Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More Change Often Means More of the Same

The Assumption of the Virgin, a fresco at the dome of the Cathedral of Parma, Italy by the Italian Late Renaissance artist Antonio Allegri da Correggio ( 1489 – 1534 )

Who really benefits from chastity and virginity? Will women always remain a hot commodity in a misogynist market?

Will the revolution in Tahrir Square in Cairo show a new light to Egypt or the Middle East or will it be business as usual there and around the world?

Egypt’s Supreme Military Council has been assigned the power to lead Egypt for a while after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. But on just after one month after Mubarak’s departure, “at least 17 female demonstrators were also detained March 9, along with scores of men. The women protesters were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to 'virginity checks' and threatened with prostitution charges,” as reported by Amnesty International.

Prior to these activities, the Mubarak Hosni’s Government had passed a bill with the aim to ban the “conflict with the productivity of the country.” The law stated girls who failed virginity tests will be jailed and fined a minimum of 500,000 Egyptian pounds. This news made me to write this month’s blog.


Jagadish and I both had been in love for eleven years before our marriage. From my teenage years, I had been in love with him but my parents did not like or accept him. We married legally, with consent of both of our parents, after struggling eleven years in love. During our pre-marital love, we vowed to each other that we wouldn’t involve sex with our relationship and we wouldn’t marry against the will of our parents. And it was true that Shakespeare was only inspiration for us to make such a vow.

In his play “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius, not the one she truly loves. Hermia was in love with Lysander. So she and Lysander try to escape and go to Athens where they could freely profess their love for each other. While in the woods, Lysander tried to make love to her but she protested. At that time, the idea seemed to me that though women were trying to escape from the dictates of patriarchy, but having a mind of their own, they choose what they thought best for them – to remain pure before marriage.

Thus the idea of virginity was in my mind in my early days. Later, when I realised virginity was a word only connecting a theme among cultures as the purity associated with women who have not been marred by the corruption of sexual behavior and there is no such masculine form of virginity, I presumed it was a word created by patriarchy to subjugate women in the name of morality. Here I want to put my ideas about virginity in an Indian perspective.

On Virginity

In Hinduism, like Christianity, virginity is also considered as the highest form of spiritual purity. Though through Brahmacharya, monasticism served as an avenue for a life spent in purity and chastity, as compared to a worldly life of sin and sexual pleasures, but Brahmanical Society always escaped masculine world from such monasticism. In mythology, we have found many male icons are polygamist, whereas females are punished for promiscuity. But is promiscuity a feminine matter in which the male has no role? When Ahalya was punished for her unknown relation with God Indra, (unknown, because Indra came in disguise of her husband to have sexual relations with her) why was no action taken against Indra?

The presence of the hymen in the genital part (introitus) of woman is considered as a proof of virginity, but is not a sure sign of virginity. A woman’s hymen can be ruptured by non-sexual activities like intense sports, dancing, sitting astride on two wheelers, etc. It is not necessary for a virgin to bleed the first time she has sex. In fact, according to statistics, only 43 percent of women do so [Please see: Jean S. Emans’ essay "Physical Examination of the Child and Adolescent" (2000) in Evaluation of the Sexually Abused Child: A Medical Textbook and Photographic Atlas, Second edition, Oxford University Press. 61-65] . With the current advances in medical technology, a plastic surgeon can quite easily reconstruct a layer of tissue to resemble the hymen (called hymenoplasty).

Though a virginity test has been banned in many countries, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s brought about very different attitudes. In 2004, a Zimbabwean village chief, Naboth Makoni, stated that he would adopt a plan to enforce virginity tests as a way of protecting his people against HIV. He explained that he focuses on girls because he believes they are easier to control than boys. But virginity tests for girls are no way helpful to check HIV/AIDs, as sexual activities like anal sex may also cause the disease without losing rupture in hymen and in the case of married women, this testing is totally fruitless. Most Western countries have banned virginity testing claiming it violates the Human Rights of women, but at the same time, they conduct virginity tests on Asian women entering in their countries. Margaret Thatcher’s Government once passed a bill and it was enforced as an immigration law to permit a virginity test for all Indian and black African women upon their entry to the country at Heathrow International Airport. The law was implemented for full three years from 1979-1982. Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, forced Hindu fiancées to undergo medical examinations to see if each was a “bona fide virgin.” Male doctors performed virginity tests on women entering Britain from India to marry Asian British nationals or residents. If a woman was not “virgo intact,” immigration officers assumed she was not a “bona fide” fiancée. (See: The Guardian 1/02/1979)

For centuries, the concept of virginity in many cultures throughout history has honored or elevated virgins as icons of innocence. Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, possessed a similar quality and position as that of God Agni (Fire) in the Hindu religion. But unlike Agni, Vesta was a goddess and was considered as a virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family and had temples staffed by women who were bound by 30-year vows of chastity. The term "Vestal livery" was created after her name. This term may not be familiar to our readers or to common man; its better-known name is the chastity belt

It is needless to say that virginity and chastity, though they are two different terms literally, are often coined with each other. In Literature, as far I know, Shakespeare was one of the first to use it. Readers can remember Act II, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo showed his hatred towards Juliet’s chastity belt (vestal livery) by saying, “None but fools do wear it,” and asked Juliet to “cast it off.” Here Shakespeare mingled chastity with virginity.

On Chastity

Though the terms ‘virginity’ and ‘chastity’ have different meanings in the dictionary, they both behave like two sides of a coin and these two terms are often associated negatively to the sexual relationship. Did Juliet wear any chastity belt or did Shakespeare want virginity to mean a chastity belt itself? Was it a custom to wear such belts during the Renaissance period? In 1400, A. Konrad Kyeserb, a military engineer, first described it in his book Bellifortis. Though there are not sufficient examples of the use of such belts, strangely enough, the belt has been used throughout the whole world while being overlooked by the eyes of our feminist leaders.

Following, I refer to a chapter from Wikipedia, mentioning about use of Chastity belt in modern world [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chastity_belt]:

In 1998, racial riots against the ethnic Chinese in West Java prompted the production and sale of ‘anti-rape corsets.’ These were Florentine-type belts of imitation leather-covered plastic fastened with a combination lock. The belts had a solid crotch strap without holes, and were intended only for brief outings.

In April, 2002, the Uwe Koetter Jewelers Company of Cape Town, South Africa completed and delivered a spectacular diamond and pearl-encrusted chastity belt made of gold to a British customer. The belt reportedly cost R160,000 and was a wedding gift from a husband-to-be for his bride to wear at their wedding.

On February 6, 2004, USA Today reported that at Athens (Greece), a woman's steel chastity belt had triggered a security alarm at the metal detector. The woman explained that her husband had forced her to wear the device to prevent an extramarital affair while she was on vacation in Greece. She was allowed to continue her flight to London on the pilot's authority. The incident was said to have happened just before Christmas in 2003. The incident was also reported by Weekly World News.

In November 2006, photographs of Lucio Gubbio's hand-wrought iron chastity belts were published in newspapers including the Seoul Times, and CRI Online. Although Gubbio's company, MedioEvo, claimed designs of their chastity belts were from the Middle Ages on their website, a company spokesperson acknowledged there was no proof that devices such as these were ever actually used.

In 2007, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported that women were being forced to wear chastity belts in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

In 2008, masseuses in Batu, Indonesia were required to wear belts with a lock and key during working hours, to prevent prostitution.

What Has Really Changed?

All over the world today, women have been repeatedly criticized and repudiated for their sexuality by a male-dominated society. The social gurus always have treated the question of women's liberation and sexual freedom only from a negative point of view. They have never tried to compare the question with the status of the male. Sex-positive women were not simply misinformed, or priggish, or neurotic. Rather, they were often rationally responding to their material reality.

‘Virginity’ and ‘chastity’ are both terms aimed to oppress and exercise control over female sexuality. Still, a woman is considered less a human being and more an asset and pride for every male member of a family. Honour killings in some part of South Asia still prevail though the activity is declared illegal in a court of law. Sex outside of marriage is considered ‘adultery’ only for females who are often punished whilst traditionally, males are not punished when committing adultery as it considered part of their normal instincts. In the case of an unmarried woman, her father and brother feel their pride and prestige have been lost and in the case of married woman, her husband thinks his pride and prestige have been lost. These losses exact a high price and in some cases, it causes the hurt males to murder their ‘assets.’ Almost every day, a woman is beaten, clubbed or shot to death for what is euphemistically termed "adultery" or sex outside a marriage. And in most cases, the killer is a father, brother, uncle, or husband.

Circumcision of Females

Female circumcision is another attempt to control female sexuality by male-dominated societies in some Muslim communities in Northeast Africa, in parts of the Near East, and in Southeast Asia. It has been reported to occur in individual tribes in South America and Australia as well. There are different forms of female circumcision. A form of female circumcision called ‘excision’ involves the removal of all or part of the clitoris, and in some cases, other external genitalia as well. In the most extreme form of circumcision, called ‘infibulation,’ the clitoris and both labia are removed and the two sides of the vulva are sewn together- except for a small opening for urine and menstrual blood to go through. Another, less severe form of circumcision involves small incisions in the skin covering the clitoris. Eighty-five percent of worldwide female circumcision involves this less severe form or excision, and 15 percent includes infibulations [Please see: Lori Heise’s essay “Reproductive Freedom and Violence Against Women: Where are the Intersections?" in Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics; 1993, 21, 2, summer 206-216.]


And so our concept of ‘chastity’ or ‘virginity’ remains misogynist in nature and the masculine world possess a double-standard criterion for these purity scales. I feel our sexual themes and taboos are designed to relegate women to a subordinate role in society, assigning them a status somewhere between men and slaves. Female genital mutilation, the excision of the clitoris to dampen female libido, forcing women to wear chastity belts, or subjecting them to a virginity test are still a socially-sanctioned custom in many parts of the world today.

Many of my critics write me from time to time pointing out that now, more women are working than ever before all around the world and are enjoying all rights similar to men and moreover, there are some special laws to protect them. Then they ask, what, then, is the necessity to advocate for sex? I am not in favour of making a sexist society, either female-dominated or male-dominated. But still, there remain many gaps where we find much discrimination and bias against women, and sexuality remains one of them.

My pen runs and will continue to run for these.


  1. virginity is a concept inwhich only woman virginity is tasted not of man inpresent day world where girls r doing various form of work virginity cannot be tasted .bursting of hyman may not necessaryproof that girl r virgin or not.man should not ask it they should experience the sexual act and then decide .virgin girl may not necessary ly may give more sexual satisfaction than unvirgin girl or visaversa .so man should not insist on virginit

  2. Thank you Sarojini for sharing the above with us and i totally agree. Hope to see change and the cruelty stopped. It is a sad fact to know that women are still subjected to so much for the sake of Chastity or Virginity.


    virginity is not a big problem.but the chastity always.as our society is male headed.females are always under observation.afterall to make a successful marriage.at least one of the partner should be with good character.otherwise the society will collapse.or just see in US

  4. Nice post Ma'am.
    I would say 'virginity' and 'chastity' are states of mind. A virgin is one who never made impure love and a chaste is one who never had a second man in mind. Even Hindu mythology accepts Panchali and Arundhati as 'sati's. There is no question accepting these concepts in modern world. And those who are not ready to accept are the ones who are not ready to grow with time. :)

  5. Passions run blisteringly hot this week as an explosive Venus-Pluto transit kicks your love life into high gear. In fact, romance is about all you'll be able to focus on when these two planets move center stage!

    On April 27, loving Venus squares off with passionate, possessive Pluto in a pairing that can bring as much ecstasy as agony. Any relationship that starts now will feel as though fate is telling you, "This is the one." But Pluto has little to no use for any happily-ever-afters; rather, it wants you to change for the better, since the purpose of any relationship at this point is to help you re-assess yourself and move forward.

    Feelings of jealousy and manipulation can arise when Pluto is involved. April 27's pairing of Venus and Pluto can also mean that people around you may have ulterior motives -- so in this case, maintaining a certain level of cynicism will be helpful.

    Ultimately, this could be a painful or exciting transit, depending on how open to change you are. If you're willing to go along with Pluto's lessons, the end result will be something great.

    Fortunately, on April 28, the Taurus Sun will also join with Pluto, and all the ups and downs April has brought forth should finally come to an end. You'll emerge from it all stronger, with more determination and a brighter path ahead!

    And though that path may indeed be brighter, it doesn't mean that it won't be difficult to follow at times.

  6. It is really a thoughtful article, a part human rights campaign launched by your pen. I am sure it will run and run till you achieve your goal. All the righteous people are with you.
    About Egypt, I think it is a dictator’s tool to find the weakness in opponent to harass; similarly they have search weakness in male protestors. I don’t think this law will apply to ordinary woman instead will apply to suppress opponent.
    It is very surprising that this cruel law is not very much highlighted in international media I came to know only by your blog.
    It is widely believed that there are no 100% sure tests to declare a woman as virgin.
    It is stupidity of Zimbabwean government that testing women virginity can help in fight against aid.
    Shakespeare also believes in chastity and virginity as same thing, but it was widely believe in those days and he was also part of society on those days.
    अगले वक़तों के हॆं ये लोग इनहें कुछ न कहो
    जो मे व नग़मा को अनदोह रुबा कॆहते हें
    Maharani sita was abducted from Ayodhya by Raven and Shri ram chander by a heroic fight release her from captivity. But last few pages of Ramayana appears to be anticlimax, when Ram refuse to accept Sita as she remain in captivity of Raven and consequently her virginity is suspicious, but Agni devta came to rescue her and prove her chastity.
    It can be questioned that if a woman is raped during captivity what the mistake of helpless woman is.
    But still in tribal areas if a woman is kidnapped she is killed by his close relative without test of virginity, this inhuman practice is widespread.
    I agree with Your observations 100% “I feel our sexual ---------------------------------------sanctioned custom in many parts of the world today.” .
    I think it remain as it is so long women remain weak person of society. Girls should be brought up properly so that they can fight against suppression. No one give discount to a weaker person.

  7. The information that you have culled from various sources is awesome... so far as accepting and understanding chastity and virginity are concerned, socio-economic and political as well as cultural development appear to have failed. The examples that you have quoted from a wide range of geographical area as well as time periods has a shocking impact.

    However, you have spelled out the ailment... the diagnosis though is yet incomplete... and the prescription yet to come. Hope to read more later.

    Arvind Passey

  8. Thank you for your excellent article, More Change Often Means More of the Same. Because change can be very slow with many detours, it can seem that it doesn't exist, and indeed the changes that come often seem unfair and detrimental (more of the same). But change is a constant, and it's how we shape it that counts. When I complained not long ago about far more work being expected of me, with far less say and pay, in a particular assignment (I was the only woman on the team too), I was told that such is "the brutal nature of reality". But since I knew more and was able to do more of the production, I was able to take charge (with compromises I didn't want to make).

    Education, training and working hard or excellence is an avenue to fairer treatment for women, but it will not bring women equality. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that until men and women learn to treat each other as sisters and brothers there will not be peace on earth. That is true, but it takes the importance of sex (except for procreation perhaps) out of the picture. And it requires self-correcting (by both men and women) when it comes to the urge to dominate (to avoid domination) and to be right (and make others wrong).

    In the West, women are freer to have sex without the traditional stigmatizing social consequences and penalties. In fact, it is now almost - almost - expected of them to have sex liberally if they are to be considered "normal". If they are not "free" (and easy), they are often considered to be in need of counseling. Very many men like this setup, and many women prefer it to a more literal slavery.

    The point it, as long as there is the intention to enslave women, without stronger intention on the part of women not to be enslaved, women will be enslaved, degraded and abused. There are many many forms of it.

    We live in a world where might is often 'right'. Any intelligent man knows that the stronger the mother of his children is, the less oppressed, the stronger his children will be internally, but he may not be strong enough to back her up because of the collaborative effort to keep women subjugated. On her part, alone she is often easy prey.

    It is not easy for women to stick together. Like men, they have conflicting loyalties and interests. For just one example, the burka is seen by some women as protection against sexual exploitation -- it serves that purpose because without it they would be "fair game". By other women the burka is seen as a tool to keep them cowed.

    As human beings, women and men, we need to have more empathy and respect for the plights of each other, and as women we need to honor more those men who strive to be both strong and gentle. We need to learn to support other women, instead of competing, to create win-win situations. It won't be perfect, but "progress, not perfection" is realistic. We must accept- and learn to do = what is difficult.

    We need to better education and train ourselves to be more independent as well as understanding. Inch by inch, mile by mile.

    Thank you for being a freedom worker.


  9. As considered virginity and chastity,there is double standards for male and females,but it should be uniform for both the genders,sometimes when i read in newspapers that the leash and death with stoning is awarded to women in case of committing adultery,but man is equally involved in it,why he is excuse.
    I feel this is the man made law to suppress women,if it is a crime then both should be punished,why there is chastity in case of women?
    This type of thing is made by men to take advantage by purity test(virginity) and chastitiy.

  10. A great and thorough article.
    I was very touched by reading your story about Jagadish.

    Joneve is very right with what she writes about Western women (although I admonish strongly against any generalization, which will become another prejudice and burden - the image of Western women abroad is far too tainted already). I found myself in an impasse between a rather implicit education, which had transmitted me the message "If you do it (i.e. before marriage), you will lose him", whereas society and of course men claimed "If you don't do it, you will lose him". Nobody told me to listen to myself, my own body and soul, to respect my own needs against all external pressures. My liberation did not consist in being allowed to say "yes", but in finding the strength to say "no".

    Many degenerated customs contain an idealistic core, which is of value only if the relation is reciprocal instead of hierarchical. One example is the Hindu woman's obligation to worship her husband like a god. If this is reciprocal, recognizing and adoring the Divine in each other is the base of a spiritually imbibed relationship. Likewise, the idea behind a reciprocal understanding of virginity is the union of a woman and a man who are both the first love of each other and are going to remain true to each other throughout life - a beautiful vision, although rare in reality.

    The "bad luck" of woman is that their virginity can be "verified" by means of physical empiry, whereas this is not the case for men. However, this mere fact has been loaded with a lot of meanings and has become a factor of control - control because, on the other hand, men cannot (or could not until the time of DNA analysies) control if the babies of the women are really theirs. Therefore, in the dawn of times, the role of man in procreation was long unknown and children were believed to be made exclusively out of women, which logically gave way to matriarchal forms of organizing society and kinship relations.

    In antiquity, the goddess Artemis is known as a virgin. Here the concept of virginity is not the one of a female being reduced and controlled according to the needs of patriarchy, but it means an independent woman, who is full in herself and does not need a male complement to fulfil her role or to feel fulfilled. It is an image of strength and has little to do with a small membrane overloaded with meaning and emotion and structural or overt violence.

    Sarojini ji, may your pen never dry up to denounce gender injustices and to empower us fellow sisters!

    silke (shanti)

  11. This is a p.s. to an earlier post, which was rather dreary-with-typos. It is not natural for me to be light about the prospect of freedom for women. But on a lighter note, I recalled and looked up some lyrics from a pop culture song, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", which sum up the situation from the perspective of a young girl who wants some freedom. Cyndi Lauper wrote the song and rewrote the lyrics to the song as a condition for performing them - she found the original lyrics (written by a man) "too chauvenistic" according to an interview (which I can source if anyone is interested). Here are the referred to lyrics, in the voice of a young girl whose parents are trying to control her (presumably so she will be "marriageable" or at least not "ruined") and who is familiar with boys who want to control/possess her. These lyrics are abstracted from the song:

    Daddy, you know you're still # 1
    But girls just wanna have fun

    Girls just wanna have fun

    Some boys take a beautiful girl
    and hide her away from
    the rest of the world

    I want to be the one
    to walk in the sun

    Oh, girls just wanna have fun.


  12. I can't speak for Hinduism, but I don't know where viginity is considered to be the highest form of spiritual purity in Christianity. Abstenence is certainly prized as a symbol of dedication in some branches of Christianity, especially Catholicism, however it is not necessary for it to be preceded by virginity. Indeed, abstenence following prior "knowledge" may be regarded even more highly than abstenence alone.

    Virginity was primarily venerated in Roman tradition. Their gods were always chasing one virgin or another and the story found its way in the early Christian dogma from that source.

    It may be argued reasonably that virginity is prized by men who are insecure in their own sexuality; they need not fear their paramour comparing them with prior partners. Virginity is also prized for insuring the legitimacy of the heir. Thus, Jesus is surely the son of God in Christian beliefs inasmuch as his mother Mary had no other relations from which she might have been impregnated.

    None of this, however, signifies "spiritual purity." That can only come from pureness of thought and intent. Still, one must be careful, afterall, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

  13. Anonymous3:14 AM

    interesting how some commenters assume that sex is 'bad' and associate practising it with shame and lack of character. its reflective of another traditional belief we must fight against in india and other parts of the world. healthy acceptance of sex will go a long way in promoting equal treatment of sexes as far as sexual behaviour is concerned.

  14. Thank you for this comprehensive and well written overview of the development of feminism in India.