Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Virgins on a bend

Virginity is hot. The International Herald Tribune posts an article today on the growing practice of re-hymenization among young muslim women in Europe. The issue is far from new, but making headlines again since a French court recently annulled a muslim marriage, on the basis of the woman's lack of virginity.

Their case currently hangs in limbo as the Ministry of Justice has ordered an appeal of the court's ruling. But whatever its final outcome, many people fear it already may have strengthened muslim women's need to keep up appearances. Elizabeth Badinter in the IHT : "It sends these women a message of despair by saying that virginity is important in the eyes of the law. More women are going to say to themselves: 'My God, I'm not going to take that risk. I'll recreate my virginity.'"

Science is a last resort. For the price of a few thousand euros, muslims can now have their cake and eat it too. They can enjoy premarital sex and uphold the value of chastity at the same time. It seems muslim society has now finally and warmly embraced the western ethic of cynicism. Medicine in the service of tradition; deception for the sake of domestic peace; secrecy for status quo; and ends over means... Just wonderful.

It is worth pointing out that in February of 2007 Egypt's Grand Mufti issued what came to be known as the Re-hymenization Fatwa, condoning hymen reconstruction in the name of equality. Egypt's Daily News has the story.

Not surprisingly perhaps, did a follow-up story endorsing the fatwa : "A blogger on clearly spells out why this should be considered a triumph for Muslim women's rights: "What is remarkable about this fatwa is that while it accepts the underground hymen-surgery racket, it does not endorse it; it considers the practice acceptable only because it protects a woman from potential violence. The real meat of the fatwa is in its de-emphasis of the need for proof of virginity -- and in a region of the world where a woman is not considered a virgin unless she bleeds on her wedding night, this is a serious blow to entrenched un-Islamic misogynistic cultural practices."

I fail to see how exactly the practice of rebuilding the woman's hymen shifts attention away from the proof of virginity. A reinstated hymen will make women bleed as if they were 'real' virgins. So the practice of rehymenization neither de-emphasizes the need for proof, nor the reality of virginity, as the presumed 'reality' can only be, and only ever has been, derived from the proof. There are double standards at work, for the intentionality of chastity is weighed by the measure of consequential proof. This means that a lack of proof actually proves the woman's bad intentions, even if sex has nothing to do with it.

I equally fail to see how islam overrides ancient un-islamic practices by upholding the central value of these practices. Certainly, the Grand Mufti's fatwa contains elements of promise, for instance when he states that the husband too should be a virgin if he asks the same of his prospective wife; or when he indicates that islam does not differentiate between men and women. Yet, the fatwa also maintains that women should not feel forced to tell their (future) husbands about the surgery. In other words, women are allowed to deceive if it helps the peace. Conversely, if islam does not differentiate between men and women, men too can lie. Marriage in islam is an institution on shaky grounds it seems... Furthermore, such deception not only reduces the marital bond to a mere stratagem, in its inherent deceptions it allows petrified social practices to persist unchallenged.

As Dafna Izenberg points out, the re-hymenization fatwa may be the most realistic option available right now, in the struggle to protect women against backward and frustrated male minds. Doctors themselves present this sort of reasoning behind the practice that their work sustains. From an ethical point of view however, upholding the sanctity of the hymen does little to change the fundamental mind-set. I would have much preferred an islam expressing a clear refusal of the virginity test ! But perhaps, such a preferrence is insufficiently pragmatic, and much too patronizing ?

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