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.