BAGHDAD: Iraqi women face court-ordered virginity tests that often show they were virgins until marriage but shame them nonetheless, doctors at an institute that carries out the tests and a lawyer told AFP.
Remaining a virgin until marriage can be an issue of life or death for women in the Middle East, where those who are seen as having dishonoured the family by having premarital sex are sometimes killed by male relatives.
An average of several virginity tests are performed per day at the Medical Legal Institute (MLI) in Baghdad, in a small windowless room with blue-tiled walls and a black table with leg stirrups at one end.
Other equipment includes a white scope on a wheeled stand and a bright white light, also on wheels, near the end of the table.
"Most of the cases we received after the first day of marriage," said Dr Munjid al-Rezali, the director of the MLI.
"The husband claim that she is not a virgin, and then the family bring her here, through the courts, this all come through the courts, and we examine her," Rezali said, speaking in English.
"It's not uncommon, we are seeing a lot," he added.
The tests include examination of the woman's hymen, but the man involved may also come under scrutiny.
The man may be tested for impotency, Rezali said, noting that in some cases, a man with erectile dysfunction may pretend the woman was not a virgin to hide his shame.
The results of the tests go directly to the courts, and are not given by the MLI to the parties involved, Rezali said.
"They think that during the marriage, (the) first day of marriage, there should be blood... they think if there is no blood, there is no virginity," said Dr Sami Dawood, a forensic doctor at the MLI who has been involved in the tests.
This belief, he said, indicates that sex education and knowledge is "very poor."
If a man thinks his new wife is not a virgin, he may take the issue to court, leading to the MLI performing a virginity test, said Dawood.
Asked about the results of the tests, Dawood said that "most of them (are) with the woman, not against the woman, but it is by itself... shaming."
However, he said that while women were killed in the past if blood was not found on the sheets after their wedding night, people now seek recourse through the courts and the virginity tests procedure.
The test, which takes between 15 and 30 minutes, is carried out by three doctors, at least one of them a woman, and the results are certified by two others, said Dawood, adding that the tests are done only when ordered by a court.
"The judge is required to send the woman for the medical test when she is accused by her husband of not being a virgin, and that is only done in this case," lawyer Ali Awad Kurdi said.
"If it is proved that the woman was not virgin and sought to get married without telling the man, there is no law that protects her," Kurdi said.
The woman's family is then required to recompense the man for gifts, money and other expenditures related to the relationship.
Various Iraqi judicial officials either declined to speak about the issue, or could not be reached by AFP.
"Non-governmental organisations do not have any means of protecting women from this accusation of this crime, because it is a very sensitive matter," said Intisar al-Mayali, an activist from the Iraqi Women's Association, a local rights group.
Marianne Mollmann, senior policy adviser for rights group Amnesty International, called virginity tests both wrong and ineffective.
"The issue of virginity testing, and forced virginity testing and sort of legal virginity tests in court proceedings or in other ways, violate a whole host of human rights and are just not justifiable," she said.
"Even if it were legitimate to look at whether women were virgins for whatever reason, which it's not, you can't use a virginity test for that, because the hymen might break for any reason," Mollmann said.
The test "doesn't do what it's set out to do."
Liesl Gerntholtz, the director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said: "The Iraqi government should urgently put measures in place to ensure that women and girls are not forced to undergo physical examinations that are degrading, painful and frightening."
"The use of these tests in court should be banned."