Turkmenistan: Officials Make Questionable Choices When Moral Policing – OpEd


By Karlygash Kabatova 

(Eurasianet) — Authoritarian excess is nothing new in Turkmenistan. But a recent government mandate that all female high school students in a seaside province undergo “virginity testing” marks another low point. The tests are not just an outrageous violation of individual rights, they are ineffective in determining whether a woman is sexually active.

Turkmen authorities in Balkan Province, which sits astride the Caspian Sea, are forcing girls to endure gynecological exams without the consent of parents or guardians, RFE/RL has reported. Officials contend the tests are needed to ensure “moral” behavior. Those deemed by the tests to have been sexually active are being reported to local Interior Ministry officials, as well as the National Security Ministry. 

The testing in Balkan Province is not a novel practice in Turkmenistan. Authorities in other provinces, including Mary and Dashagouz, have gone on morality crusades in recent years. 

Beyond the ethics of such state action, and the humiliation it causes to girls, medical studies confirm that “virginity is not an anatomical feature,” meaning that a woman’s virtue cannot be determined without doubt via any sort of gynecological examination.

A 2019 article, titled The little tissue that couldn’t – dispelling myths about the hymen’s role in determining sexual history and assault, published in the Reproductive Health Journal, systematically discredits the methods being used by Turkmen authorities to determine who is moral and who is not.

“The hymen is a membranous tissue that surrounds the vaginal orifice,” and despite common beliefs, it does not fully cover the opening to the vagina, the article states. In rare cases when it does, it is called an imperforate hymen, a medical condition that, in an adolescent girl, can lead to accumulation of menstrual blood in the vagina (hydrocolpos) and potentially cause kidney damage, infertility and other issues. Imperforate hymen occurs in 1 out of 1,000 female newborns and tends to be treated through surgery.   

The tests being used by Turkmen authorities to confirm virginity of a girl/woman are supposed to detect “an intact hymen.” Unless it is imperforate, hymen cannot be “intact.” As already mentioned, it is normally a membranous tissue and it varies in shape, elasticity, thickness and size. 

Reproductive health researchers have established that “an examination of the hymen is not an accurate or reliable test of a previous history of sexual activity, including sexual assault.” 

In one study on adolescent sexual assault, “only 19 percent of victims between the ages of 14 and 19 years – who identified as not having had prior sexual intercourse before the alleged sexual assault – had acute hymenal tears.” In a different study of 132 women “without prior [sexual intercourse] experience, only 9.1 percent had hymenal perforation” after sexual assault. 

In an international study “of 1,500 girls aged from birth to 17 years old with a history of sexual abuse, 93 percent had an unremarkable genital examination, while 7 percent had one or more diagnostic findings.”

The data is definitive: virginity testing or hymen examination is unreliable as a means of determining an individual’s sexual history, even of a rape. 

The consequences of being labeled as “non-virgin” or “immoral” for a girl in a conservative patriarchal society such as Turkmenistan’s range from stigmatization and social isolation to suicide and honor killing. The effect on an individual’s mental health and emotional well-being is impossible to pinpoint. 

Another important question to consider is the competency of the Turkmen public health officials conducting the tests? The Turkmen public health system is notoriously underfunded.  There is little way of telling whether a gynecologist in Turkmenistan is adequately trained to make such life-altering conclusions.

To put Turkmenistan’s training system in perspective, in the United States, medical students have very limited opportunities to get educated about hymen as they “receive only a few hours of pelvic examination training” which “involves mostly adult volunteers and standardized patients, as well as pelvic models.” In one study “only 64 percent of 139 pediatric chief residents identified correctly the hymen on photographs of pre-pubescent female genitalia.” 

Unfortunately, the moral policing of female sexual behavior in Central Asia extends beyond Turkmenistan. Virginity tests are commonly administered to brides-to-be in Tajikistan, the region’s poorest state. The involuntary testing of school-age girls also was reported in Uzbekistan in 2017. In a related development, private information relating to sexual activity of university students in Kazakhstan was recently leaked, according to a Tengrinews report.

When a government insists on upholding the morality of underage girls by violating the privacy of those girls, forcing them to go endure inaccurate, invasive and traumatizing procedures, what does it say about the morality of that government?

  • Karlygash Kabatova is the founder and manager of UyatEmes.kzan educational website for Kazakh teenagers and their parents. The site aims to help young people become more literate about reproductive health and sexuality.


Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at eurasianet.org.

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