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Virginity testing: My story

Blog 17 December 2021

Payzee MahmodChild marriage survivor and campaigner at IKWRO – Women’s Rights Organisation, Payzee Mahmod shares her experience of ‘honour’ based abuse as we mark the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

I was made aware of the concepts of shame, purity and “honour” from a very young age. All of which shaped my life and my experiences. I grew up in Iran for the first part of my childhood, before coming with my family to live in the UK.

Home life for me and my four sisters was very strict, for example, in the ways we were told to behave and dress. But I had believed that outside of our home, everything would be totally different.

I soon realised, that even in a city like London, girls’ and women’s’ bodies are constantly judged and critiqued. I remember hearing ongoing debates about whether pop star Britney Spears was a virgin or not.  

When I was 15, I witnessed my sister Banaz, who was just 17, being coerced into marrying a stranger in a religious ceremony. She told me she did not want to go ahead with her child marriage, but she could not say this to my parents. 

Only a few months later, when I turned 16, I was also coerced into a child marriage to a man twice my age in a religious ceremony in our garden. Later, both of our child marriages were registered at the registry office.  

On the day of my child marriage, I was handed a white sheet. I didn’t know what it was for, but I came to understand that I was expected to use it to prove my virginity. Having had no sex education, I didn’t even know what virginity was and the idea that I would somehow fail this test was terrifying. It felt so degrading and de-humanising. 

I only learned, almost two decades later, that there is no way to prove virginity and that it is amyth that every girl or woman bleeds when she first has sexual intercourse. In fact,around half of all girls and women do not bleed.  

After two years in her abusive child marriage, my sister Banaz bravely left her husband and returned to my family home. For this she paid the ultimate price. She was seen to have brought shame on my family and community, and she was murdered in a so called “honour” killing.  

I believe that we can end “honour” based abuse and I want to be part of the change.

That’s why I now work as Campaigner with IKWRO – Women’s Rights Organisation, who had led the ‘Justice For Banaz’ campaign for my sister.  IKWRO provides specialist advice and support for Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan women and girls who are impacted by ‘honour’ based abuse, works in schools, trains professionals and campaigns for change. Together we are campaigning to end child marriage. 

My TEDx Talk A Survivor’s Plea to End Child Marriage, has now been viewed more than a million times. On 19 November 2021, in a historic step forward, MP’s voted in favour of banning all forms of child marriage in England and Wales.  

We launched  IKWRO’s Virginity Does Not Define Me campaign, with the support of the Royal College of Midwives and the RCOG, to challenge the false and harmful notion that virginity is in any way a measure of a girl’s or woman’s worth, to tackle dangerous myths around virginity.

We have called for a ban of the harmful practices of virginity testing and hymenoplasty, and were delighted to hear that virginity testing will be made illegal. The next step is also banning hymenoplasty as the two are intrinsically linked. 

Both of these forms of violence against women and girls cause trauma and enable further “honour” based abuse.

The campaign is enabling conversations that disrupt and dismantle patriarchy and misogyny. 

Simultaneously, we call for sustained funding for specialist organisations, like IKWRO, to engage young people and the community, educate professionals and provide advice, advocacy, counselling and refuge to girls and women at risk of “honour” based abuse.  

As a healthcare worker out in the community working with women and girls who may be experiencing "honour" based abuse you have the chance to build trust, make a difference, and refer anyone in need of help for specialist support.

Resources are available from IKWRO at www.ikwro.org.uk 

Follow Payzee and IKWRO on Twitter:

@IKWRO

@PayzeeMalika