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Virginity tests stir uproar in Turkey

Turkey's health minister says that high school girls training to be nurses must be virgins and that the virginity tests he is authorizing will protect the nation's youth from prostitution and underage sex.

Outraged women's groups and nurses are vowing to fight, and a teachers union is asking the government to fire the minister.

The regulations introduced this week by Health Minister Osman Durmus allow principals in state schools that train nurses, midwives and other health workers to expel girls for "having had sex or engaging in prostitution." Girls suspected of having sex could be subjected to a gynecological test to determine virginity.

Virginity is highly valued in mainly Muslim Turkey. Forced virginity tests on girls were common until the practice was banned in 1999 after five girls took rat poison rather than submit to the test.

Durmus said he was trying promote moral behavior in the nursing schools.

In a tense meeting Tuesday, Buyan Dogan, the head of the Association of Turkish nurses, pleaded with Durmus to reconsider. The minister interrupted her frequently, at times accusing the nurses of defending underage sex.

"We will fight this to the end," an angry Dogan said before leaving Durmus' office.

The controversy, which is being debated in the country's newspapers, reflects deep divisions between the large part of Turkey that is deeply religious and the Western-oriented elite who regard themselves as European.

The Islamic-oriented newspaper Akit devoted its front page to Durmus' attacks on the nurses who oppose virginity tests.

"A lesson for the immoral evil person," the newspaper said in its headline, referring to Dogan. It accused her of defending prostitution and sexual relationships.

The liberal press, meanwhile, ridiculed Durmus. Columnist Can Dundar of the Milliyet newspaper asked how Durmus was going to check the virginity of male nursing students.

The Turkish Union of Science and Culture Workers, which represents teachers, called for the minister's dismissal.

"Durmus should work to solve the country's health problems _ he should not concern himself with issues concerning the waist down," said Alaadin Dincer, head of the union.

In Turkey, girls who attend nursing high schools are generally from poor, traditional backgrounds. The conservative countryside is a traditional power base for Durmus' far-right Nationalist Action Party.

The 1999 ban on virginity tests allows them only for gathering evidence for court cases, such as rape trials. It requires a court order before women can be forced to take the test. Before the ban, school principals could force the test on girls suspected of engaging in premarital sex.

Durmus said nursing students suspecting of having sex would not be subjected to virginity tests without a court order.

Concern over virginity sometimes even extends to visitors to Turkey: In more conservative parts of the country, unmarried foreign tourists have been dragged out of their hotel rooms for staying with male companions.

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