The teenage bride's parents stood anxiously outside their dingy house in Pimpri Chinchwad, Maharashtra, as caste panchayat heads sat around near the door. About 10-15 minutes later, the 40-year-old bridegroom emerged from inside, violently flinging the door open. "She has already blackened her face. I won't accept her as a wife," he stormed. Flashing a white bedsheet at the girl's parents, he screamed, "See here. Not a single bloodstain! It means she has already lost her virginity." Caste panchayat members were quick to announce "maal khota ahe (the girl is impure)".
Last Sunday was the wedding day of 15-year-old Savita (name changed). It was also the day she underwent the ritual 'test of virginity' on the conjugal bed. Caste panchayat members called Savita out of the house. She was tied to a pillar and thrashed till she was nearly unconscious. Her parents pleaded with them and the bridegroom to 'accept' their daughter. After hours of discussion, it was decided that the girl must be 'forgiven' and the parents must pay money to the bridegroom as compensation.
The virginity test is a centuries-old tradition in the Kanjarbhat community in Maharashtra, and every girl has to undergo this tormenting experience on her marriage day. Failure invites punishment, such as branding of body parts, stripping, making her pick a coin from boiling oil and placing hot iron in her hands. Virginity is so vital for the Kanjarbhats that the majority of parents marry off their teenage daughters so they don't get into relationships before marriage.
However, some educated youngsters from the community have joined hands to question this practice. Two months ago, Priyanka Tamaichekar (26) and Siddhant Indrekar (21) started a WhatsApp group to connect youth and keep vigil on instances of girls being subjected to virginity tests.
Siddhant, a college student from Pune, recently recorded a video where community heads were bargaining to "settle" a case. "I approached the police, but they dismissed it as a social issue and no action was taken."
A graduate who works with a private company, Priyanka is one of the few educated girls in the community. "Parents are now forcing girls to opt out of the WhatsApp group and snap ties with us," says Priyanka, whose family in Pimpri Chinchwad is facing a social boycott for her rebellion. Her brother has been kept out of a local community cricket team, because his sister is bringing them a "bad name".
However, Priyanka is undaunted. "This is nothing but sheer male chauvinist attitude towards women. We have to fight against it. We know it's going to be hard. My family supports me but they are also worried," she says.
But it is not just tribal communities that seek the "test". Hyderabad-based plastic surgeon Bhavani Prasad says even educated families in some communities insist on it. "The marriage is not validated if the girl is not found to be a virgin. Parents come to me insisting on hymenoplasty (a surgical procedure to restore a woman's hymen) on their girls so their chastity is not questioned." Dr Prasad adds that the belief that an intact hymen proves virginity is false. "A woman can deliver a baby and still her hymen may not rupture, and in some cases even a simple activity can rupture it."
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