's rights to bodily integrity and privacy are seen as subordinate to the family's interest in maintaining its honor, in part through the use of virginity control exams.  Although the conduct of private individuals is largely outside the scope of the report, Human Rights Watch is concerned about state involvement in the conduct of invasive and degrading virginity control exams instigated by private individuals.

Human Rights Watch commends the efforts of some Turkish doctors to end the participation of medical professionals in abusive virginity exams.  Many doctors, however, continue to subject women and girls to this gross invasion of their bodily integrity.  The report calls on the entire Turkish medical community to refuse to participate in such exams.  Human Rights Watch urges medical schools and organizations to oppose publicly virginity exams and to educate medical professionals of their rights and responsibilities.  All health care providers should secure a woman's consent before performing any gynecological exam.

Turkey is one of the U.S. government's largest aid recipients. The U.S. currently is seeking to provide Turkey with over $580 million in military and security assistance for fiscal year 1995. In addition, the U.S. continues to provide the Turkish police with anti-terrorism training.  The report urges the U.S. government to condemn publicly state participation in forced virginity control exams and to emphasize respect for women's human rights as an important component of efforts to improve Turkey's human rights record. Further, the report calls for an end to U.S. training for Turkish police as long as their involvement in torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, including forced virginity exams, continues.

The report also urges the Turkish government to denounce forced virginity exams as a human rights abuse and work to end the practice.  Allegations of forced virginity exams should be investigated and those responsible held to account.  In addition, women detained for allegedly "immoral" conduct or illegal prostitution must be afforded due process and, under no circumstances, be forced to undergo virginity exams.  Women who file complaints of sexual assault should undergo gynecological exams only with their informed consent and for the purpose of gathering forensic evidence and not of determining their virginity.  Finally, Turkey should make every effort to discourage private individuals from subjecting women and girls to virginity exams and should end the participation of its own agents in such conduct.

A Matter of Power: State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey is available from the Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10017-6104 for $6.00 (domestic), $7.50 (international).


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