Virginity Test, Why An Ugly Patriarchal Rite Won't Go Away

In India, a centuries-old custom comes up against basic demands for human rights.

Virginity Test, Why An Ugly Patriarchal Rite Won't Go Away
Reshmi Chakraborty

MAHARASHTRA — For the past few months, the Kanjarbhat community in Maharashtra has been engaged in a battle that pits tradition against education, and fundamental rights against dogged customs.

The Kanjarbhats, a Denotified Tribe from Maharashtra, practice a custom called gun jiti, whereby a bride's virginity is tested by looking for blood stains on a white sheet after the wedding night. The sheet is checked by the family, and the groom has to declare before the elders whether the bride is a virgin.

Kanjarbhat lore says the custom was established centuries ago during the nomadic days to protect girls from prying eyes. Its application in 2018, with much of the community living in urban areas — such as Pimpri-Chinchwad in Pune, Ambernath near Mumbai and Kolhapur — remains contentious.

Community elders proudly claim the custom has existed for 400 years. Advocate Moorchand Bhat, the former chairperson of the All India Kanjarbhat Association and part of the Jati Panchayat, or caste council, insists it is no different from any traditional wedding night. He calls it a Lakshmana Rekha (boundary line) for the community's girls.

But a group of young Kanjarbhats have challenged what they say is a regressive custom and an affront to privacy. Vivek Tamaichikar, a researcher on regulatory governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, sees the virginity tests as "a way to control sexual behavior of the women in the community."

Tamaichikar is engaged, and when he and his fiancee decided they did not wish to undergo this custom, they approached family elders, but in vain. He responded by setting up "Stop the V Ritual," a WhatsApp group of about 60 like-minded people. The Jat Panchayat is unhappy with Tamaichikarst and opposes his methods of raising awareness through the social media.

Many older Kanjarbhat women support the custom, the details of which are spelled out in a book of laws published by the Jat Panchayat groups in 2000. "This pratha (custom) has been going on for many years and I don't know why it's in newspapers now," says an elderly woman from Bhatnagar. "What do outsiders know about our customs? We have all gone through it and it is a custom we are proud of."

The woman's family does not want her name published. "Hume is pratha se koi taqleef hi nahi hai (we have no problem with this custom)," her daughter-in-law adds.

Tamaichikar attributes the lingering support for such customs to ghettoisation. "People tend to stay together in one area and cultural ties are tight. Even if some wish to go against it, their family is pressured by the panchayat and there is a fear of social boycott (ostracism), meaning they wouldn't be spoken to, invited to social functions, etc.," he says. "That's a strong instrument the panchayat wields."

Shakuntala Bhat heads the Maharashtra chapter of the All India Kanjarbhat Women's Association. As a woman, she admits there's something wrong about the tradition. But she is quick to counter that, as a social custom, it is needed. "The community has come a long way from being part of criminal tribes during the British rule, and we now have lawyers, doctors, and government officers. But many women are still not educated enough to make the right decisions. Such customs are needed to keep them within a certain boundary."

People need to be educated about the law.

The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti has been working to end the custom for years and Milind Deshmukh, its chief secretary, says the lack of "protesting voices' is due to the fear of ostracism. "It is a baseless one since Maharashtra is the only state to have passed a Prohibition on Social Boycott Act, in 2016. People need to be educated about the law."

Krishna Indrekar, director of the State Charity Commission, was ostracized when he ignored the custom and had a court marriage in 1996. "The panchayat takes money to approve things and has kept people under control through superstitions and boycott threats, which is why there have been no complaints filed with the police over the years," he alleges.

Even in cases where the victim is ready to file a complaint, families intervene. In June 2016, a young woman in Nashik was deserted by her husband after she did not bleed. The woman originally wanted to file a complaint, but her family ended convincing her not to.

Bhat insists that there are no boycotts or beatings and there is no penalty enforced even if a girl "fails the test." "We just counsel the couple and advise them to lead a happy life instead," he says, adding that the panchayats do not demand money either. "During the wedding, the panchayat members are given Rs 300 approximately $4.60 each as Dakshina (donation), that's it."

Some younger women from the community tell a different story. Sonal, not her real name, is a 24-year-old an engineering student in Pune. She has two older sisters who are married and have undergone the custom at their parents' insistence. "The Jati Panchayat isn't there waiting outside the room, but virginity test does happen, and there is social pressure to go through it," she explains. "The women remove the bride's jewelry and any sharp objects from the room. The boy is sent inside with a white sheet. If by any chance the bride doesn't bleed, there is a meeting fixed with the community elders and a penalty paid to approve the wedding."

Priyanka Tamaichikar, 26, works in a Pune firm and is part of the WhatsApp group. She is also one of the very few women from the community to openly speak about the issue. "It's a character test," she says. "If you ask girls from our community how their wedding was, very few would say they enjoyed it because everyone is under pressure and scared about the result."

"It's an extremely traumatic public process for every girl,"

Because there's a general lack of sex education, Priyanka goes on to say, very few girls or even older women are aware that a hymen can rupture even due to natural causes. "It's an extremely traumatic public process for every girl," she says.

College education, exposure, and social media have brought about a change in some young Kanjarbhat girls, many of whom don't want the virginity test when they marry. But few are willing to openly stick their neck out.

Shakuntala disagrees with the public method adopted by Tamaichikar's WhatsApp group but admits that there are murmurs for change. She suspects that about 20% of women in the community, especially young women, don't want the virginity test to continue. So why aren't they speaking out?

"Ours is a male-centric society and for centuries, men have been making the rules," she says. "Most women in our community feel rules need to be followed and can't be crossed."

Reshmi Chakraborty is a freelance writer who writes on gender, social change and aging.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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