Virginity in Egypt

Double Standards and Hypocrisy

Operations to restore a woman's virginity are prohibited in Egypt, but are often performed all the same. They reflect a rejection of old concepts of morality which equate virtue with an intact hymen. Nelly Youssef reports

photo: AP
Egyptian girls are generally raised to see their virginity as a present for their future husbands

​​The hymen, this tiny membrane in the woman's body, is subject to particular scrutiny, a burden for adolescent Egyptian women and all other young Arab women as well. Virginity symbolizes the girl's faithfulness toward her longed-for husband and proves that she is capable of protecting herself and her reputation until her wedding night.

The hymen is the only indication of virginity: if it is torn, it is seen as a sign that the woman in question has been behaving immorally. The hymen is a symbol of her respectability, which she can boast of only if no man has touched her before her marriage.

Old wives' tales and widespread customs

The dictate of preserving virginity haunts Egyptian society, leading to all kinds of restrictions. Adolescent girls furtively tell each other stories about the dangers of bicycle riding and gym class, claiming that the vigorous movements could tear the hymen.

In Egypt and the Arab world, great significance is ascribed to stories about virginity and the hymen. In some Egyptian villages the relatives of the bride and groom sit outside the young couple's room in their wedding night, waiting to be shown the bloodstained sheet. The sheet is supposed to confirm the virginity and purity of the bride and the manliness of the groom, virtues which will be boasted of proudly.

The murders known as "honor killings" are widespread in Egypt and the Arab world. In Egypt around 1000 women are killed every year to restore their family's honor, studies by a women's research center in Cairo show. In most cases, the mere doubt as to the intactness of the hymen is enough to justify the deed.

Moral schizophrenia

The women's rights activist Iman Baybers uses the word "schizophrenic" to describe Arab societies' widespread tendency to equate the hymen with moral respectability.

If a young woman's hymen is intact, no one is allowed to imply that she is not behaving according to the moral values of society. Often this assessment is incorrect, as these values force girls to undergo operations which restore the torn hymen. The operation is simple and, by now, is not even expensive.

Baybers explains that in the Egyptian family fathers, brothers and uncles have the control over the bodies of female family members, whose virginity is regarded as family property. They feel obligated to protect the women in their family and to restrict their freedom. Often this means that girls are circumcised as soon as they reach puberty in an attempt to nip the emergence of sexual desire in the bud.

Here Islamic beliefs mingle with traditions from outside the religion. Iman Baybers stresses the importance of a public discussion of what constitutes the values "honor" and "virginity". After all, operations such as circumcisions, abortions, and the reconstruction of the hymen are a threat to the physical and mental health of Arab women.

Secret operations

Operations restoring the hymen are common in Egypt. Some doctors perform the operation in their practices, but there are also facilities designed especially for this operation. Because of their illegality, they must be kept as secret as possible.

Like many of his colleagues, gynecologist Ibrahim al-Guli categorically rejects such operations, not only because they are prohibited. Above all, he finds them immoral, and he is bothered by the fact that they make doctors accomplices to a fraud – according to al-Guli, this is especially reprehensible because a marriage should be based on honesty and openness.

He believes that the problem can only be addressed if an awareness of the problem is created. Education and discussion must contribute to a broad campaign to convince the public. This would reduce the attraction of ingrained customs, and people would realize that the hymen and the operations to restore it are by no means a precondition for female morality or a girl's fitness for marriage.

A doctor who performs the operation, and who preferred not to be named, sees it differently. He is convinced that it often rescues the lives of Egyptian and Arab girls. According to him, it provides a young woman with the only chance to start a new life if she has gotten into a sexual relationship which she later regretted; it is the only way for her to save her family's reputation.

The doctor describes the operation as medically uncomplicated and reasonably priced, costing 600 to 2000 Egyptian pounds. He also cites a study by the British Medical Journal which found that the surgical reconstruction of the hymen has reduced the number of honor killings by 80 percent over the past ten years.

Hypocrisy and double standards

This doctor does not believe that women who undergo this operation are deceiving their husbands. After all, the girls forced to undergo the operation were deceived by men who promised to marry them. According to him, the real problem is the lies, hypocrisy and dubious standards on which Egyptian society is based.

Recently several Islamic legal scholars found the reconstruction of the hymen to be legitimate in the event of rape. However, if the woman let herself get carried away by her sexual needs, the operation continues to be prohibited. However, this hinges entirely on the trustworthiness of the woman who claims to have been the victim of rape rather than of her own sinful desires.

Other legal scholars want to make the operation permissible even for sinful woman hoping to escape social condemnation, as long as they express contrition and decide to change their lives.

The social worker Fayruz Omar also believes that it will be necessary for the Egyptian media to encourage a public discussion of the problem. According to her, it is the job of the media to educate people that the hymen is not an indication of morality and respectability; after all, many respectable girls have lost their virginity through no fault of their own, while others entered into highly licentious sexual relationships, yet were able to preserve their "virginity".

Fayruz finds that in Egyptian society the discussion of virginity is obscured by misconceptions and double standards. For example, the same young men who rob girls of their innocence refuse to marry girls who have been deflowered.

Eliminating foolish and outmoded notions

Even young female students in Egypt regard virginity as a highly important value. A woman studying at Cairo University explains that Egyptian girls are by no means naïve and ignorant, having learned a great deal about Western culture and lifestyle in the course of their studies or from the media.

All the same, she says, they are conscious of the special significance and value of virginity. Social traditions and religious sentiment prohibit sexual relationships that are not legitimized by marriage. That is why they preserve their virginity for their future husbands.

By contrast, Nuha has gone through a relationship with a fellow student and a subsequent operation. She hopes for a comprehensive revision of the millennia-old convictions and views that will include all state institutions and the entire society. One must move forward, she says, and focus on more important things in Egyptian life and society.

Nelly Youssef

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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