Priyanka Tamaichikar is used to hearing the screams of newly-married women in her neighborhood as they are beaten up the morning after their wedding night.
Everyone in the Kanjarbhat community of Maharashtra, India, knows the reason for these beatings: the bride has failed to pass the virginity test, a tradition in which women must bleed after sex to prove their chastity.
Now, this 400-year-old ritual is being opposed by Tamaichikar and a group of almost 40 members of the Kanjarbhat community. Their platform of choice? A WhatsApp group called Stop The V-Ritual.
“It was through the group that I could for the first time express my thoughts against the virginity tests with members of my community,” says Tamaichikar.
The 27-year-old real estate executive says she has detested the practice for as long as she can remember. But, she admits, “It’s not something we have ever been taught to question.”
The custom began as a way of deterring women from the once-nomadic Kanjarbhat community from engaging in sexual relationships outside their caste. The population of 200,000 or so now largely reside in Tamaichikar’s home state of Maharashtra, where virginity tests continued to be practiced.
The ritual involves sending the newlywed couple, accompanied by a few relatives, to a lodge or motel. The bride is stripped by female relatives to ensure that she has no object with her that can be used to induce bleeding.
The groom is then handed a meter-long white cloth on which his bride must bleed when the two consummate their marriage. The bloodstained cloth is handed to the groom’s mother as proof of the bride’s premarital virginity, serving as a test for her so-called character.
If there are any difficulties while having sex, the couple is shown porn. There have also been cases where another couple from the family might give the bride and groom a live demonstration of how to have sex,” says 28-year-old Vivek Tamaichikar, Priyanka’s cousin and the founder of Stop The V-Ritual.
“It’s a complete breach of one’s privacy and dignity, especially for the women.” Vivek was among the first people to refuse the test despite marrying within the Kanjarbhat community.
It’s not just young university-educated professionals that are protesting this age-old tradition. The WhatsApp group has also found an enthusiastic member in Leelabai Bambiyasing Indrekar, a 56-year-old divorcee who was married at the age of 12.
“You don’t have to be educated to feel insulted,” says the grandmother of two. She survived the test and now staunchly opposes it. “The whole thing is a like a circus, where the men are being entertained.”
Indrekar is referring to the events that follow the morning after the test. The bride and groom, along with the panchs or chieftains of the Kanjarbhats, form a public gathering and are joined by members of the community. It is there that the panch, speaking in a dialect from the community’s ancestral land in the northern state of Rajasthan, asks the groom whether his maal (“stuff”)—the bride’s virginity—was khara (“used”) or khota (“unused”).
“How can you commodify a woman like this?” says Indrekar. “There is no value for women in our community. Why doesn’t anyone ask the men if they are virgins? Women nowadays aren’t complacent anymore,” she adds, her voice raised in anger. “We are equals.”
The test is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the discrimination suffered by brides. If she fails the test, her family must pay a hefty fine of 10,000-50,000 rupees (approx. $140-$700) to the chieftains. A groom can also demand an additional fee up to 100,000 rupees ($1,400) as the price for accepting a bride with a sexually active past.
Some women who fail the test are abused by their husbands—even their in-laws—once they move into the marital home. “I have known women who have been slapped, kicked, punched and even hit by objects lying around at home,” says Tamaichikar. “One never knows the seriousness of the injuries because none of the victims will come ahead and speak up against it.”
For some women, the virginity test has determined their lives even if they managed to escape it. “My sisters and I were denied an education. Our parents were scared that at school we might interact with boys and do ‘wrong’ things. How was this fair to us?” asks 46-year-old Padmabai Gaikwad, who chose to marry outside the community and did not have to go through the test.
“It’s a very toxic environment for women and the root cause of the problem is not the family but the caste panchayat,” explains Vivek. The panchayats are a set of kangaroo courts that govern their community, with their own quasi-constitution that insists on virginity tests as a marker of marital unions.
The panchayat imposes a social boycott on anybody who opposes the tests. That means that they—along with their families—are not allowed to attend any community gatherings, including weddings, funerals, and festivals. This continues even in Maharashtra, where the state government has outlawed the practice of social boycott.
In January this year, Stop The V-Ritual made headlines when three young activists were attacked by a mob of 40 people at a wedding. The group believes that the assault took place on orders of the panchayat. Earlier this year, over 200 Kanjarbhat women marched in support of the tests in Pune, the second largest city in the state, claiming that it was part of their customs and demanding a public apology from Stop The V-Ritual.
Vivek attributes this backlash to fear within the community. “Those who oppose us know we have the support of the media and political leaders and that we are planning legal action against virginity tests,” explains Vivek.
Stop The V-Ritual are in the process of drafting a petition against virginity tests to the Supreme Court of India. One of their biggest challenges is collecting data: Many test survivors—especially young and middle-aged married women—are afraid to talk on the record for fear of social boycott. Instead, the group collects evidence of the practice through social media with recorded audio and video clips from Kanjarbhat weddings across India.
WhatsApp has been used in the past to incite violence against minority communities in India, but it also seems to be emerging as a powerful tool for women. Another India-based group WeSpeakOutAgainstFGM that fights female genital mutilation (FGM) used WhatsApp to give survivors a safe space to talk about their experiences. Today a case to ban FGM in India—an almost thousand-year practice—is being fought in the country’s apex court.
“People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of sensitive conversations,” a spokesperson for the app tells Broadly. “This is why every message and call on WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. It means that no one, not even WhatsApp, has access to your private conversation and calls.”
Away from the virtual world, however, the reality for activists on the ground remains hostile.
Tamaichikar knows this better than others. Out of the 60 or so Kanjarbhat families that live in her neighborhood, she and her family are the only ones who publicly oppose of the test. Her neighbours have threatened to beat her up and vandalized her private property. Their efforts do little to deter Tamaichikar.
“I am not stepping down from this fight,” she says. “I need to let the girls of my community know that there is a way to live with dignity. This is my calling.”