Women, Virginity and Double Standards Across the World
The premium placed on a woman’s virginity is not a new concept and is not specific to India.
Remember the good old emotional scenes from 90s Bollywood films?
The girl is left stranded when there’s no one to give her away on her wedding day, and behold, Alok Nath saves the day and offers to do the poor bride’s kanyadan.
Kanyadan. Quite literally the offering of the virgin bride, is a tradition glorified by Bollywood family sagas.
But the premium placed on a woman’s virginity is not a new concept and is in fact not specific to India.
The White Bedsheet Drill
On the night of her wedding, a 20-year-old woman in Ahmednagar was put through a ‘virginity test’.
Members of the caste panchayat stood outside the room while her and her new husband had intercourse on a white bedsheet – a common practice for her community Kanajarbhat, in Maharashtra.
The bedsheet is inspected by the family and panchayat for blood stains. When she didn’t bleed, it was assumed she wasn’t a virgin and therefore “damaged goods.” The panchayat subsequently ordered the man to end the marriage.
It was the man’s second marriage.
Virginity a Qualification?
Earlier in 2016, an educational scholarship for virgin girls in a South African town sparked a debate.
It was a yearly grant and the girls would have to give virginity tests every year to retain their scholarships.
Virginity tests are reportedly common practice in the region. But they have become all the more frequent since the cases of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases have risen. In such a scenario, abstinence (for the women) seems to be the best solution.
According to a BBC report, in Zulu culture there are older women who are considered respectable virginity testers. The tests usually include probing a woman’s genitals for the hymen – a thin membrane that surrounds the vaginal opening.
Alternately, there are methods of telling if a girl or a woman is a virgin by the way she walks, through the “innocence in her eyes”, and through the “tautness of her breasts.”
In Indonesia, the police force on its official website said women applicants were expected to be virgins.
A rigorous physical examination is part of the procedure of application for both men and women. However, only the women ended up in cold, dingy rooms, undergoing painful and humiliating virginity tests.
“Do we want prostitutes joining the police?” one woman was told by her colleagues when she opposed the discriminatory practice.
Grow Your Hymen Back
‘Virginity restoration’ is a booming industry, as thousands of panic-stricken women flock to clinics around the world to have their hymen sown back.
In many cultures including India, the Middle East and even the West, pre-marital sex is not simply looked down upon, but is a matter of family honour. If found out, the women could pay with their lives.
Traditionally, the man desires a virgin wife to ensure she has had no previous experience to compare him to.
The notion of ‘taking her virginity’ is like a trophy the man must win. It is a notion of control, says Sana Al Khayat, an Arab writer and social commentator.
The surgery is not inexpensive and can cost up to 2000 euros. More often than not, the matter is kept hush hush and the woman recedes into debt under the pressure of remaining a virgin for her husband.
A Chinese website also sells artificial hymens at a cheaper rate. The hymen is made of elastic and is filled with fake blood so the woman can feign her virginity.
In Cambodia, when a conservative family wants their daughter to get married, they have to “fix her”, says a woman who works in a salon in Phnom Penh and often refers her clients to doctors who carry out the surgery.
The presence of the hymen is not an accurate way of discerning if the woman is a virgin, as it can break from any reason other than sexual penetration. But the concept exists so the million-dollar industry around it can exist too.
White Gowns and Red Ribbons
Young women in a so-called “liberal” nations are being told their worth is equated with their virginity.
In the United States, a country often upheld as the hallmark of progress, a curious phenomenon has become popular.
The Purity Ball, involves a daughter vowing to preserve herself until marriage, and her father vowing to protect her “purity”.
Not unlike the Christian wedding, the daughters wear a white gown, symbolising “chastity”.
And when at her wedding, the father walks her down the isle, he’s literally giving away his virgin daughter to a male suitor, culminating his responsibility as her protector.
In Turkish weddings, the brother of the bride ties a red ribbon around her waist as a symbol of her virginity.
Until 2002, the Turkish government allowed virginity tests on school girls suspected of having had pre-marital sex. The practice was outlawed when five students attempted suicide by consuming rat poison.
While women’s sexualities are kept tame, men are often encouraged to go out and seek sex. The more sexually experienced the man is, greater the proof of his virility.
The traditions are so structurally deep-rooted, the women often can’t bear the implications of deviating from norm. Consequently, what a woman does with her own body becomes her dark secret as the horror of being shamed for it is too real.
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