KARACHI, Pakistan — A court in the northern city of Lahore in Pakistan has abolished so-called virginity tests, which women are subjected to in sexual assault cases, setting a precedent for the practice to be potentially outlawed nationwide.
The practice — banned in neighboring Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh — continues to take place in Pakistan and more than a dozen other countries where it is seen as a measure of virtue and of whether a woman is trustworthy.
If two fingers can be easily inserted into the vagina, supporters of the practice say, it shows that a woman is not a virgin, and thus lacks moral authority to make an assault or rape accusation.
The petitioners — a group of women that includes a sociologist, a journalist, an activist, a lawyer and a psychologist, as well as a member of the lower house of Parliament — argued that examining whether the hymen was intact had no scientific or legal bearing in sexual violence cases, and violated constitutional rights to privacy and dignity.
The Lahore High Court, in the province of Punjab, agreed on Monday.
“It is a humiliating practice, which is used to cast suspicion on the victim, as opposed to focusing on the accused,” Justice Ayesha A. Malik wrote.
The ruling was immediately hailed across Pakistan, with no high-profile public critiques, suggesting it has widespread support.
Women’s rights activists called it a necessary step toward improving the investigative and judicial process for victims of sexual violence in a country where rape convictions are rare.
“We hope that the judgment will be implemented by all government authorities across the country to ensure that such unlawful practices are immediately prohibited,” said Farieha Aziz, a Karachi-based rights activist and one of the petitioners.
Shireen Mazari, the human rights minister in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, wrote in a tweet on Monday that the ruling was a “landmark judgment” against a “demeaning and absurd” practice.
Editorials in English-language Pakistani newspapers also praised the ruling. “A raped woman needs justice, and that certainly doesn’t require her sexuality to be placed in the dock,” one editorial in The News said Wednesday.
Sameer Khosa, a lawyer representing the petitioners, said the court’s judgment could pave the way for a ban on such testing elsewhere in Pakistan.
“It will also end character assassination and humiliation of victims of rape and sexual assault in court proceedings,” Mr. Khosa said.
The Sindh Province’s court in Karachi, which is hearing a similar petition, asked the authorities in December to present guidelines on forensic examinations in sexual assault cases consistent with internationally recognized practices.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has rejected claims in recent years that a woman’s accusation of rape can be dismissed on the basis of a “virginity test.”
In its judgment, the Lahore court cited a 2010 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled that even if a woman did not pass the test, “no blanket authority can be given to rape her by anyone who wishes to do so.”
In its ruling, the Lahore court also considered Pakistan’s international obligations. It pointed out that the country is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Experts charged with implementing that treaty have said there is no scientific or medical basis for “virginity testing” in sexual violence cases.
The World Health Organization and United Nations said in a 2018 report urging countries to ban the practice that it “reinforces sociocultural norms that perpetuate women’s inequality, including stereotyped views of female morality and sexuality, and serves to exercise control over women and girls.”
Still, the W.H.O. says the practice persists in at least 20 other countries, where it is used not just in criminal sexual violence cases, but also before a marriage or even, in Indonesia, to assess employment eligibility.
Legislation in New York State was proposed in 2019 to ban the practice after the rapper T.I. revealed that he took his daughter to a gynecologist every year to ensure that her hymen was still intact.
In Pakistan, President Arif Alvi issued an ordinance outlawing the so-called two-finger test nationwide in response to protests over a grisly rape on a highway near Lahore in September. The ordinance, however, will lapse after 120 days unless it is voted into law by Parliament, which is unlikely to happen.
The presidential ordinance also says men convicted of rape can be sentenced to chemical castration.
In a religiously conservative country where trust in police and the judicial system is low, a “virginity test” provides a further obstacle for rape victims and their families, activists say. They have demanded that investigators rely more heavily on standard DNA kits to determine the validity of rape accusations.
Dr. Qarar Abbasi, a senior police surgeon in Karachi and a member of a Sindh Province reform committee, said the tests were taught in medical school textbooks and used as a point of reference for legal practitioners.
He said the committee was updating the medical curriculum and hoping to hire more women doctors who specialize in forensic medicine in government hospitals, where the police bring evidence, as well as offer them “training to familiarize themselves with modern medico-legal practices in the cases related to violence against women.”
Emily Schmall reported from New Delhi, and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.