Forced 'virginity tests' on female detainees were ruled illegal in Egypt after Samira Ibrahim's fight for justice ended with success at a court in Cairo. According to news reports Ibrahim, who was humiliated and tortured by the military, faced death threats for raising the issue, celebrated justice as she stated: "These tests are a crime and also do not comply with the constitution, which states equality between men and women. I will not give up my rights as a woman or a human being." Ibrahim's victory is a significant step forward in equality and female agency.
Where does this obsession with the idea of owning the rights to the body of a woman come from? As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: 'In breaking the hymen man takes possession of the feminine body more intimately than by a penetration that leaves it intact; in the irreversible act of defloration he makes that body unequivocally a passive object.' In popular language the image is so clear - to take her flower from a woman, means to destroy her virginity; and this expression has given origin to the word 'defloration'.
On the one hand, the white dress in many cultures signify the purity of the bride; the red ribbon worn as a belt on the white wedding dress implies virginity in Turkish culture, for instance. In some countries there are still cases where on the morning after the wedding, the bloodstained sheets are displayed before relatives and friends by the groom to confirm that he 'deflowered' the virgin bride. Women are tortured, raped or killed in the name of 'honour' if they are 'dirtied' before marriage. Religious beliefs and traditions are adjusted and interpreted in ways to justify violent acts upon women. It is relatively recent that in Indonesia the state was thinking about imposing a virginity test on girls before they could attend state-funded schools.
On the other hand, as the recent film by Therese Shechter How to Lose Your Virginity highlights in the US girls are auctioning their virginity; or women are able to purchase artificial virginity hymen for thirty dollars. The film emphasizes that female virginity has been 'restored' through surgery, fetishized by porn and commoditized by popular culture.
Indeed, there is a considerable body of films, which focus on the concept of virginity testing as a form of violence. In Catherine Breillat's astonishing 2001 film Fat Girl (À ma sœur) the young girl's parents are suspicious about her losing her virginity before marriage. On their way to the hospital Elena and her mother are violently attacked and killed and her sister Anais is raped, by a man. The film ends with Anais looking directly at the camera as though she questions the purpose of virginity testing in an environment where rape is not far away.
Nadine Labaki's 2007 film Caramel tells the story of five Lebanese women, who work or meet in a beauty salon in Beirut. Nisrine has her hymen stitched back at the hospital as it poses a problem for her forthcoming marriage. In some cultures, sexual intercourse before marriage burdens a woman with a vulnerable past.
A 1986 film, which has recently been adopted into a popular TV series in Turkey, What is Fatmagul's Mistake? attempts to critique male dominance on the female body; rape and virginity. The story is based on the story of Fatmagul, who is raped by a group of five men. The blame is put on the poorest one of the five men, who ends up having to marry her to escape imprisonment. Yet, he does not value her because he thinks she is 'dirtied' and hence 'impure'.
There is endless number of films that take their stories from real life. There are endless number of women around the world who suffer and remain or who are made to remain silent about their plight. It is a crime to test virginity of women. Just like there is no honour in killing or torturing people in the name of 'honour', there is no honour in testing women for virginity. There are also news articles every so often about women finding death as the ultimate solution. But at times we even read about virginity tests done on the corpses of women who committed suicide.
Virginity testing cannot and should not be justified under the category of tradition. All traditions are always changing; they are never static. Therefore to say that you wish them not to change is an act of will. Fictional stories in films as well as real ones like Samira Ibrahim's success, attempt to lead to self-reflection, which change the law or may change the violent and unjustifiable acts hidden behind tradition.
Follow Dr Eylem Atakav on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eylematakav