Virginity or Bust: Sexual Politics Around the Globe

21 10 2009


A good friend of mine recently returned to the States after two years of living in Sweden, followed by several months of traveling in Mali.  When I asked her about her adventures and experiences exploring these countries, she painted this mental picture of two places so vastly different from each other that one wonders how they fit onto the same planet.  

Sweden borders on socialism.  It’s taboo to ask what someone does for a living, and gender equality is extremely important.  There are virtually no homeless people in Sweden because everyone works in order to provide each other with a decent standard of living (income taxes run as high as 56% for the wealthiest).  Healthcare is free, education is free, sex change operations are sponsored by the government.  If you lose a job, the government pays your rent until you find a new one.  A huge proportion of Swedes don’t believe in marriage, because the government automatically treats a couple as an economic unit if they live together.  Men receive paternity leave if the mothers want to keep working, women feel insulted if men offer to buy their drinks.

By stark contrast, Mali is extremely religiously and politically conservative.  Women are considered to be inherently sexually dangerous and transgressive.    As an African-American woman traveling with her Swedish boyfriend, Connie was shocked at the way she was treated.  While the locals went out of their way to show respect for her boyfriend, they assumed she was a prostitute and, on one occasion, actually pelted rocks at her.  

Most of the young girls (about 94%) in Mali must undergo female circumcision at some point to ensure that they never enjoy sex, and they must bleed on their wedding night to prove their virginity or face being beaten or killed.  Men use these sexually oppressive traditions to control the women, and the women live in constant fear of being physically punished or branded a “whore” for displaying any kind of sexuality.  Connie couldn’t even stand to look at young girls in Mali, knowing what they had been through and what they would likely be enduring in the years to come.  


In the wake of our conversation, I read this article from Slate entitled “The Beauty of Artificial Virginity ,” which describes a fake hymen kit that produces blood so that women in these extremely culturally conservative communities can appear virginal on their wedding nights.  This kit offers a cheaper alternative to “hymenoplasty,” a surgical procedure that reattaches the hymen for the same purpose.

Egyptian lawmakers are outraged and have threatened to punish and even “exile” anyone who threatens to import or use this kit because the product “encourages illicit sexual relations” that Islam strictly forbids (Associated Press).  “If this thing enters Egypt, the country is going to go to waste. God protect us,” commented a reader on the Web site of Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabie.

To this comment, Slate writer William Saletan responds:

Pause for a moment to consider what these men are asking God to protect them from: a cheap, mass-produced insert that releases fake blood.  It’s the technical equivalent of a Halloween gag.  But to them, it is no gag. It’s an offense against God. 

In this way, the artificial hymen serves as a useful test of religious idiocy.  If a $30 item that leaks fake blood violates your faith so profoundly that you must ban it, then what you have isn’t really a faith. It’s a fetish. And your fetish won’t survive globalization.

While I agree with Saletan about the fact that some of these faith-based, “virginity-preserving” practices are absolutely barbaric and abusive, I don’t think that tactlessly insulting an entire religion or community of people is the most effective way to enact change.  These Egyptian officials are not going to read that Slate article and think, you know what?  He’s right, we are idiots!  Thank Allah someone told us!

Americans have this uncanny way of imposing our values on the rest of the world as if ours is the only reasonable perspective, and an approach like that is only going to anger and alienate.  Extreme religious beliefs are often fear-based, and thus very deep-seated.  I may be naive, but I really think the only way to begin to petition for change is from a stance of tolerance– not tolerance of physical abuse and gender oppression, but of the cultural differences that enable that sort of behavior.  From there we can attempt to negotiate.

Americans don’t understand the way things are done in Sweden any more than we understand extremist Muslim practices in Mali (and if you disagree, refer to articles on widespread outrage over and fear of  Obama’s alleged “socialist” agenda, which doesn’t even come close to the working socialism in Sweden).  We are all products of different environments, different cultures, different educations, different religions and different economies– without taking all those factors into account before passing judgments on another major population of people, we’re never going get anywhere.




9 responses

21 10 2009
Geof Boyle

“I really think the only way to begin to petition for change is from a stance of tolerance, understanding and compromise.” — I agree, although these three things are skills that must be modeled/taught and learned. Hard to do internationally. But maybe a universally administered multiple-choice test could help with the understanding part, he said with only the wry cynicism of an ex-classroom teacher.
Check this out these moral spectra:
test yourself at (moral foundations questionairre, i believe)
Someone should make it into a Facebook app. It’s the Myers-Briggs of morality.

21 10 2009

I’ll start by saying I can agree to a certain extent about “exporting” contemporary Western culture but when it comes to making half of the population second class citizens then, I think, there is little room for tolerance or understanding when it results in gang rape, stoning, physical mutilation and even psychological degradation. And I’m certainly not saying that District Ramblings tolerates such when asking for tolerance and understanding. I would ask at what point does one, as a person, draw the line?

That women in many African and East Asian and Arabic countries are still treated as chattel is one that will eventually change, albeit slowly but for the better. And while it behooves us to tread lightly when questioning certain cultural practices, there is also a point in which the moral aspect outweighs the cultural aspects regardless of what country you come from. In the 21st century I don’t think one could apply a moral relevance to certain acts perpetrated against women.

Hiding behind religion or cultural traditions as an excuse for denial of rights is something that typically stems from a deeper fear of losing either power or a cultural shift from which some are uncomfortable with. It should be engaged thoughtfully but also challenged especially when it teeters on the edge of violence.

Two examples: The recent gang rape, murder and brutalism against a gathering of protesting women in Guinea. Listen to the NPR report when you have the chance. Truly depressing.

In this instance, the culture of “women as second class citizens” is brought to light when rape is used as tool to make sure the women understand “who is in charge.”

Another passed on by a South African friend of mine was the prevailing myth passed on by traditional healers that having sex with a virgin protected men from AIDS. This BBC article explains more.

I bring these two examples up, not because I’m trying to equate virginity restoration or female circumcision with the systemic rape of women but because it is within the framework of cultural tradition that many of the more violent acts against women go unreported because they live in a culture where they are second class citizens. Even to the point where the lop-sided punishment for adultery in Sha’ria law is questioned by those in their own country and the split between Christian and Muslim Nigerians (for example).

Needless to say, we saw the lopsidedness of our own conservative GOP lawmakers defending gang-rape of female contract employees under the guise of protecting military contractors from political witch-hunts.

Anyhoo…apologies for the long comment.

22 10 2009
Geof Boyle

Rockymtnhigh, I pretty much agree with you on the cultural framework argument. However, once a line is drawn, then what? Spend blood and treasure? Rhetoric? How do we effect change in other cultures that reside inside other nation-states? Many interpretations of the history of colonialism and nation-building exercises argue that they cause too much secondary harm or collateral damage.
Increasing the quota for those fleeing human rights violations, as described in U.N charters, is about the only option that makes sense to me.

22 10 2009

Bill and Geof, I totally agree with what you’re saying, and upon re-reading my post, I realize that I didn’t make it clear what kind of “tolerance” I am advocating. In no way to I think anyone should “tolerate” sexual or physical abuse or the denial of basic human rights. I’m saying that writing articles about the “religious idiocy” of Muslim countries is an especially disrespectful, antagonistic approach that is not going to get us anywhere. That writer was referring to the religious rule of having to be virginal before marriage, which seems ridiculous to us, but is extremely important in that religion. I didn’t offer an alternative because I really don’t have one– we’re not going to eradicate the custom of genital mutilation or beating non-virgins through rhetoric, nor are we going to start dropping bombs on Mali to make our point. But I wonder if the UN could somehow appeal to the women there, teach them that what they’re going through is not necessary or normal or ok, and back them in a peaceful revolution? I don’t know how it’s done, but I know it’s not through complete disrespect for and intolerance of massive groups of people.

22 10 2009

I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but the concept of Human Rights is absolute bullshit.

Ask 10 people in your own city what “Basic Human Rights” are and you get 10 different answers. If you ask me, every human being should have the right to health care, free education until the university level, and low cost housing. How many people would agree with me?

The fact of the matter is, human rights as an institution will always be used by the strong against the weak. Every utterance of the word screams hypocrisy. How can the Obama administration stand up and even talk about Human Rights in other countries as his military drones drop bombs all over Pakistan and Afghanistan? At the same time, his administration is trying to get the UN Security council to pass another round of sanctions against Iran, a peaceful country that has not invaded or attacked another country in it’s modern history.

To add to that, a country that until about 50 years ago had different water fountains for dark people should be a little more understanding of cultures that may still be a little behind the times.

The fact of the matter is, no amount of UN delegations or Non Profits can raise the level of culture and progressiveness of a society. A society advances in culture only as it progresses in education and standard of living.

Once the women of these countries struggle for jobs and economic equality, they will work to throw away all the chains of oppression.

22 10 2009

Oh yeah, this speech by British Novelist Tariq Ali entitled, Rights and Needs is something to be cherished.

9 11 2009

Taking a page from minds far superior than my own I can only ask why? What is the basis for their fetish of virgins. Immediately I rush to Google and search Mali HIV/AIDS lowest in sub saharan africa. Back to Google. Epidemiology of aids in africa turns up some surprising information. South Africa leads sub-saharan africa in cases who is next? Nigeria. distance between Nigerian capital and Malian capital barely over 1,000 miles. At a time when our country a leader in medical research can be so enthralled by the outbreak of H1N1, what does a disease like HIV/AIDS mean to men in Mali? Would he want a woman that was clean and free from one of the worlds most sensationalized (with good reason) diseases. Would he not seek out a woman that he knew was safe. You may say “fetishisation” of virgins and speak of oppressive governments, but on a continent that holds 68% of people living with and 76% of all HIV/AIDS deaths could it be self preservation?

9 11 2009

Self preservation is certainly a benefit, but way way back before AIDS, men have been obsessed with virgins. Chastity belts, harems of young girls, the white wedding dress representing purity… I’m not a guy so I don’t understand what the big deal is about being the woman’s first one, but that mentality has been around since before biblical times in many cultures. I personally think it’s an insecurity thing more than a power trip.

23 11 2009

I wrote on this topic a few years ago:

I unfortunately did not understand this at the time, but your point about not interfering is right on. There is also an important distinction (that I missed) between types of circumcision.

Type I (ranging from pricking the clitoral hood, to a partial or full removal of the clitoral hood) is actually not particularly dangerous if performed by a professional in sterile conditions and doesn’t typically reduce sensation (it has been known to enhance it in some cases). The others are bad (understatement).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: