Sometimes I wonder what year it is. 2011, or 1911?
Item: former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s legal team is about to spend at least half a million dollars trying to discredit the immigrant chambermaid who accused him of rape and sexual assault. Presumably, they’ll try to use her sexual history against her. After all, she’s a widow with a 15-year-old child. That is, she’s no virgin.
Item: the so-called virginity tests forced on women protestors in Cairo by the military. In fact these were officially sanctioned rape, even if no penetration was involved. They were a deliberately chosen means of intimidating, humiliating, and attempting to control women. To say that virginity has nothing to do with political activism is to belabor the point. It’s not as though those who “passed” the publicly administered “test” were released with the military blessing to go demonstrate in freedom. It was yet another means of repression.
For those who might think this is a peculiarly Islamic thing, consider that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, with whom he lived monogamously for 19 years, was twice widowed by the time they married. And that of the nine women he married after her death, only one was a virgin at marriage (the others were all divorced or widowed). Since virginity was clearly a non-issue to Muhammad himself, any religious argument for it is hard to make.
As for those virgins in paradise, well, see my TEDx talk for that.
The same applies in Christianity. Yes, of course I know about the Virgin Mary — I wrote a book about her. But as I pointed out there, to reduce the concept of virginity to the existence of a biologically useless membrane called the hymen is worse than absurdly literal. It totally misses out on the grand metaphor of virginity, which existed around the world at the time. As with a virgin forest, it stood for incredible fecundity, for a surfeit of growth and reproduction, untamed and unfettered. That is, virginity was the miracle of fertility, and in that respect, the Virgin Mary is the last in a long and once-powerful line of mother goddesses.
So let’s not blame religion. That’s just the excuse. Nor such a thing as a “Middle East mentality.” Because…
Item: as late as the 1970s, British officials were administering virginity tests too. And again, the purpose was to intimidate women — to deter them from entering the country as immigrant brides (if they weren’t virgins, it seemed, they had to be lying about their reasons for entering the U.K.). And while we’re talking about Brits, by the way, how weird is it that at that same time, the early 1970s, Richard Branson chose the name Virgin for his enterprises? Flying the friendly skies?
Perhaps all this means that in forty years’ time, the confusion of virginity with virtue will be as outmoded in Egypt as it now is (Branson excepted) in England. But then of course it’s not about virtue, and never was. It’s about the peculiar desire of some men (thank God not all) to control women — their sexuality, their behavior, their freedom of choice. That is, it’s about not about women as people, but as possessions.
Item: A commenter on this blog, fulminating against Islam with such blatant racism that I had to bar him as spam, summed up his argument this way: “We know how to treat our women.” That “we” evidently referred only to men, specifically to non-Muslim western men who think of women as possessions — “ours” — and as such, to be (mis)treated as “we” see fit. He was, he made clear, a fundamentalist Christian.
So tell me, what year are we living in? Scratch the years I gave at the top. If you go see Werner Herzog’s new movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (about the prehistoric paintings on the walls of that cave), you might discover that even Neanderthals had more respect for women than this. And they lived 35,000 years ago.
As usual you wrote a very well article. It sometimes amazes me how some people quickly forget the past. It is something horrible if it really did happen, a disgrace. I think that guy’s ridiculous excuse “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,” shows how much lack we have in terms of understanding of human rights and what constitutes rape. So we are about 40 years behind, i just hope we start catching up soon.
As usual, I wonder about how much all of this is the struggle of overcoming “civilization”.
Of course the Neanderthals treated women better… women were still part of the family. To move into a city requires agriculture and religion. Both of those seem to require hierarchies, and the simplest one is that of sex, followed by color, and then all the other facades that mean so little.
Of course that’s a bit simplistic. Plenty of bad behavior to go around, but I’m constantly surprised by how much people seem to require someone else to provide them with the rules of composure, of respect, even while the ideal can be pulled from every mouth with very little prompting.
We all know the myth of respect and virtue. What is it that makes it so enticing to withhold that from as many people as possible and upon such capricious reasoning? Religion itself of course isn’t an excuse- even though many put extra conditions on women and “others”, all of the prophets spend their time treating everyone as equally as possible.
What turns me from religion and religious people is the awesome ability of the organization of religion to be so consistent in its absolute rejection of the very simple idea that the priests, those who manage the religion, should be bound to act LIKE their phrophets. They don’t seem to have a problem claiming some special connection to their God, but I suppose it’s a lot easier to [i]CLAIM[/i] to be the closest thing to God’s Chosen One on Earth than it is to ACT like the prophet who brought God’s word here.
BTW- I don’t know how to do italics in this
Oops- didn’t mean to post yet- I don’t know how to do Italics, so the CAPITALS aren’t meant to be shouts, just emphasis…
I know — WordPress seems to take sadistic delight in forcing commenters to capitalize by denying the use of italics. Awaagh….
“So let’s not blame religion. That’s just the excuse. Nor such a thing as a “Middle East mentality.” Because…”
Yes let’s do blame religion. Where do you suppose the British got the idea that a bride should be a virgin in the first place?
Except that numerous societies with vastly different religions, from Buddhist Japan to Muslim Turkey, valued virginity amongst potential brides. This shows that religion isn’t at the root of the issue, since the problem (if that’s what you would like to designate it) crosses religious and cultural boundaries.
you made me cry … thank you
Thank you, Lamiaa. Your tears, my privilege. You definitely earn the title Luminous Woman (http://luminouswoman.blogspot.com).
🙂 Thanx Lesley..
“….consider that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, with whom he lived monogamously for 19 years, was twice widowed by the time they married.”
According to Shia Islamic literature Khadija never married before marrying the Prophet. So may be it is not justified to claim that Khadija was a two-time widow before she married the Prophet.
“… is not justified to claim that Khadija was a two-time widow….”
Oops! Ofcourse you are justified to make this claim but what I meant to say was that it may not be entirely true that Khadija was a two-time widow before marrying the Prophet.
khadija had kids before Muhamed PBUH we all know that and even if she didn’t we all know she was 25 years his senior and women didn’t stay unmarried that long in that community so it is highly probable she was…I wonder when will men de-sexualize their intellects and truly think out side the box. It is thought that ruined the lives of widows and divorced women denying them a second chance at a happy married life.
My only point is that when you say “..khadija had kids before Muhamed PBUH we all know that….”, it reflects only one version of the Islamic history. There is enough historical literature available on Khadija not being ever married before Muhammad PBUH.
The earliest Islamic historians all agree that Khadija was twice widowed, but what interests me is this: why does it seem to be so important to you to believe that she was not?