Credit: Gigi Ibrahim on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)– Just because female genital mutilation is declining in Egypt doesn’t mean that premarital sex is any more acceptable in most quarters. Across the Arab world, female virginity– defined as an intact hymen– remains what could best be described as a really big deal.
Just how big was demonstrated by a furious debate in the Egyptian parliament in 2009 over an “artificial hymen” from China— essentially a small plastic bag filled with red fluid, designed to simulate the resistance, and bleeding, of defloration. News that it might be making its way onto the Egyptian market was enough to send some parliamentarians into a frenzy and provided a convenient stick with which to poke the Hosni Mubarak government.
“It will be a blot on the conscience of the NDP (the now-disbanded National Democratic Party) government if it allows these membranes to enter,” a representative of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood warned, arguing the product was a dire threat to Egyptian womanhood, tempting “vulnerable souls into committing vice.”
Despite the best efforts of several young women I know to find them, I have yet to meet anyone who has actually managed to buy one of these fake hymens on the local market.
The Quran makes no mention of the hymen (ghisha’ al-bakara in Arabic) per se, but it does talk at length about private parts and the importance of protecting them from view. While virginity is, in principle, gender-neutral in the Quran, female virgins get special billing, the Virgin Mary coming in for particular praise. Then there are the hur, the perpetual virgins of paradise, “maidens restraining their glances, untouched beforehand by man or jinn,” whom Muslim men will marry as a reward for a righteous, God-fearing life, so the faithful believe. According to hadith, the Prophet is said to have joked with a newly married companion that he might have had more fun with a virgin than the “mature woman” he took as his wife.
Female virginity became yet another tool to keep women in line, all the easier to enforce through its intimate connection to family honor, making it a matter of collective concern rather than a private affair.
Firmly Held Belief
Opinion polls show the line on virginity, in word if not in deed, holding firm, even in countries, such as Morocco and Lebanon, with a reputation within the Arab world for sexual openness.
There are certainly some women who don’t care and some men for whom virginity is not a deal breaker. “I have a friend of mine who did it,” Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian relationships and dating writer, told me. “Before she got engaged, she confessed to her fiance that she slept with two guys. And he married her. One of the few very respectable guys.”
But I’ve met plenty of women across the region who distrust such seeming liberality, fearing their premarital experiences will come back to haunt them when the marriage turns rocky and their sexual histories are thrown back in their faces. As my grandmother used to say, “The woman who trusts a man is like a woman who stores water in a sieve.”
In Egypt family honor is still bound up with female virginity; it’s possible that as family ties unwind, or as personal freedoms come to be recognized in an emerging democratic order, this tight association might weaken and that virginity will become a private affair, between husband and wife only, as it is among some couples I know.
This day will be some time in coming, however. In the meantime, mothers still invest enormous mental energy in putting the fear of a ruptured hymen into their daughters, warning them off anything that might breach that all-important membrane, be it masturbation or the ubiquitous water hose, found in bathrooms across the Arab world for washing “down there,” according to Islamic custom.
If such traditional methods fail in protecting a hymen, newer measures are available. Hymen repair is the stuff of overheated headlines across the Arab region, often taken as evidence of the moral decline of today’s youth. In Egypt it’s hard to get a firm grip on the number of such procedures: one doctor, working at a women’s hospital in a poorer quarter of Cairo, says she sees two cases a week.
The quick-fix approach is a stitch across the vaginal opening, which, like the Chinese fake hymen, offers a fair imitation of resistance and bleeding on intercourse. The procedure costs around EGP 200 (around $30) and lasts a couple of days; more elaborate interventions are said to run from EGP 700–2,000 (roughly $100-$290), the monthly income of a lower middle-class family. There are other costs too: female gynecologists talk of male colleagues taking advantage of such patients, extorting sexual favors in exchange for keeping the operation secret.
Restoring virginity– or rather, the appearance of it– is not a uniquely modern concern. Egyptian folklore is full of stories of the quick-handed daya helping a “virgin” bride out of a tight spot with a bottle of red dye or a pigeon’s giblet stuffed with blood on the wedding night; the “Encyclopedia of Pleasure,” for example, offers many handy hints on the subject. In Egypt, hymen repair is not illegal, but it is widely considered shameful or indeed haram.
In recent years, a lively debate has broken out among religious authorities in Egypt and the wider Arab world over the permissibility of the procedure. According to one school of thought, hymen repair is forbidden by Islam for a number of reasons, among them that it deceives husbands, opens the possibility of mistaken paternity (if the “repaired” bride has already conceived from a previous relation), unnecessarily reveals a woman’s private parts and pushes her down the slippery slope of easy-to-conceal illicit sex.
However, other Islamic voices argue that hymen repair is permissible because a missing hymen is not, in itself, proof positive of adultery according to Sharia, Islamic law. Moreover, denying a woman access to hymen repair impairs her chances of marriage, which could lead her to channel her sexual energy into unlawful relations. Such authorities also argue satr al’ird, the Islamic principle of protecting a woman’s honor from public speculation, so long as concealment does not cause wider social harm. Among them is Shaykh Ali Gomaa, who issued a controversial fatwa in 2007 permitting hymen repair in a wide range of circumstances beyond rape and other “accidental losses,” though he drew the line at “women known for promiscuity.”
Excerpted from the book “Sex and the Citadel” by Shereen El Feki, Copyright 2013 Shereen El Feki. Published with permission from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
Shereen El Feki is a writer, broadcaster and academic who started her professional life in medical science before going on to become an award-winning journalist with The Economist and a presenter with Al Jazeera English. She is the former vice-chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, as well as a TED Global Fellow
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