As historians, as feminists, we know that the fight for reproductive justice has never been a linear process. The protests and collective struggles which have led to recent successes for abortion rights in Latin America, specifically Argentina and Colombia, have been a source of hope and admiration. Yet, ongoing conservative threats to reproductive freedoms continue, especially in countries of the Global North, such as Poland, Italy, and the US. While reading news about the past and present struggle of American, and especially African American and Latina women, in the post-Roe v. Wade US, we decided to turn to our areas of research – the UK and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – to highlight how, even when formally acknowledged, reproductive rights and bodily autonomy have been historically curtailed according to a racialised selection of reproductive ‘desirability’.
Indeed, despite operating within opposite political-economic systems – the liberal democracy of the UK and the socialist regime of the GDR – the two countries exhibit striking similarities in their state-sponsored control and manipulation of Asian women’s bodies in the 1970s and 1980s.
These two cases allow for a broader reflection on the instability of reproductive freedom in relation to the state. They highlight the gendered racism that has underpinned reproductive freedom even in contexts of legal protection, and the urgency with which we must continue to put political pressure on governments, institutions and organisations that selectively concede human rights according to what bell hooks has described as white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal values. The two examples also invite us to reflect on the broader demands underpinning questions of reproductive justice – in the case of non-white women, this has also fundamentally entailed the denial of the right to choose to become mothers according to racialised ideologies.
On arrival into the UK and the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s, women from South Asia (including from India, Pakistan, and Vietnam) were immediately subjected to state scrutiny. In Britain, this was substantiated through the practice of virginity testing (amongst other abusive practices such as x-rays) undertaken by immigration officers on South Asian women arriving at Heathrow airport. A Guardian article from 1979 documented the case of a 35-year-old Indian woman who was subjected to the practice.
The woman had wished to enter Britain to marry her fiancé, but her age and the fact she had already been married made immigration officers suspicious as to the veracity of her claims. The woman was forced to undergo an intrusive vaginal examination to assess whether she was or had been pregnant before her arrival. This, according to immigration officers, would have proved her oral testimony and supporting documents; had the contrary been established, she would be denied entrance to the country.
Following the publication of the incident, Home Office Secretary Merlyn Rees claimed that virginity testing had occurred “only once or twice during the past eight years”. But the ensuing protests and sit-ins – led by the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and AWAZ, the feminist South Asian women’s collective – highlighted that in fact these procedures happened regularly. It is nearly impossible to ascertain the number of women who were subjected to this practice. Marinella Marmo and Evan Smith’s important research, however, estimates that at least 120 virginity tests were carried out on South Asian women between 1968 and 1979 at British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. While Britain and the rest of Western Europe were, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed at a Europe Youth Rally in June 1979, “fearless and outspoken in our championship of individual human rights throughout the world,” the physical abuses performed against South Asian women illustrated the racialised selectivity with which Britain recognised human dignity and freedom.
Such incursions of reproductive rights were not limited to the liberal democracies of Western Europe. In oral testimony collected by the Technische Universität Berlin’s Bruderland project, Vietnamese migrant worker, Mai-Phuong Kollath described how, on arrival to East Germany in the early 1980s, she and others were brought to a gynecology clinic without explanation. The reason was to inspect their reproductive status. Without any choice, the women were given contraceptive pills and dismissed. Mai-Phuong described this experience as humiliating; she recalled that many women did not know what the pills were for and threw them away.
Intrusive medical examinations continued once women were in employment in the GDR. The State Secretary for Labour and Wages, Wolfgang Beyreuther, responsible for all matters relating to migrant workers, stressed that to avoid pregnancies, factory doctors must educate Vietnamese women on the contraceptive pill and conduct regular medical examinations. According to factory doctors in Cottbus, Frankfurt Oder, Suhl, Berlin, Gera and Erfurt between 1987 and 1988, 295 Vietnamese women had abortions, while only 18 pregnancies were carried. Historians Mike Dennis and Norman LaPorte argue it was also routine for Vietnamese women to induce their own miscarriages to sustain their employment in the GDR. In 1981, it became law that any Vietnamese woman found to be pregnant had to be immediately repatriated to her home country (this also applied to Mozambican migrant workers). This denial of reproductive freedoms stood in stark contrast with the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s pro-natalist agenda, and its definition of women’s equality premised on women’s dual roles as mothers and workers.
What was the rationale behind such pervasive gynecological examinations in both countries? According to the British legal system, immigrant women from non-white Commonwealth countries who could prove their status as fiancées (to be married in the UK within 3 months) did not require any entry clearance or visa. By fast-tracking South Asian fiancées into the UK, it was presumed women would reduce the likelihood of South Asian men engaging in sexual relationships with white British women. Ingrained attitudes inherited from the Victorian and colonial pasts meant that non-white racialised men were constructed as possessing a threatening sexuality and, as such, posing a danger to the presumed ‘whiteness’ of Britain. The very same colonial thinking deemed South Asian women as untrustworthy and, as such, potentially able to abuse the fast-tracked fiancée visa regime. The practice of virginity testing was therefore one of the unofficial methods introduced to ‘verify’, beyond bureaucratic means, the veracity of the applicant’s claims, based on the assumption that the legitimacy of South Asian women claiming to enter Britain as fiancées could be detected by checking their virginity status.
Next to being a woman-friendly state, the GDR prided itself on celebrating a free (hetero)sexuality. According to Dagmar Herzog, a lingering memory of sex under East German socialism was that sex was a “free space” in an “otherwise unfree society”. However, Vietnamese women were not encouraged to play in this free space; their separate housing accommodation from Vietnamese men, regardless of marital status, is just one telling example. Vietnamese workers were viewed primarily as “work machines”, therefore, women’s reproductive potential could have been seen as a threat to their productivity. Asides from economic constraints, racialised principles appear to have underpinned the treatment of Vietnamese women. This is corroborated by the fact that Hungarian and Polish female workers were not forced to undergo any medical examinations, but in fact had the same reproductive rights and benefits as East German women. Therefore, it is entirely plausible to suggest there was a stratified reproductive hierarchy guiding state policy for Vietnamese women migrant workers in the GDR.
While the GDR had a strong pro-natalist policy and, to an extent, encouraged free sexual expression, the UK presented itself as the embodiment of Western freedoms and human rights. Yet the two countries, in similar ways, attacked the bodily autonomy of those they deemed untrustworthy and undesirable to procreate. While we spoke about the rationale behind the countries’ treatment of Asian women, perhaps we may find answers as to why they were treated this way in the countries’ ideological pasts. For the GDR, behind its slogans of socialist internationalism, it is our belief that internalised beliefs of racial superiority lingering from the Nazi regime influenced attitudes towards Vietnamese women workers. When we turn to the UK, the ideological germs of the discriminatory practices towards South Asian women were rooted in British colonial discourse, especially in the ways they were stereotyped by their colonisers.
Across different political-ideological systems, the historic examples of reproductive injustice in the UK and the GDR illustrate the role of the state in controlling women’s bodies, especially those framed by social markers of race, nationality, and class that positioned them as minorities within the two countries. Considering the constant political threats and attacks to the freedom of reproductive bodies across the world, these histories show that reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are never fully secured. They especially invite us to question the extent to which, even when framed within a context of legality, the pervasiveness of Eurocentric, white supremacist principles of reproductive worth have disrupted the universal concession of reproductive agency and human rights.