In many cultures the significance of female virginity is closely aligned with that of gender identity and oppression. In traditional Arab cultures and many African societies, virginity is still linked to the prescribed role and function of the women in that society. Furthermore, this occurs in patriarchal societies where males dominate the social structure and determine the nature of female identity.
In these societies a woman's virginity become a measure of her worth and a sign of her "acceptability" as a marriage partner. Therefore the female body is in fact manipulated as a central factor in the male oppression of female identity and the relegation of the worth of women to their function as a sexual and reproductive object. In other words, the significance of women becomes reduced to that of a sexual object for use and control in many societies today.
This fact is linked to many ideological cultural aspects such as honor, duty and purity. However, the hypocrisy of this form of dominance is often evident in that these norms and rules about chastity and fidelity often do not apply to the male members of the societies. "To maintain the purity of one's family lineage, female virginity and sexual fidelity were and still are stressed for women, whereas men were and still are generously allowed the varieties of prostitution, polygamy, and other forms of sexual explorations."
The way in which virginity has become a tool or method of controlling and oppressing women in many Arab countries - in spite of the word wide trend towards female equality and human rights - will be the central focus of this paper.
2. The position of women in the Arab world.
In order to fully comprehend the extent to which virginity is used as tool of male oppression in some societies, it is important to understand the connotations and the ideological aspects that lie behind this conservative attitude in the Arab world. An understanding of the overall position of women in these cultures will shed light on the mechanism of control and the extent to which aspects such as virginity are used as a tool in the reduction of a women's freedom and sense worth in society.
Underlying the view of virginity and the strictures on female sexually is the assumption that women are in a certain sense a source of social disruption, not to be trusted and as "evil" in some quarters. "Underlying more or less all discussions of sexuality in the Arab world is the prevailing religious ideology that "considers women to be a source of evil, anarchy [fitna] and trickery or deception [kaid]" (Sherif 2004, 348).
This type of attitude therefore has provided the justification for norms and laws that would serve to "control '.the female. In terms of this sort of ideology, female identity loses all right to authority and independent worth in the society. This is an extreme example, but it underlies some of the more radical views which act as an impetus towards female oppression in Eastern countries. These attitudes, while they may be more subdued in the modern social context, still act as sources and the underlying rationale for oppression through social prescriptions about virginity, and even for the implementation of female circumcision in some cases, as will be made clear later in this paper.
In general the struggle for equality among women in Arab countries can be seen as a struggle on a number of different and interrelated fronts. These include " ... A struggle from the occupation of their land ... And a struggle from the occupation of their bodies or what could be considered a war against their bodies, and a sexual, and a power struggle."
The struggle for equality and identity in terms of control of the female body is the central focus of this discussion. The predicament that Arab women face is summed up succinctly in the following words.
They do not even posses their bodies. Some are given away in marriage, but even if they are not, their bodies serve the purpose of giving lineage to their husbands. If they are incapable they are deemed as defective and possibly discarded. Their entire beings serve as trophies in their husband's list of successes, not just a show of their virility, through lineage, but also a show of their ability to manage their possessions.
Therefore in many counties women are viewed as objects to be 'possessed'. More importantly, " ... If they are not pure by the time of marriage they are deemed dishonorable and not marriageable. Virginity has to be proved to safeguard the bride's family honor, not the groom's."
The oppression and the denial of individual identity often start in early childhood. There is a general consensus in many traditional Arab communities that the girls are intrinsically less important than the boy. This process of gender preference begins even before birth. "The birth of a son is rejoiced and celebrated, while the birth of a daughter is almost seen as a curse. Even the women in the town invoke God for the birth of a son: "may Allah give you a son."
This oppression of identity continues throughout the formative years in communities where the female identity is seen as an extension of family and community. In many Arab societies the rights of the society precede and override that of the individuals.
These forms of gender inequality are also enshrined in Islamic religious law. Quranic law states that, 'Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because men spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those among you who fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them." Sura 4:34
The disparity in gender equality is emphasized by the fact that under Shari'a Islamic law, a man can marry as many as four wives; and can divorce a wife by simply stating "I divorce you" three times.
However for a wife to obtain a divorce is much more complicated and divorce usually results in the father winning custody of the children. This means that very few women institute divorce proceedings due to the fear of losing their children. Islamic law generally emphasizes women's inferiority and dependency. Another example is that,
Under the Shari'a, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the amount of that of a man. A woman's testimony in court is worth only half of a man's. Women are entitled to only half the inheritance of males; the reason given for these is that males have families to provide for.
Women are also treated as sexual objects in terms of marriage agreements and girls as young as nine years of age can be married without the mother's consent. One for the worst examples of the position of women in many Arab countries is that women who are considered to have sullied the family honor are in some cases actually put to death.
The reaction and backlash in many Arab countries against the Western secular world view and the resultant return to a more conservative and religiously orientated lifestyle, has resulted in even further oppression of women.
With the anti-secularist backlash, the rise of political Islam and the efforts to bring God back to people's social lives in the last two decades, thousands have been executed, decapitated and stoned to death and medieval laws and customs have been revived especially to suppress women. Words cannot do justice to Islamic movement' repressiveness and backwardness.
This anti-secularization in many Islamic countries has resulted in a setback for women's rights issues and movements in countries such as Afghanistan and Sudan. This also relates to the conservative attitude towards virginity as an expression of male dominance and the subjugation of women.
3. The importance of virginity in Islamic cultures
Female chastity is seen as extremely important in many Arab cultures for the maintenance and the preservation of family honor -- which in reality refers mainly to male honor.
This has led to " ... stringent controls on the behavior and conduct of women. In Egypt, these have ranged from complete sexual segregation to female circumcision. Whereas Islam requires modesty and chastity for both sexes ( Quran, Sura 24:30), the women seem to bear the onus of the constraining cultural concept of "honor."
One of the reasons for the emphasis on virginity is to control the expression of female sexuality which, as was mentioned previously, is deemed to be "hyperactive" and "in need of supervision."
This refers to the term Fitna, which is applied to women and which means 'chaos' in Arabic. One of the central controls over this perceived nature of women is the emphasis on premarital virginity, as well as on female circumcision." Premarital virginity is considered a sine qua non-for women in Egypt. This, coupled with the view that marriage is the…