Friday, 3 June 2011



Why is Virginity a Political Issue?
A few days ago, I watched the CNN report on the female Egyptian protesters who were detained after the March 9th protests and subjected to virginity tests.  If you think this is surprising and if you are wondering about what virginity tests have to do with political protests, then the following extract from the CNN website may clarify it for you:
"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," [a] general said. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs)."
The general said the virginity checks were done so that the women wouldn't later claim they had been raped by Egyptian authorities.
"We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," the general said. "None of them were (virgins)."

Now there are two things to remember. First, the girls who were subjected to the tests were not like ‘daughters of yours or mine’, that is, girls of an inferior order:  they (supposedly) drank, slept with male protesters, in short, they are not different from prostitutes, and that is enough to divest them of their dignity according to the general.  The fact that they were already not virgins in the first place, makes the act even more justifiable.
Second, the target of the virginity tests was to prove that the girls were not raped by authorities.  In other words, virginity or its absence is the only, and really the only way to prove sexual abuse according to the authorities. If sexual abuse takes place in any other way that does not include vaginal penetration, then too bad for the girls, there is nothing they can prove.  And even if they can prove it, it will not probably count as a crime, simply because it kept ‘virginity’ intact.  The general certainly knows that routine forensic examinations can easily reveal other types of sexual abuse, but for him to say what he said, he understands very well that to be accountable, one has to avoid messing with ‘virginity’ and take freedom with everything else.
Finally, if virginity can only be revealed through a medical examination that can isolate those who had intercourse from those who had not, then we should deduce that in this context, virginity is a term strictly related to women, and that male virgins is a term that does not exist in the glossary of the general.
What reverberates in this report is a very old story.  That politics have recourse to virginity tests is not something new, virginity has often been the primary test used to twist the arms of its victims, if victims are women.  I am not claiming that these arrests were made on sexist and discriminatory grounds, (they targeted both male and female protesters), but I am pointing to the fact that humiliating a man is different from humiliating a woman, for to chasten a woman, it is enough to appeal to her fallen nature. 
The insistence on the intactness of the hymen is an insistence on keeping the structure and the flawlessness of the social order. For the male honour to remain intact, this membrane MUST be kept intact.  If whole civilisations were brought up on the idea that honor of the whole community depends on virginity, then no doubt societies will wage wars to defend its chastity, because perforated bodies cause people to panic.
It reminded of the panic that seized the world when the ozone depletion was discovered. I was still a child when the discovery was made in 1984, and like many children of my age who did not yet know what the story was, I was struck with terror that was even greater than that of scientists and ecologists, for when you tell a child that a layer is perforated, he or she can only think of the ozone as a sort of material shield, made of some sort of substance -maybe plastic- that surrounds the earth, something in the likeness of  a thin, transparent and elastic cover. From there, we, humans, have been for thousands of years watching the heavens and contemplating the starts orbiting beyond our world, in the remote darkness of outer space. My diligent imagination also led me to deduce that whenever human beings wanted to launch their spaceships, rockets and aircrafts or to visit outer space, some sort of opening must be created in the body of the ozone to let flying objects in and out, before closing the opening behind them just as it was opened. Inside it, we humans were the preserved, protected and most precious kind that had been created by God.

It is only later that I learned that the ozone is not a tangible shield, but a mass of gas that surrounds the earth, and it was not only the innocence of childhood that led me to breed similar thoughts, but also the mad ideas and stories that mass fear and imagination produced - like the story of the gigantic balloon that would be made and sent into the sky to block the hole- in a reaction to something that was still mysterious to many people at that time.  Of course, all this should be combined with a considerable dosage of ignorance.
As I reflect on this now, I can say that the inaccurate interpretations related to the nature of the ozone was chiefly caused by the type of language, metaphors and figurative styles, that people used to describe the phenomena.  Our use of language is often innovative, unpredictable, and funny, and when the object of our description is something as vital and sensitive as one that touches our existence, the way we use language can become even more creative.

History is Honour, Future is Dignity:
Perhaps it was the discovery of the perforation that shifted the perception of people toward the ozone from a mass of gas, to a physical shield, because a perforation is an infection in the body of wholeness, a violation of compactness that led humans to feel exposed and unshielded below a fractured and God-forsaken sky.
I am giving this example because I believe that the language used to describe female virginity was also imparted by a large scale feeling of vulnerability, especially if we are talking about something as incomprehensible and mysterious as female sexuality. The time-old obsession with wholeness and perfection and the fear of holes, perforations and gaps made people entrust the duty of guarding social and moral codes to a thin membrane, as a way to keep alive the oldest scarecrows of families and societies.  With that, the meaning of chastity with its very moral core is entirely lifted from its spiritual context and placed on a tiny crust inside the female vagina, so that both men and women could internalise the idea that the approving eye of God was watching them through an unbroken virginity.
The west has known the chastity belt since medieval times, but Chahrayar, the hero of chastity, gives the East what an alternative chastity belt should be like, by marrying a virgin and killing her the next morning. The challenge for him, as it seems, was not to ensure no one had ever slept with the women, but that no one had ever slept with the vagina. The story centres on securing the king’s position, pride and supremacy through the wholeness and the intactness of chastity, even if it means slaying a woman each night. 
The obsession with virginity crumbles down to an ancient fear of the mystery female sexuality. It is no longer surprising that through virginity women are requested to submit a report about their sexual activity that should necessarily start at marriage, while male sexual life is allowed to go undetected.  I do not know exactly when or where the first human tribe decided to use marriage as a virginity test, but I am sure it is something very old, older than religion itself, and it had to not only with social order, but also with the interests of power.  The sacredness of women’s sexual power which had been highly associated with life and fertility in ancient beliefs, was very quickly smothered by a death sentence pronounced by patriarchy.

 Patriarchy is too old to detect, it may have started when the myth of the Mother Goddess was replaced by the myth of the Father God, and solidified when the Roman Empire wrote the first law that legitimised the banishment and punishment against fallen women, and later appended it to the sacred discourse of religion, paving the way for the civilisations that arrived later to do the same.
Negative attitudes about the depravity of the female goddess reverberate till later ages, when western and eastern cultures, philosophies, and religions from the classic age up to the present moment produced one report after the other about the abomination of female sexuality.  The demonisation of female sexuality was manifest through the vilification but also the mutilation of female genitalia.  Clitoridectomy, the most common form of female genital mutilation was also known in western societies, especially in the nineteenth century, under the hood of science that regarded the clitoris as the source of several ailments, like dementia and hysteria. The same scientific male figures of authority explained that the causes of hysteria could also be traced through the examination of, guess what, the hymen.
So much weight for a small, flimsy membrane.

Even though the west seems to have got over the issue of virginity in the first part of the twentieth century, popular culture still reflects the residues of a demonised female sexuality. In the Arab world the question of virginity remains very critical and so embarrassing to talk about that so many people doubt whether they should discuss it openly or secretly, and that  it is almost always left undiscussed in the end.  And whenever it is discussed in public, it is done with moral overtones and implied warnings to young girls. Popular culture and media in the Arab world, especially movies, have often showed us fallen women who fret over the loss of their virginity, and though those movies may appeal to the viewers’ sympathy, this sympathy often involves the kind of pity and understanding we are invited to have toward criminals whose unhappy lives pushed them to become criminals.
The seriousness of this stance is that it treats those women as though they are some kind of guilty segment of society who are not very different from prostitutes (and many female protagonists in movies turn into prostitutes after their first illicit sexual affair, implying there is no way out).  Women whose sexual activity is their own choice do not seem to exist at all in those movies, history has been suckling us only narratives of shame and disgrace, of meanings reduced to objects, of symbols turned into authorities. To submit a woman to a virginity test, whether it is done by a police officer or by her husband, is a disgrace to women, but it is a disgrace to men more than women. What thousands of women who have survived crimes of honour and who have been subjected to the humiliation of the virginity test really need today is not payback, but justice, and justice is when our children in the future are no longer reared on the wrong stories about woman, when women’s dignity becomes more important than men's honour.

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