One need only listen to the words of popular Egyptian wedding songs to recognize one central “asset” defining the Arab understanding of honor: women’s virginity and, more specifically, their hymens.
From songs celebrating the bloodied sheets of brides on their first nights of “wedded bliss” to traditions involving displaying stained handkerchiefs to the wedding guests, the culture is rife with references to its self-inflicted hymen obsession.
These songs celebrating the bride’s declared chastity, set against the frenzied drumming and reed pipes and ululations, depict a crucial aspect of Eastern culture.
That being said, it is worth inquiring as to whether this view towards virginity is unique to Eastern countries, or whether it is prevalent in other cultures as well.
At First, There Was the Patriarchy
Many sociologists look at the concept of virginity as a means to impose control in patriarchal societies. With the establishment of the first vestiges of human society, during the hunter-gatherer ages, females were somewhat equal to men in terms of social status and active participation in work. One might even say that females were distinguished from their male counterparts due to their ability to bear children. It was only with the emergence of agrarian communities that the role of women took a considerable blow.
These agrarian societies were patriarchal in the literal sense of the word. Fathers and husbands were in charge of family affairs and decisions, not to mention financial matters. Ownership was customarily passed on to males, although women—generally widows or unmarried women—were occasionally allowed to own property. Otherwise, custom dictated that a woman’s property was passed from her father to her husband after marriage.
During this period, children were considered tools for generating production and wealth, thereby making birthing them and controlling them a crucial aspect for maintaining the family’s prosperity. As such, it was necessary to introduce a system that restricted men’s “access” to women, and ensured that the latter were kept compliant. According to this system, sex was entirely proscribed for women without the explicit permission of their male elders, in order to ensure posterity, and women’s subordination.
Many historical tales reflect a marked significance placed on female virginity, as a sign of purity and chastity, often to the point of sanctifying them. In Ancient Roman religion, for example, six priestesses, known as the Vestal Virgins, were chosen between the ages of six and ten, and were required to keep their virginity until the age of thirty, in devotion to Vesta, goddess of the hearth. It was said that those who failed to keep their virginity until then were buried alive.
Moreover, in Medieval Europe, the phenomenon of chastity belts emerged, which adolescent girls were forced to wear until they were married, to prevent them from masturbating. Chastity belts purportedly did not disappear until the 1930s, when it was established that masturbation was not the cause of health problems.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Geisha girls were traditionally displayed and sold for their virginity in special rites and celebrations, until it became illegalized in 1959. Yet, in certain countries, including India, virginity auctions are still held to this day, wherein adolescent girls are sold to the highest bidder.
Further, in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the “virgin cleansing myth” emerged, where it is believed that having intercourse with a virgin will cure someone of AIDS/HIV. This reportedly led to a wave of child and infant rapes in South Africa at the turn of the millennium.
Moreover, according to a BBC report published last year, a South African mayor came under censure from rights activists for offering scholarships in agricultural areas to girls and young women who could “prove their virginity” through virginity tests. The report noted that virginity testing is “common practice” in Zulu culture, where tests are conducted by elderly women. South African law does not prohibit the practice, although it must be conducted with the consent of the girl/woman.
How did the hymen become the object of obsession in the mind of the modern Arab?
The improbable tales and myths surrounding virginity throughout the ages
In Turkish weddings, it is customary for the bride’s brother to tie a red ribbon around her waist as a symbol of her virginity, indicating its importance to the point of declaring it publicly. Until 2002, it was even permissible to perform virginity tests on girls in schools if they were suspected of having premarital sex. The practice was only outlawed after five girls reportedly attempted suicide using rat poison.
Virginity in Myths
In mythical tales, the unicorn was said to have only been tameable by a virgin, along with other wild creatures. Moreover, in the Aztec empire, virgins were prohibited from eating avocadoes, as they were (and still are) believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Further, the biblical tale of Lot and his daughters tells of how, when he was visited by two angels, the men of Sodom gathered around his house, threatening to storm it so they could rape the two angels. Instead, he offered his two virgin daughters to assuage the men. Moreover, in the Exodus and Deuteronomy, a man who rapes a virgin is required to marry her and pay the same dowry that would be paid for a virgin, which is higher than a non-virgin’s dowry, in a clear indication of the value placed on virginity.
Moreover, Deuteronomy 22 outlines the laws pertaining to sexual morality in the Law of Moses. It reads: “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.”
Conversely, in modern Western history, the advent of modern contraceptives gave way to a break between religion and sexuality, giving rise to the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements. A woman’s value was no longer inherently linked with her virginity before marriage, and women were gradually granted the freedom to pursue sexual relations as they pleased.
In September 2016, Egyptian MP Elhamy Agina called for the introduction of virginity tests for female students at universities to eliminate the phenomenon of ‘urfi (informal) marriages that has become widespread in Egypt. Meanwhile, psychiatrist Islam Gawish points to the danger of a widely-held public conviction in blood as a sign of virginity and purity.
He contends that such a belief is prone to place young women and girls under constant suspicion, thereby greatly limiting their freedom of movement and activities. As a result, the fix-all solution becomes a hymenoplasty or artificial hymen kit, to restore the so-called “honor” that was lost. Gawish describes this as a cycle of hypocrisy that has society within its grips, as evidenced by the rise in hymenoplasties in Arab countries in past years, amid peaking levels of fundamentalism and superficial religious conservatism in the region.
In this regard, Gawish points to the spread of what he describes as “hymen phobia” among young women. In his line of work, Gawish says he regularly meets young women approaching marriage, racked with irrational fears and anxieties due to obsessions over their virginity.
Despite the majority of them never having been involved in a relationship or a physical encounter, their fears often stem from the possibility of falling prey to misunderstandings or hasty judgments on their families’ or husbands’ parts. These young women become obsessed with the possibility that they will fail the stringent test of purity they will be subjected to, due to a biological cause that they have no control over, such as an elastic hymen that does not break during intercourse.
Compounding these fears, Gawish notes, are the stories and news found on websites and social media, of men who divorce women on the wedding night when they discover that they are not virgins, and at the extreme, of honor crimes against young women who have lost their virginity.