Virginity Testing: Racism, Sexism, and British Immigration Control

A Victorian-era vaginal speculum.
A Victorian-era vaginal speculum.

Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo
Flinders University

How racist and sexist attitudes formed in the Victorian era resulted in the harsh and discriminatory treatment of women by the immigration control system in the 1960s and 1970s.

In February 1979, The Guardian reported that a number of women had been given gynaecological examinations by immigration control staff in the UK and at British High Commissions in South Asia, in a practice colloquially known as ‘virginity testing’. These tests were predominantly performed on South Asian women seeking to enter the UK on fiancée visas, which were not subject to waiting lists under the Immigration Act 1971. But while these rules allowed fiancées to enter without much paperwork, British immigration officials were also highly suspicious that these visas were being abused, feeding off a wider belief that many South Asian migrants were coming to Britain under false pretences.

Part of this suspicion was the assumption, shared by many within the immigration control system, that the documents and testimony produced by South Asian migrants was likely to be false. This meant that immigration officials sought other means of ‘checking’ the bona fides of those applying to migrate from the Indian subcontinent to Britain, such as physical examinations. In the case of South Asian fiancées, these physical examinations were based on what was described in several FCO documents as ‘signs of marriage’. David Stephen, an FCO Advisor, explained the perverse thinking of the immigration officials involved in an internal report:

There is a logic in the use of these procedures since the immigration rules require dependent girls [as children, not wives] to be unmarried, and fiancées do not need entry certificates while wives do. If immigration or entry certificate officers suspect that a girl claiming to be an unmarried dependent is in fact married, or if a woman arriving at London Airport and claiming to be a fiancée of a man resident here is in fact a wife seeking to join her husband and avoid the ‘queue’ for an entry certificate, they have on occasion sought a medical view on whether or not the woman concerned had borne children, it being a reasonable assumption that an unmarried woman in the sub continent would be a virgin.[1]

ShowJacket.aspOur new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, outlines how the practice of ‘virginity testing’ reflected deep-seated racist and sexist assumptions held by the British authorities, which replicated the attitudes that had been established in the colonial era. Pratihba Parmar argued in 1982 that the racist and sexist assumptions behind ‘virginity testing’ were based on the ‘stereotype of the submissive, meek and tradition-bound Asian woman’.[2] We propose that this stereotype was an ideological hangover from the Victorian era and that commonly held beliefs about South Asian women and sexuality were influenced by the attitudes of the British authorities formed in colonial India. Philippa Levine also made this link, writing:

Women arriving as fiancées of South Asian men already in Britain were the targets of this [‘virginity testing’] practice which rested on a slew of assumptions about gender and sexuality that we can trace back with little effort to colonial days.… [I]t points …, and in vivid manner, to how ideas and assumptions about colonial sexuality found expression in Britain. Examples such as this not only demonstrate the effects of the colonial past within Britain, but also reveal just how central a role sexuality has played in shaping that complex legacy.[3]

The idea of the submissive South Asian woman was widespread amongst the British in India. Antoinette Burton has written extensively about the concept of the ‘Indian woman’, who was seen by the British as ‘a helpless, degraded victim of religious custom and uncivilized practices’,[4] and this concept was used by various groups of British colonialists to justify their agendas for the local population. Under the rule of the East India Company, relationships between British men and Indian women were quite commonplace. South Asian women were desired in these relationships because they were deemed to be submissive and obedient to men in social terms, but, paradoxically, also less inhibited sexually.

However in the post-1857 period, more British women came to India to join their husbands, which led to the authorities pronouncing that sexual relationships between British men and Indian women should cease (although in practice, this was not the case). The British favoured white women coming out to the colonies to marry the men who resided there and were of the view that the ‘proper’ relationship between men and women in the indigenous population was a heterosexual, monogamous marriage, based on the Western notion of marriage. The only British men ‘allowed’ to have sexual relationships with South Asian women were soldiers, and these relationships were only in the confines of regulated prostitution, through which the South Asian woman had a specific role to play and was of a particular use to the British male.

The issue of sexual relations between British soldiers and Asian women was particularly fraught for the British authorities in India and has been the subject of much study. As several scholars have argued, the British authorities were very concerned about maintaining the masculinity of the soldiers and thwarting homosexual activities. At the same time, the authorities disapproved of soldiers forming relationships with the indigenous women of the Indian subcontinent. In the short term, the British authorities, particularly those in the Army, condoned the use of prostitutes, predominantly Indian women from lower castes, by British soldiers to ‘regulate’ their sexual desires. These prostitutes were viewed as necessary for maintaining the ‘manliness’ of the Army, but only if the prostitutes were considered ‘healthy’ and free of venereal disease. This concern about the spread of venereal disease led the British authorities to intervene physically with the South Asian woman’s body in a manner that is reminiscent of the ‘virginity testing’ carried out a hundred years later.

reportMotivated by a desire to ‘protect’ the Army against venereal disease but not wanting to subject enlisted men to compulsory examination, the British Government introduced the Contagious Diseases Act 1864 to stop the spread of venereal disease. This Act focused predominantly on regulating the female body based on ‘a set of moral and ideological assumptions’ that prostitutes were responsible for these diseases and were so ‘bereft of “self-respect”’ that they could not protest against forcible examinations.[5] It allowed for the authorities to request that a woman be examined for venereal disease, and if the woman did not ‘submit herself voluntarily for Examination’, she could be found guilty of a summary offence and detained for a month for a first offence, and up to two months for subsequent offences.[6] If it was ‘ascertained that such [a] Woman has a Contagious Disease’, the authorities could detain the woman in hospital for medical treatment for up to three months.[7]

When the Contagious Diseases Act came into effect in the Indian colony in the late 1860s, the authorities used it, through a forcible gynaecological examination, to determine women who were accessible and therefore ‘desirable’. The Act crystallised the role of the South Asian woman-cum-prostitute played within the cantonments, but also signalled that she had to be deserving, albeit free of venereal disease, to perform such role. The only way to maintain what Anne McClintock has called ‘the health and wealth of the male imperial body politic’ was to ensure the ‘sexual purity’ of the South Asian woman.[8]

The Act regulated the geographical spaces that the South Asian woman could inhabit and what could occur within these spaces. The lock hospitals in which these women were detained and where these gynaecological examinations occurred can be seen as ‘states of exception’, the Victorian version of Agamben’s ‘camp’, where these women’s rights were suspended for the benefit of the colonial authorities. If the woman was considered to be ‘diseased’, and therefore ‘undesirable’, the abject woman was not permitted to inhabit the space within the cantonment that she once did, and could be expelled as her body no longer had any function in this realm, or else was detained until her body was regarded as ‘fit’ enough to resume her physical-cum-social duties.

After much protest, the Act was finally abolished in India in 1886, the same year that a similar Act was repealed in Britain, but as Elizabeth Kolsky has demonstrated, the racialised view of South Asian female sexuality and the colonial desire to examine South Asian women’s bodies continued to exist within the colonial Indian legal system in various forms. The historical legacy of the treatment of South Asian women by the British colonial authorities had a great deal of influence on how government agencies in the UK viewed South Asian women in the 20th century. This background may shed some historical light on a dark chapter of British history, namely the period in which South Asian women entering Britain were subjected to ‘virginity testing’. The racist and sexist attitudes formed in the Victorian era resulted in the harsh and discriminatory treatment of these women by the immigration control system in the 1960s and 1970s.


[1] David Stephen, ‘Immigration Control Procedures at Delhi and Dacca: Report on My Visit’, 9 March, 1979, 9, FCO 50/662, National Archives, London.

[2] Pratihba Parmar, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (London: Hutchinson, 1986) p. 245.

[3] Philippa Levine, ‘Sexuality and Empire’, in Catherine Hall & Sonya O. Rose, At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 122.

[4] Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1994) p. 8.

[5] Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) p. 3.

[6] Contagious Diseases Act 1864, Cap. 85., s15; s17.

[7] Contagious Diseases Act 1864, Cap. 85., s16.

[8] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 47.