Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Illusion Of Virginity

image For many Muslim women virginity can be a life, and death issue.  On their wedding night a groom must display a bloodied sheet as proof of the brides chastity. No such requirement exists for males.  This of course is problematic due to the fact that some women are born without hymens, and some have them torn or stretched in childhood without ever participating in sex.  I personally did not bleed on the day that I lost my virginity.  Women that cannot prove their innocence are considered to have damaged the families honor.  In some cases lack of definitive proof can lead to death.  Recently in France a lack of virginity on part of the bride was accepted as grounds for the annulment of a marriage.  The court made the ruling based on a breach of promise, as apparently the bride had presented herself to the groom as a virgin.

By allowing the annulment what the state effectively did was to support the cult of virginity, thus legitimizing patriarchal control over female sexuality. When a woman agrees to wed she is already consenting to her own exploitation. The oppression of women is rooted in the patriarchal family, whose sole purpose is to reinforce authoritarianism and male hegemony. 'Woman" is reduced to a breeding mare, who performs domestic work. Charles Fourir theorized that the status of women, in any given society reflects the level of that society's general level of human emancipation. The western world claims to have pledged itself to secularism, however fear over charges of  xenophobia, and racism have allowed the perpetuation of religious beliefs that are counter to women's best interest.

While claiming to decry sexism and misogyny, governments are more than cognizant of the fact that they benefit from the continued inequality of women.  Whether it is through domestic labor or reproduction, these are costs that the state does not have to factor in because of the construction of this as woman's work.  It is work performed by woman out of love, and therefore does not require a monetary reward.  As we continue to perform free labor, women are increasingly becoming more impoverished.  At each turn there is a hand waiting to be paid from the small remittance that we earn. 

Doctors have started to perform hymenoplasty, otherwise known as hymen restoration surgery.  According to the New York Times, "Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive." Does anyone else see the irony of this situation?  Doctors are predominately male, and they are performing a surgery on women that upholds male control over female sexuality.  Not only is this work done in the service of patriarchy, they have turned it into a profitable business.  This is not happening in third world it is happening in the so called free secular western world.  Since this surgery is considered elective, women must pay out of pocket. It can range between 3000 to 5000 dollars. 

The desire to control women's sexuality stems from concern over the paternity of children.  When we began to amass possessions/wealth that could be transferred from one generation to another it became imperative to men to assure that only their progeny benefited from their labor.  From this we would witness the rise of the cult of virginity and the traditional family.  A woman's worth is conflated with her sexuality only because it serves male economic needs.  When men seek to sexually exploit women through participating in acts of prostitution wherein a legitimate heir would not be produced, the virginity of woman is not an issue.

Rather than encouraging these surgeries to continue, what we need to do is to set up safe spaces for women who thwart religious practices.  There was a time in the western world, where doctors were known to add a "stitch for the husband" after a woman gave birth.  This was often treated with humor.  We cannot continue to medically transform women's bodies to suite the desires of men.  These surgeries are patently unfair.  There is no medical way to prove, or disprove the virginity of a male, and to encourage virginity through medical intervention only supports a religious doctrine that is outmoded and harmful to the agency of women. That the state benefits from the slavery of women is without question.  Therefore we must rally behind our Muslim sisters, and demand that the state stand behind the ideals that it claims.  If the surgeries must be performed because it constitutes a life and death issue for these women, they should be provided free of charge.  No one should profit from the real threat of violence.  For those that are having the surgery in an attempt to secure a mate, counseling on women's oppression should be provided so that they are making an informed decision.  Just because the surgery takes only 30 minutes does not mean that it does not constitute a radical change to a woman's body.   To encourage hymenoplasty where there is no evidence of impending danger is to support the second class status of women.  It is time for freedom.  It is time to reconfigure the social power structure.  Our labor upholds this society and as such we deserve the validation of basic human rights and respect. 


Habladora said...

Thanks for discussing this story at length. I ran across it several days ago and invited my readers to share their thoughts, but I failed to give it the thoughtful treatment that you have here. Frankly, the experience of the women who seek this surgery is so far removed from mine that I feared that I couldn't do the topic justice. Again, thanks for not demurring in the face of a difficult topic.

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