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This story was reported with the Fuller Project , a journalism nonprofit reporting on global issues impacting women. Niloofar wept as the doctor forcibly removed her pants, fearful of what would happen next. Lying defeated on the examination table, bare legs spread and tears streaming into the edges of her headscarf, she regretted ever leaving her home near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Nor did the judge who ordered Niloofar undergo a so-called virginity test. Or perhaps none of them cared. But instead of finding love with a man her age, she found a year-old boy posing as an older man on social media and his angry father, who pinned her down, tied her hands, and sexually assaulted her. Local police accused Niloofar of zina , or sex outside of marriage, a crime in Afghanistan.
Many of these women have been subjected to forced hymen exams, often at the request of police officers, judges, family members, and potential in-laws. In cases of rape, the procedures can determine the length of the prison sentence for victims of sexual violence. The test performed on Niloofar was not a real medical exam. In fact, the hymen never breaks; it may only rip or stretch or wear away as a woman ages. Afghan women have seen life-changing advancements since the Taliban fell from power in Afghan women and human-rights advocates have managed to push forward major legal wins, like the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women , which was passed through presidential decree to better protect girls and women against abuse and ensure a legal framework to prosecute offenders.
But such laws remain lacking and woefully unenforced. Virginity testing persists, forcing women onto exam tables, their legs spread while physicians probe their genitals. She is one of several hundred registered female lawyers in Afghanistan. With the help of the legal-aid organization Medica Afghanistan, Sadat defies death threats—from unknown callers and from prosecutors—to represent women who have been subjected to forced hymen exams.
Some women, like Niloofar, have ended up in prison following a state-sanctioned test. When that failed, she tried rat poison. After three days and three nights in the hospital, Medina pulled through. Her lawyer, Nabila, who works with Medica Afghanistan alongside Sadat, smiles silently, urging her to continue. With the help of Nabila, Medina is back in school, and she plans to study to become a gynecologist. She grimaces, as if in pain.