Wednesday, December 15th, 2010
By Mona Eltahawy
Jan. 3, 2011
How do you discuss virginity with a class of American university students without the conversation sounding irrelevant to their lives or, worse, an exercise in exoticizing another culture?
Women, sex and culture can be a Bermuda Triangle that threatens to demolish discussion through either defensiveness – when students feel compelled to defend a cultural practice – or superiority – when students feel compelled to parade their culture as being above whatever cultural challenges are being discussed.
The personal is not only political but it demolishes that Bermuda Triangle. I got a powerful reminder about that in September when I taught a course on gender and new media in the Middle East, in Oklahoma. We had watched the Lebanese film “Caramel,” directed by and starring Nadine Labaki, as the owner of a Beirut hair salon whose friends and coworkers portray a cross-section of Lebanese female experience.
One friend undergoes hymen reconstruction just before her wedding to a man she fears will reject her if he finds out she isn’t a virgin. Students didn’t miss a beat.
“Have you heard of purity balls?” asked one young woman, referring to formal dances in the US between fathers and daughters at which teenage girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage.
Yes, I thought! It was an especially sharp class. Most of them were majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. They were comfortable with the personal and with making those connections.I had indeed heard of purity balls through news articles, but they seemed to be as foreign to me and to the class as hymen reconstruction.
Until the personal shook us out of our complacency. “I just want everyone to know that I signed a purity pledge with my father,” one of the students said.
I could not have engineered it better myself. Her courage in sharing reminded us all that virginity wasn’t just over there in Lebanon. It was right in class with us. Oklahoma kept doing that to me. I joke that going there was like going to the Middle East: a similar mix of religion and conservative politics. (Oklahoma is the only state in which every county was red after the 2008 presidential election.)
Some of the other students tip-toed toward questions for the student who had shared her purity pledge experience. We were all adjusting.
“I respect that you think you’ve made a free choice,” one student told her. “But [US playwright] Eve Ensler said that when you sign a pledge to your father, your sexuality is being taken away from you until you sign it to your husband when you get married.”
Teaching is like alchemy. You take a few students, mix them with some difficult subjects and you are bound to be stunned by the results.
I make my classes as personal as possible. I offer my experiences to keep a face on the issue we’re talking about, and so the least I could do to appreciate the generous sharing we had all witnessed – and to express solidarity with a conservative position I once shared – was to tell the class how long I had waited to have sex. There were no purity pledges in my past. But there was a time when I, too, believed I should wait till I got married before I had sex – but then it took forever to get married and I got fed up waiting.
When I was younger, I had no one to share that with. The guilt was exacerbated by secrecy and for a long time I could talk about sex only with non-Muslim women friends.
But I’ve become bolder. It’s not always reciprocated or appreciated. At one Muslim women’s conference, after I shared how difficult it had been to overcome the guilt of premarital sex, another Muslim woman bluntly told me that the Koran clearly stated that “fornicators were for fornicators,” so there was a “fornicator” out there for me somewhere.
Undeterred, sometimes driven by an insatiable need to share – share and shed the guilt – my skin has thickened. It was made more resilient in Oklahoma – so familiar that some evenings, alone in my hotel room, weeping was the only way to let go of memories, some as far back as 20 years, but still close to the bone.
Oklahoma prepared me well for Amsterdam. Differences in moral ethos aside, my reward for all that sharing with my students was a group of Dutch Muslim women of Moroccan descent with whom I could talk honestly about sex – safely and without any self-righteous references to “fornicators.”
“When I first had sex, it was as if my mother, my father, my grandparents, the entire neighborhood, God and all the angels were there watching,” one of them said. The rest of us convulsed with laughter and all too familiar memories.
Male-dominated religions and cultures that cater to male sexuality, with barely a nod to women’s desires, are difficult enough without the judgments of fellow women. I know where it comes from; I recognize its need to conform. And like our virginity discussion, the best way to defang the self-righteousness is with the personal.
Women’s stories are too often dismissed. A male editor I once worked with tried to dissuade me from the personal: “Who cares about what happened to you?”
The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really mattered.