In January 1979, a 35-year-old Indian school teacher arrived at Heathrow airport in London, where she was to meet her fiancé, a British resident, whom she was planning to marry. An immigration official took her aside, and, as The Guardian reported on 1 February that year, she had to undergo a physical examination.
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The woman, who hasn’t been named, later said she was asked to sign a consent form. She asked for a woman doctor, but her request was ignored. She said she was asked to take off her clothes, with the male doctor helpfully telling her not to feel shy, as he put on gloves, and examined her intimately. He pronounced her to be a virgin, and she was allowed to enter Britain.
She felt traumatized, but she did not protest; she was worried they’d put her on a plane back to India. The article in The Guardian caused justified outrage. The government initially denied the allegations, but later offered her £500 (about Rs 9,000 at that time), in recognition of the “distress” caused, without admitting any wrongdoing or offering an apology. Morarji Desai, who was then India’s prime minister, wrote angrily to his British counterpart, James Callaghan, who promised to end the practice immediately.
In the years since, Britain has claimed that the practice was an aberration, affecting only three women. Now Marinella Marmo and Evan Smith, two academics from Flinders University in Australia, have analysed previously confidential files, and they reveal that at least 82 women were subjected to such degrading treatment, and the practice persisted for three years, ending only in 1979. They call it a grave abuse of discretionary power. It is worse: it is an assault on dignity.
To understand this imbecilic insanity, here’s the context: In 1968, the Conservative politician Enoch Powell made a famous speech in Birmingham, saying: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.” His speech was seen as a stark warning against more immigration of coloured people into Britain.
British mood was dismal when Labour came to power in 1974. Britain was divided about entering the European Common Market. The oil shock of 1973, and the recession that followed, had battered the economy. A wave of strikes followed in the period known as “the winter of discontent”. Callaghan had to go to the International Monetary Fund for its then-largest loan, of $3.9 billion, and promise spending cuts.
Meanwhile, in 1971 in Uganda, Idi Amin had expelled thousands of people of Indian origin who had British nationality. They had come to Britain, which was unprepared and reluctant, and accepted them only grudgingly. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a left-leaning columnist who migrated to Britain from Uganda as a child, remembers people standing at British airports with placards saying: “Go back where you came from.” (You could see graffiti saying “Wogs Go Home,” and KBW, or Keep Britain White, on the walls of public housing projects where Indians and Pakistanis lived).
Labour leaders Harold Wilson—and later Callaghan—were determined to act tough on immigration. When the Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta required foreigners in Kenya to have work permits, the move affected British settlers in Kenya, including many Indians with British passports. Britain feared a repeat of the Ugandan experience. The Callaghan administration set a rule clarifying what type of British national living abroad could automatically settle in Britain. Such an individual would have to show ancestral links. Its effect was to make it almost impossible for non-whites with British passports to settle in Britain. (Unlike whites, only a rare few Indians or blacks who had British nationality and lived in East Africa could show ancestral links with Britain). Callaghan was candid: “It is sometimes argued that we can take a less serious view of the scale of immigration and settlement in this country because it could be more than offset by total emigration. This view overlooks the important point that emigration is largely by white persons…while immigration and settlement are largely by coloured persons. The exchange thus aggravates rather than alleviates the problem.”
The bizarre virginity test was a dehumanized bureaucratic way to discourage Asians from “flooding” Britain. While married spouses of British nationals could move to Britain, the procedure was lengthy. A fiancé could come sooner, and once married, the couple could stay on in Britain. Officials feared people would jump the queue by claiming to be fiancés when in fact they were married. And to establish their marital status, the geniuses decided on virginity tests: surely unmarried Indian women must be virgins, they thought. This was sexist, racist, misogynist, paternalistic, deeply offensive, and humiliating. Britain rightly stopped the practice in 1979. What’s appalling is that it was even conceived.
Mohandas Gandhi had a point when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea,” he said.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com