Before crossing the border into Canada to make a refugee claim, Saida Ahmadi worked at a hospital in northern Afghanistan where her duties included virginity examinations.
Although Canadian officials said such tests have “no scientific validity,” in Afghanistan they can be used to prosecute girls and young women for the supposed moral crime of sex before marriage.
At hearings held in secrecy in Vancouver, the officials have accused Ahmadi of conducting such tests “at the request of the state” and testifying in court about the results, making her complicit in the oppression of Afghan women.
Virginity tests amount to torture and the persecution of women, the government officials argued, and aiding and abetting prosecutions amounted to a crime against humanity.
The Immigration and Refugee Board, however, ruled that while the tests were “part of the systematic oppression of women in Afghanistan,” they did not amount to a crime against humanity.
Similarly, the IRB’s Immigration Appeal Division subsequently ruled that Ahmadi did not make a significant contribution to “the systems in Afghanistan which oppress women.”
It noted she had said she believed she had the consent of women to conduct the tests and would not have done them if she had known they would be used in court.
But the Federal Court of Canada overturned the Appeal Division decision last month and sent the matter back for reconsideration.
The Canadian government has made women’s rights and gender equality a foreign policy priority and, in 2015, announced up to $30 million for programs to empower women and girls in Afghanistan.
Among the obstacles they face are rigid morality laws that allow them to be forcibly subjected to scientifically baseless physical examinations to question whether they are virgins.
Women and girls can be compelled to undergo the exams if they are accused of having sex outside marriage or if they have run away from home or even strayed outdoors unaccompanied.
The results can be used as evidence in court, resulting in imprisonment. A United Nations report called the tests “a serious violation of women’s rights to privacy, bodily integrity and dignity.”
Human rights groups want virginity tests banned, saying they have no scientific basis and are highly invasive, involving government-ordered vaginal and rectal examinations by medical teams.
According to a report prepared by Canadian immigration officials and obtained by Global News, Ahmadi arrived in Canada from the United States in summer 2017.
In interviews, she told Canadian officials she had worked as a gynecologist at the Abu Ali Cina Balkhi hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif, where “virginity exams were part of her duties, though they were not routine.”
Ahmadi estimated she had conducted 10 such exams. One case, in August 2016, involved a young woman named Soraya, who was accused of zina, or sexual activity before marriage.
“The authorities wanted us to check her virginity and also to find out if there were any signs of sexual intercourse. This is not an uncommon occurrence in Afghanistan,” Ahmadi said in her refugee claim, according to a document filed in court by the government.
“In Islamic law and tradition, a woman is forbidden from having any sexual relationship before marriage. Both the law and the public punishes women for such ‘sins’ and it is called zina.'”
The tests are performed by one doctor while two others observe as witnesses, she said. Following the exam on Soraya, Ahmadi said she signed a report with her opinion that Soraya was not a virgin.
Ultimately, eight doctors examined Soraya, with six concluding she was not a virgin and two saying it was inconclusive. Ahmadi testified in court, and Soraya was sentenced to seven years.
Ahmadi said she fled Afghanistan after receiving threatening calls from Soraya’s family. She went to the United States but did not stay because of what she called its “anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies.”
An investigation by federal immigration officials, however, found her complicit in virginity exams, which they alleged were conducted without consent, had “no medical value” and were legally dubious.
Further, they were a violation of international human rights laws, which prohibit torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or being subjected to medical or scientific experimentation, the officials wrote.
“The minister further submits these examinations were part of a systematic or widespread attack on civilians, namely women in Afghanistan who had ‘run away’ or were suspected to have committed the moral crime of sexual intercourse outside of marriage,” the government wrote in its report on Ahmadi.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Ms. Ahmadi was an active participant in crimes against humanity.” As such, the government sought a deportation order against the doctor.
The case went to a hearing before the IRB, which was not convinced, ruling that virginity exams “have negative consequences on women” but were not a crime against humanity.
The government also lost its appeal. In an August 2019 decision, the IRB said that to be complicit, Ahmadi had to have made a voluntary, significant and knowing contribution to a crime.
She said virginity tests were used by “many organizations,” including safe houses, shelters for underage girls and women’s groups.
“These organizations have different purposes for the test such as gaining evidence to convict rapists or dispel incorrect assumptions about alleged affairs,” the IRB wrote.
In addition, she said her court testimony was limited to confirming her signature on a virginity test report, which indicated whether the hymen was broken.
She said she was helping Soraya because her partner was reluctant to marry her since his family was not supportive and “in most situations” a woman’s family “managed to get the woman married to the men with whom she lost her virginity.”
Ahmadi had not contributed significantly to the oppression of women and was therefore not complicit, the IRB said.
“I find that there was little evidence provided to support that the respondent knowingly observed and performed virginity tests for the purpose of having women convicted of zina,” the appeal decision read.
But the government appealed to the Federal Court, which found the IRB had come to its decision through a process that “breached the principals of natural justice and procedural fairness.”
The court overturned the decision and sent the case back to the refugee board to be re-examined.