The yardstick for measuring whether a woman is good or bad has always been associated with her virginity. According to societal standards, “good women” are those who abstain from sex until their marriage whereas anyone who deviates from this standard is a “bad woman”. A woman’s morality is questioned based on the status of her virginity.
Nayanika Mookherjee argues that men feel as if they have been emasculated when they lose the sole access to their partner. She says, “public recognition of a man’s sole access to penetrative sex with his wife is defining [of] adult masculinity” while describing the reactions of the husbands of the Birangona women – survivors of rape at war.
The significance placed on virginity, Fauzia Saeed in her book, Taboo!: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area talks about how society places a high premium on virginity because a woman who has lost her virginity is considered impure. She goes on to describe how in some cultures a groom has to display the virginal blood on a handkerchief to prove his bride’s purity.
News Lens Pakistan reported that Fateh Lal confirmed the virginity of her three daughters-in-law through traditional checking of the “hymen” after the couple spent their wedding night. “It is common. We provide a white handkerchief, placed at the wedding bed. In the morning, the blood spots from the hymen rupture are observed by an elderly lady of the family and the mother-in-law. If virginity is confirmed, the women congratulate the mother-in-law.”
A similar tradition exists in Georgia, where Yenge, a woman accompanies the bride to the groom’s house, waits for intercourse to happen and then takes the bedsheet to prove her virginity which is actually celebrated as a feast.
The virginity test has existed for a long time. Princess Diana had to go through the virginity test in 1981 before her marriage while nothing of the sort happened for Prince Charles. It was a matter the press was invested in as well as the public. Virginity tests include the two-finger test which requires the doctor to deduce the state of the hymen – a thin piece of membrane attached to the vaginal wall. In Indonesia, it is compulsory for female military and national police recruits to take the virginity tests. In India, in 2009 many women had to go through virginity tests in order to get married and were offered incentives to get the test done.
Recently, an Egyptian MP, Elhamy Agina called for women to undergo virginity tests before being enrolled in university. Female genital mutilation, practiced in Africa and even in the Bohra community in India is also seen as a means of ensuring the woman’s virginity and to prevent her from being unfaithful as it is believed that sexual pleasure decreases with the removal of the clitoral hood.
The pressure created due to virginity for women has led to the commodification of virginity. Hymenoplasty, developed first by Toronto-based plastic surgeon Dr Robert H. Stubbs, is the surgical restoration of the hymen performed under local anaesthesia.
Hymenoplasty is secretly practised in Pakistan. Many doctors don’t admit to performing the surgery – perhaps because of the stigma attached to premarital sex in society and also because of the fear of religious clerics.
In India too, many women go under the knife to satisfy society and men about them being ‘untouched’ and has become an emerging trend. Recently, in Nashik a man divorced his wife as there were no blood stains on the bed sheet. The panchayat was shown the sheet and they allowed the termination of the marriage.
Another way people have started to restore their virginity is by using the ‘fake hymens’. In Pakistan too reconstructing virginity is a dilemma many girls have to go through because of the social value attached to it. Women fear divorce, social ostracism or worse, honour-killing and thus resort to fake hymens which are made of herbs. Dr Naeema Usman, head of Gynaecology C Unit at Hayatabad Medical Complex warns that restoration of the hymen by using fake hymen can be harmful as it can lead to pelvic infections.
Fake hymens involve the placing it into the vagina before intercourse that results in fake blood. The business for fake hymens has been boosted up as without medical intervention it provides the solution for the concerns of many women. Companies selling fake hymens promise anonymity. They claim to be made of natural materials and to be 100% safe. The instructions include:
Virginity is a patriarchal social construct created to control women’s sexualities. It doesn’t even actually exist! There is no medical or biological definition of virginity. It was a concept defined primarily to control female sexuality to ensure paternity with the advent of private property and the patrilineal system. Virginity is sexist because it is only required of women and they often have to suffer because of it but it does not exist for men are free from judgement when it comes to their virginity. It ends up othering women who do not fit society’s standards of purity by labelling them as sluts and their morality is questioned. It also assumes that sex can only be penetrative and thus only takes into account heterosexuality and disregards the other sexualities.
Virginity is in fact a social construct, the hymen can break due to physical activities like gymnastics, cycling, using a tampon, intense exercise, etc. In Virgin: The Untouched History, the author Hanne Black argues:
“When penetrated, some women bleed a lot and some don’t at all – and that blood can come from any irritation on the vulva or vagina. It can happen the first time you have sex as well as the 23rd. Most importantly, hymens tell as accurate a story about a woman’s sexual history as the tip of a man’s penis tells about his. That is, no story at all.”
Thus, associating a tissue with purity is pure absurdity.