Photo: Two Moroccan women walk in Oulad Teima, a small town in southern Morocco, where they work in the women’s club. Both obtained virginity certificates when they were younger. They asked to remain anonymous to protect their privacy. Photo by Naomi Miyamoto for Reporting Morocco.
By Lexi Reich
Bouchra, 20, took her “virginity test” when she was only 14, six months before her wedding night. Terrified of the result, tears fell down her cheeks when the doctor instructed her to spread open her legs at a hospital in Boujdour, southern Morocco. She says her test involved a female doctor inspecting her hymen, the thin tissue at the vaginal opening.
“I was so afraid,” said Bouchra, eyes fixated on her hands. The tall young woman with her black hair in a bun asked us not to use her last name to protect her privacy.
Morocco, alongside countries like Afghanistan, Brazil and Egypt, is one of 20 countries where “virginity certificates” are a long-standing practice. In the Moroccan penal code, where sex outside of marriage is illegal, men can cancel marriages if they suspect their wife-to-be is not a virgin.
In October 2018, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Council and United Nations Women called for a ban on the certificates, questioning their validity and adding that they “are based in patriarchal systems of gender discrimination and violence against women.” In February 2018, the Moroccan Association of Sexology, an academic group representing doctors, sociologists, psychologists and lawyers promoting rights and liberties in relation to sexuality, also called on the Moroccan Ministry of Health to forbid the medical distribution of virginity certificates to young women.
“Doctors should be required by law to perform their medical practice in respect to the fundamental rights of girls, and not in respect to societal norms,” said Rachid Aboutaieb, urologist and head of the Moroccan Association of Sexology.
But the certificates have not been banned. The Ministry of Health released a statement in a press conference explaining there is no legal framework in Morocco that requires women to undergo a virginity test — which is true. But they aren’t forbidden, either, and so the practice continues, even though many experts believe the hymen’s appearance is not a reliable indicator of vaginal sex. The number of virginity certificates given is undocumented due to its extreme secrecy.
Many Moroccan women say virginity certificates are their only option to combat accusations about their virginity and protect against social isolation and even arrest for violating laws against sex outside marriage. During a news conference in 2015, Mustapha Ramid, then Moroccan minister of justice and minister of human rights, said he’d rather resign than legalize sex before marriage.
In reality, the law only ostracizes women for breaking it, which is why preserving the female virginity is a sign of honor in traditional Moroccan families, said Najia Labrim of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
Bouchra says she and her family wanted the certificate (which costs from 5 to 30 U.S. dollars) as a form of insurance to protect her from her husband questioning her virginity the night of the wedding. She says her mother also wanted the certificate, which was granted, to preserve her standing in the community.
“I was so happy and relieved, I started jumping,” said Bouchra.
In the last study conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2007, 36 percent of Moroccan men and 15 percent of Moroccan women reported to have had premarital sex. But many of those women avoid vaginal penetration to preserve their hymen, said Yasmine Essakhi, a graduate student at University of Mohammed V, whose studies focus on the sexual culture of Moroccan youth.
“Most girls my age think virginity is proof they are good girls,” said Essakhi. “It is common to lie about it. I think it’s about education.”
At the age of 23, Khadija Akroro made the decision to get a certificate before her arranged marriage. For her, the examination wasn’t uncomfortable — in fact, she says it was a relief.
“All girls should get it for themselves to guarantee you are good person,” said Akroro, 31, a seamstress in Oulad Teima, a small town in southern Morocco. “Whether it’s legal or not, doctors should give certificates.”
As she smoothed her floral hijab, Akroro added it’s bad to think about what would happen if a man questioned a girl’s virginity.
“People will describe it as your life being ruined,” said Stephanie Willman Bordat, international human rights lawyer and founder of Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA), an international nonprofit women’s rights organization based in Rabat, commenting on the ramifications if a husband suspects his wife it not a virgin the night of their wedding.
“Abusive annulment based on alleged nonvirginity is a form of violence,” Bordat said. She advocates for using the official divorce process to end a marriage, rather than using suspected nonvirginity as grounds for annulment. Bordat says that with a legal divorce, the husband will have to go through the court and pay financial support. With annulment, the husband would not have to pay anything, the woman’s family becomes a victim of scandal and the woman herself experiences shame and dishonor, according to Bordat.
13 percent of Moroccans identify as not religious, according to a 2019 report by Arab Barometer, up from under 5 percent in 2013. The topic of virginity in Morocco, as a majority Muslim country, is certainly influenced by religion, but is rooted as a social and cultural standard. But Bordat says the Moroccan government has an obligation to create laws to protect women.
“It wouldn’t be enough to just eliminate or forbid the virginity certificates. You’d have to provide some sort of alternative or get rid of their usefulness to really eliminate it in practice,” she said.
Even if the Ministry of Health banned the certificates, the practice would go underground and be performed in unhygienic environments, adds Loubna Rais, member of the #Masaktach movement (translated as “I will not keep silent”). The #Masaktach movement brings awareness to cases of violence against women.
“It’s humiliating to reduce the value of a woman to a membrane,” said Rais. “Without the proper work to change behavior, change communication and raise awareness, women’s bodies will always belong to the community and not themselves.”
In August 2019, Bangladesh’s government removed the requirement for women to declare their virginity on marriage certificates. As in Morocco, Bengali society places value on a woman’s virginity, but with their newfound legal rights, activists say the door is opened to create social change.
Bouchra Assarag, 48, a public health doctor, says that during her medical training at a hospital in Casablanca, almost every Saturday night families and their distressed, crying daughters would rush into her office begging for virginity certificates.
“Families would present the girls like they were criminals,” said Assarag.
Assarag wrote the certificates but she refused to perform the examination. She says she would bring the woman into her office, wait a few minutes, sign the paper and send her on her way.
That was during her training. Today, Assarag says she’s still asked to write certificates but now she agrees with the global campaign to ban them and she declines. Instead, she advocates for sexual and reproductive health education for the families.
“Now, I tell the families the girl is a human being,” she said, adding that virginity should remain confidential between the couple.
Bouchra repeated the main reason she needed the certificate was for security. “It was stressful. I was afraid my husband might deny I’m not virgin after the marriage,” she said, emphasizing the validation virginity certificates give women.
Just two months after her wedding night and eight months after passing her virginity test, Bouchra’s marriage ended. She refused to tell us why. Bouchra was 15 years old.
Lexi Reich spent spring 2019 in Morocco on through SIT Study Abroad. She produced this story with guidance from SIT and Round Earth Media, a program of the International Women’s Media Foundation. Zakaria El Kouzouni of Connect Institute contributed reporting.
Last updated December 2019.