Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Arab Family, Virginity and the Price of Honour

A Moral Obligation:

We all know what a virginity test is. Many of us may find it a normal practice, and many others may consider it abhorrent and disgraceful, and somehow at odds with the spirit of the age. Feminist and human rights movements in the Arab world where virginity tests are still performed with a taste of moral obligation, keep flagging this practice as a violation of individual freedom. 

This is true, yet this approach has rarely tried to examine the impact of this practice on the individual and on society, or to examine it in relationship to the reality of sexuality in the Arab world, which is a very thorny issue, and which I will try to tackle here from a very individual perspective.

Once a friend told me how her father overheard her discussion with her boyfriend over the phone about their sexual relationship, and dragged her to the gynaecologist for a virginity test as a result. Fortunately for her, the doctor declared her a virgin, and with it declared the honour of the family undamaged. It was her first virginity test, but that was not where it ended.

What ensued later was a series of mishaps: her father pressured her to drop out of university, (she was doing her postgraduate studies and preparing for a career in law), then to take a job as a primary school teacher, one which she was not aspiring to, and to make things worse, he confiscated her mobile phone for several months. 

Not very long after, he arranged for her to meet with a suitor he knew from his circle of friends, and though he did not force her to accept the suitor in the literal sense, she did not reject him because she had started to grow weary of the pressures put on her by her father. The intactness of her virginity did not save her many troubles as she was hoping it would.

How she managed to keep her virginity intact although she had a sexual relationship is not a secret for many girls in the Arab world. Of course, I guess that by now every reader understands that what I mean by ‘virginity’ in the context of Arab societies is primarily the hymen. In fact, the tricks by which a girl manages to remain virgin (or to keep her hymen intact) are so many and well-known, for anything that could avoid penetration or deep penetration is tolerable in the context of so many relationships outside marriage. 

After all this, and although she was no more virgin than her grandmother, came the second trial, which my friend again passed successfully: the wedding night. But the glee of the wedding night that young girls dream of throughout their adolescences did not much resemble the experience of my friend. She told me that after her first intercourse with her husband, and after the actual ‘loss of blood’, she cried her heart out and sank into deep distress. Every intercourse with him brought a bitter sense of guilt that left her void from inside, she told me. It was the guilt she felt when her father found out about her pre-marital affair, the same guilt she felt with regards a whole society that placed a taboo on her sexual promiscuity. 

But then, there was a deeper guilt, the guilt she first felt toward her own body, and toward her own sense of wholeness. The exhilaration and the ecstasy she felt on her first intercourse with her boyfriend was now totally absent; she could never experience it again with her husband, she confided to me. Every time intercourse with her husband was a reminder of the ‘lost’ pleasure, of the fact she had to give up her love, her education, and all the promises of happiness under the pressure of keeping family honour.

Traumatised Virgins, Traumatised Societies:

My friend told me these confessions many years after she got married, a marriage that brought her little fulfilment or happiness to the extent that she refused to have children, although on the surface, everything looked fine. During those years, I could sense there was a malaise running deep, a malaise that she often justified by the fact that she was not yet ready for the responsibilities and the engagements of married life. In some way, it was true. But it takes a lot of mettle to spill out the discontents about the intimate life, especially in a society where the details of the bedroom are often shrouded in mystery.

The whole experience of my friend before her marriage turned into something similar to post traumatic distress, which her own well-being and that of her married life suffered so much. But in the context of societies that put so much pressure on the sexual purity of women and on the duty of men to ensure and monitor this purity, it is difficult for both girls and boys to get initiated into sexuality without experiencing this traumatic at an early age.

For boys, it is often the separation from the mother’s body and the female sphere which often triggers the sense of loss peculiar to trauma. From an early age, boys are indoctrinated with values of masculinity which rule that this separation is necessary for the completion of their manhood. Part of this indoctrination utilises and justifies violence as the price that should be paid for growing up and for becoming an adult male; this violence teaches young males to be aggressive especially when dealing with the opposite sex (and I am not speaking about physical violence only)

This aggressiveness can be overt and extreme, such as the case of honour killing or the right to ‘correct’ misbehaving women, or can be as latent as being ingrained in claims of superiority, of demanding that males control and rule over females. To be responsible of women’s sexuality and to hold the right over her body represents yet another hue of this education. Therefore, a father’s reaction to find out about his daughter’s virginity is ruled by this early indoctrination, the fear of losing his masculine power which is necessarily tied to the ‘honour’ and which in itself is tightly linked to women’s virginity.

Women are subject to this traumatic distress at an early age as well, and to a degree that is even stronger than men. It also happens through violence that they, like their male counterparts, are subject to. But if their male counterparts are subject to violence that teaches them to become violent or at least dominant, females are subject to violence that teaches them to become subservient to both male violence and male dominance. This could be seen in the sexual education of women that imparts that their bodies are sources of evil, in FGM practices, and for sure, in the practices related to virginity, like the virginity test, whether at a doctor’s clinic or on the wedding night. 

Another woman once told me how she experienced bitterness and distress on her wedding night., although it was her first intercourse, and although the condition of keeping her virginity until she got married was fulfilled. The loss of her virginity with which she has grown so tightly attached resulted in a strange emotional attachment between the girl and an invisible membrane in her body, to the extent that her sense of wholeness and of female identity became projected onto a membrane in the body. When lost especially before marriage and even when it happens accidentally, the loss would sometimes lead an immense sense of void, guilt and fear, and an early dissociation occurs in women between sexual pleasure and honour, so that pleasure becomes rather associated with guilt. 

The Future of the Arab Family:

All the frenzy about virginity is grounded in honour, which in itself is part and parcel of the package of the family institution. It is deeply ingrained in societies where family values are strong. Today in most of the Arab Islamic societies, the notion of honour has come down from tribal times that preceded the appearance of Islam, and travelled with it throughout the different parts of the globe with the expansion of the Islamic empire.  It could be traced back to a time when a woman’s body was literally a commodity owned by the family and by the clan at large. As the constricted control of women’s sexuality has kept patrilineal structures pure, it has also ensured the family unity for many and many generations. Where societies tended to give less importance to the community and more importance to the individual, such as in the western societies, less and less emphasis was lent to the moral price of sexual freedom.

However, restricting the meaning of family unity to the purity of the bloodline is dangerous, for the sexual and psychological health of both men and women are also important ingredients for the unity of the family. Women living the effects of a traumatised soul barely have the means to arrange for healthy emotional environments for the next generations, especially when they are not given a leeway for active and public expression to voice their qualms.

As I discussed earlier, men are also victims of this trauma, like women, and an effective education that frees the society of the grips of an askew sexual upbringing that encourages discordant values, should target both sexes. A father who subjects his daughter to the virginity test is no less a victim than his daughter, although in his mind-set, the practice is associated with masculine pride. 

But trauma is just that: it is the belief that we should give up the values of deep emotional bonding, of love and of compassion, as the price for something we consider bigger and much more important, like honour and pride. This exchange does not happen without costs. The loss of emotional bonding with others often results in trauma. After virginity tests women are often left with a sense of betrayal, loss of trust in those they love and they consider to be their protectors, and of having their inmost spheres invaded, leading to a long-lasting pain, and to women’s inability to feel and express trust, compassion and love especially vis a vis their partners and their children.

Until these times, we are still, as Arab individuals, identifying ourselves as the devout member of our families, an institution that is still very vital to our sense of wholeness and social stability. Yet with times advancing fast, we may want to adjust our speculations about this institution. From honour, we need to grow something else, something that stems from the well-being of the individual and which extends to include the well-being of the group as well, that which we call dignity.

The dignity of the individual sprouts from the inviolability of his intimate sphere, of the feeling of trust that extends between him and those who shape his world, something that I very much liken to that raw instinct of babies when you throw them up in the air and they keep laughing because they know you will grasp them. The true essence of family should be to function in the same measures.

There is a large body of literature that discusses the impacts of trauma related to sexual upbringing on both men and women by feminists and social critics, like in the writings of Carol Gilligan and GerdaLerner, and which should be taken into consideration when discussing the future of social upbringing in Arab societies. As it is difficult to enforce a radical change on the meaning of the right and wrong in the world view of a culture, I prefer that right and wrong be changed in terms of how societies and families tackle their most intimate issues, and especially how they treat those who cross the line and how they define ‘crossing the line’. Instead of covetous control, it should be the feeling that no matter how much an individual errs, the rest should be there to support and nurture him instead of mistrust and chastise.

No comments:

Post a Comment