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.