A couple of days after her wedding in May, 19-year-old KB and her husband were ushered into a room in her in-laws’ modest house as older women from both families waited eagerly for the young couple to consummate the marriage. But the mood soon turned sour as the white bedsheet remained ‘unstained’.
The new bride had ‘failed’ the crude virginity test called kukdi pratha.
KB did not bleed during intercourse. In no time, word spread in the village and curious neighbours peeped inside the house’s big metal gate to get a glimpse of the ‘immoral woman’ – a tag that KB won’t be able to brush off easily.
She is a new victim of the age-old humiliating practice that women in the Sansi community have been subjected to. In this nomadic tribe traditionally from Rajasthan, listed as a Scheduled Caste, women are accepted in their husband’s family only after they give proof of their virginity by showing a blood-stained white cloth (or a white petticoat) after intercourse. It doesn’t stop there – a failed test has a cascading effect of stigma, shame and domestic violence, made worse by the absence of the possibility of divorce. New brides also come under tremendous pressure from parents and in-laws to save face.
Though the breaking of the hymen as a sign of virginity has been debunked by doctors globally (your hymen can break even if you exercise or swim when young), in the Sansi community, it is still considered a benchmark to assess if a woman has abstained from premarital sex. A virgin bride is of ‘good character’, men and women of the community The Print spoke to say.
And rape charges often come up as an explanation when someone fails the test.
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A story changes
KB’s ordeal did not end with the name-calling, though. A few days later, sitting on a dhurrie at her parents’ house in Bagdana Basti in Bhilwada city, she narrated to a group of local journalists how she was raped by a neighbour months before her wedding. Despite that explanation, she was beaten up by her husband and her mother-in-law at their house in Baghor village in Bhilwara.
“I could not clear the kukdi test. My husband and mother-in-law beat me up,” KB told the journalists gathered, her face covered in a black and pink scarf.
Her revelations created a stir in Bhilwara. An FIR on rape was registered, the accused was arrested within days and the police ordered an inquiry into the custom of virginity tests following a news report in a Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar.
But her new courage to question the abuse and the custom of kukdi did not last very long.
Four months after her wedding, KB walked into the office of the Bhilwara’s Superintendent of Police on 8 September and retracted her statement – this, after the local police booked her husband and his father, a sub-inspector in the district, for subjecting KB to the kukdi test.
But her story had changed.
“My in-laws do not believe in kukdi pratha. No such thing happened with me and I am living happily in my married home,” she said in a written statement.
KB’s in-laws were in agreement.
“I do not believe in kukdi pratha. This practice was not followed in this house,” thundered her father-in-law.
In stark contrast, the fiery KB who had called the abuse on her unjust in May now wears a long veil in her husband’s house.
“I am under no pressure to change my statement,” she meekly told ThePrint, fiddling with the yellow plastic bangles covering her forearms. Her red lipstick and sindoor glimmered faintly in the sun from under her purdah. “It is a lie spread by the media that I had to go through a virginity test.”
‘A virgin will be a devoted wife and mother’
There is little academic documentation of the Sansi community and no recent study of the kukdi custom.
With a poor literacy rate of just 30 per cent in Rajasthan, the Sansis are one of the most backward castes. Like many other women from her community, KB was engaged to her husband when she was five years old.
Marriages in the community are sacrosanct even if it means child marriage. Remarriages and divorce are taboo, and marital disputes are solved by community panchayats or ‘khaps’. They consist of five elderly or authoritarian men of the community – they have no elections or constitutional validity.
But when KB defied the panchayat and reported the domestic violence to activists and local media, she brought the oppressive practice of kukdi out in the public. She was a single woman against a well-entrenched system.
“The kukdi pratha must continue. It ensures that women do not go astray. I went through it when I got married and recently my daughters were married. Both passed the test,” a Sansi woman living in Bhilwara’s Labour Colony proudly says. “If the women of the house are of ‘good character’, then the house will flourish and the kids will have a future.”
‘Good character’ is largely used to mean virgin.
Her young nephew, Pradeep Sansi, agrees.
“If a woman strays outside her house, how will she take care of her family? Won’t her children be wasted?” asks Pradeep.
Social acceptance of the strict test and very few women failing it ensures that there is no strong collective voice against it, says Desh Kumar Malawat, a lawyer from the Sansi community.
“Women facing the atrocities are in minority and the older women in the community are the ones carrying this practice forward,” he says.
Under the Indian Penal Code, virginity tests are not considered a crime. The accused can, however, be booked under various sections of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and the IPC.
Sources in the Bhilwara police told ThePrint that KB’s in-laws may have accepted her in the family because the police intervened.
“I was under someone’s influence earlier when I spoke against my in-laws and accused them,” KB now says.
The preliminary inquiry by the police, however, found evidence that kukdi was practiced at KB’s marital home and an FIR was filed on 2 September by the circle officer based on it at Bagor police station.
“The inquiry found that torture was inflicted on KB by two parties – her in-laws and panchayat members. Her husband and father-in-law are named as accused with charges of cruelty to women, extortion, and insulting the modesty of a woman among others,” says Ayub Khan, Bagor police SHO.
But since the police inquiry found that kukdi pratha is still practiced in the community, the case will go on.
“Even if KB is now saying that it did not take place, the police case still stands. We will now collect evidence and the matter will go to court,” says Adarsh Sidhu, Bhilwara Superintendent of Police.
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Not a virgin? Trial by fire and water
An offshoot of the Rajputs, the Sansis were classified as a criminal tribe under British rule and later de-notified. They are present in small numbers across the country. Kept under wraps carefully, the Sansi community considers women’s chastity central to the integrity of the family.
If a woman does not bleed during the first intercourse with her husband, she is beaten up and asked to confess the name of her ‘lover’. The husband’s family then calls the khap panchayat that imposes a hefty monetary fine, ranging from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 15 lakh, on the woman’s family.
If the woman names a ‘lover’ from the Sansi community, then the fine imposed by the khap panchayat is paid by that man’s family. His house is often vandalised. If the man is from a different community, then the woman’s family has to pay the fine.
Not only is the practice misogynist, but it is also medically incorrect.
“There are many times when the hymen is broken during physical exercise or a fall and it need not necessarily bleed on the first intercourse. This is a form of violence against women and has been strongly opposed by us gynaecologists,” says Dr S. Shantha Kumari, president of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Society of India and treasurer of the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Having grown up seeing this custom, lawyer Malawat says that if women do not name their sexual partners, the torture by the husband and in-laws become extreme. And women rarely speak up because of pressure. That is why cases are not reported or tried in courts.
“The women aren’t educated on legal remedies against such practices,” says Malawat.
In cases where women fail the test, but claim they are virgins, they have to pass an ‘agni or jal pariksha (trial by fire or water)’. In the former, at dawn, her palms are covered with seven fresh Peepal leaves and a layer of white kukdi (virgin) thread. A hot metal pan is kept on her palms and she has to walk seven steps holding it. If her palms burn, she is assumed to be lying. If her palms do not burn, she passes the test. Several community members told ThePrint about this custom.
“We have seen women passing the test,” says the woman from the Labour Colony.
In the trial by water, the woman has to stay submerged in deep water while a villager walks about 100 steps. If she pops her head out early, she fails and pays a fine, say Sansi members.
“The fine is simply a way for the old khap members to make some money,” says Malawat.
‘Sansi women are trapping innocent men’
Days after KB narrated her ordeal to reporters, her mother filed an FIR of rape at Subhash Nagar police station in Bhilwara.
According to her, on 20 November 2021, when she and her husband were out for a family wedding, their neighbour, Shahid Rangrez, abducted KB when she stepped out of the house to use the toilet right next to the entrance of the house, and raped her. KB was home alone with her younger siblings but she did not tell anyone about the rape because Rangrez had allegedly threatened to kill her younger brother.
Rangrez, who was 17 years old then, was arrested three days later.
This is not the first rape case that came to light after a virginity test. In 2019, KB’s first cousin had an identical story.
Three days after her wedding, SS, who was a minor then, returned home to her mother with swollen eyes and blue marks all over her frail body. She had not bled during her first intercourse with her husband, who was also a minor then.
“He locked the door and beat her with hot wooden sticks from the chulha,” the woman’s mother recalls.
While SS’ scars have healed, her memory of that night is vivid. The husband’s family had called the khap panchayat and the leaders demanded Rs 6 lakh rupee as a fine.
Knowing that her mother will not be able to arrange the money, SS, mother of two sons now, went to the local police station instead. She accused her husband of domestic abuse and said that she was gang-raped by two men – a Thakur and a Muslim – before her marriage.
“We had gone for a family function and my daughter was alone in the house with her younger brother,” her mother explained.
The accused were arrested and the case is still going on. Her husband was also arrested for abuse and kept in jail for just three days and the fine was waived off.
When KB similarly named her neighbour—who lived 50 metres away—in her rape complaint, his family was shocked and said he had been trapped.
“Shahid was living in the same vicinity and he might be friends with her, or they might have had a relationship. We cannot confirm this. But the accusation that he raped her is false,” says Mehboob Ali, Rangrez’s father.
Ali adds how KB allegedly had relationships with two men from the Sansi community in the area and her parents were often seen arguing with the men’s parents, asking them to pay up. But when KB was beaten after the kukdi practice, she named Rangrez as her rapist.
“When Shahid was picked up by the police on 23 May, KB’s parents asked me to pay Rs 15 lakh to withdraw the case. When I refused, the police picked him up three days before his formal arrest,” says Ali. A charge KB’s mother denies.
Since the money conversation was oral, Ali says he has no evidence to present in court.
“He has also been charged under the stringent SC/ST Act, besides rape. We are applying for his bail in the High Court. Once Shahid is released, we will file a case against the police for keeping him in jail and not a juvenile home,” said Amjad Parvez, Rangrez’s lawyer.
Rangrez, his family says, is a victim of the oppressive practice of virginity tests that pushes young Sansi women to accuse innocent men of rape, just to appear blameless and save themselves from humiliation and abuse.
“When the girls in Sansi community are humiliated in their husbands’ homes, they name any man as their rapist. My lawyer had also questioned this practice in the court,” says Ali.
Ali and Parvez are also planning to file a public interest litigation (PIL) against the kukdi custom.
Meanwhile, questions are being asked about why KB talked about the rape after the kukdi test.
“Shahid kept harassing me even after my marriage. That is why I filed an FIR against him,” she says. A charge Ali denies.
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A vicious cycle
Away from bustling city life, KB sits on the floor of her marital home without her veil because the men of the house are away.
“This practice destroys the lives of women, so many fights erupt,” she snaps, looking away, and stopping just before the men of the house walk in from the fields.
In May, her father-in-law was accused of demanding money from her family for failing the virginity test. But he denies it now.
“I am accused of demanding Rs 10 lakh after a khap panchayat. We don’t know who the khaps are, I have never met them,” he says.
Back in Bagdana Basti, KB’s mother is fidgety. The news of her eldest daughter failing the test has spread in the colony like wildfire and it has brought disrepute to the family.