HerStory of the Hymen Hysteria
By Fareedah Munir
The hymen; everyone knows about it, but don’t actually know it. There is much misinformation about it, even among older educated women. Whenever I bring up the traditional “cire angurya” procedure, the hymenectomy rampant in Northern Nigeria, it is apparent that women know little about the hymen. Which is why we should know more about and hope it will lead to halting harmful and humiliating practices traumatizing women.
In my pre-teens I remember the warnings that young girls should avoid vigorous sports. Horse riding and bike rides were mentioned more often. I loved my sports, tree climbing, and biking, so I thought the concern had to do with being lady-like. It turned out the main reason was about keeping the hymen intact. This tissue is the symbol of purity, the ultimate proof of a woman’s virginity, and a valuable asset in marriage. It reflects a woman’s good home training, moral character, and her virtue. It is also a source of distress and delusion.
Myths about the hymen is why some advocacy groups recommend renaming it as “vaginal corona”. But let’s demystify the word hymen from a woman’s point of view; herstory. The hymen is a layer of tissue at the vaginal opening, remnant from embryological development. It is not a standard covering that all women have. It has different forms. For eons, it’s been used as an indicator of virginity, but here are some quick facts. A woman does NOT have to bleed during her first time. A two-finger physical examination for laxity CANNOT determine virginity. The hymen VARIES in women, some are thin, some thick, some have more elasticity than others, some have tiny holes, and some women have NONE. The hymen does not cover the entire opening, except when it is an imperforate hymen. At birth, the hymen is sometimes prominent, because of hormones from the mother that make the genital area swell. Eventually the swelling goes down and sometimes the hymen stretches and wears out on its own.
The first time I heard about “virginity test” was in my late teens. One of the two tests widely known is the physical examination before a woman is married. The other is common in Northern Nigeria, which is a white linen test after marriage festivities. The test is done by placing a white cloth on a newlywed’s bed, and after consummation, it is inspected for blood (expected from the ruptured hymen). Arewa-wise, elderly women wait outside the matrimonial room to collect the sheet. If blood is visible, the sheet is presented to elders. And to show their appreciation, the inlaw’s gift the bashful bride with gold jewelry, a car, or anything well deserved.
The northeastern region seem to enforce the linen test more than other parts of Arewa. The bride’s family usually beam with pride that their daughter was untouched. So, the first thing I asked when I heard about such tests was, “What about the groom?” Is there any equivalent test to determine a man’s virginity? Doesn’t he want a cute gift? Does anyone care if he’s a virgin? If not, why is it important that she is a virgin, and not him? Shouldn’t virtue be for both husband and wife for a harmonious matrimonial union?
A GLOBAL PROBLEM
Cultures all over the world have versions of virginity checks, and it has been so for ages. In the book of Deuteronomy, a man slandered his wife and then her father brought forth the stained cloth as proof of his daughter’s chastity. Although not as common as it used to be, virginity checks are still carried out. In some countries, even a virginity certificate is issued, which IS easier and less dramatic than archiving a stained piece of cloth.
In certain countries, young ladies are examined regularly at hospitals or by family members. It is believed that if the ladies have routine checks, they are less likely to engage in risky behavior that will “dishonor the family”. There are also families who demand vaginal examination to confirm virginity before initiating marriage proposals. Usually, stories like these are heard from African and Asian cultures, but such checks exist in Europe too.
In sixteenth century Europe, a “missing hymen” was used to diagnose “womb hysteria”, which is a wide range of psychological disorders not understood back then. As a cure, women were forced to have a hysterectomy, that is have their uterus (womb) removed. Diana of Wales was examined and confirmed a virgin by a medical practitioner before her rocky marriage to Charles. It was boasted that she never had a lover and that her husband would be her first. She was probably the last to be tested under the royal brides virginity rule, because the new in-laws would have failed. Camilla too wouldn’t have pass, but she is currently happily married to Charles.
In the seventies, the British government performed virginity tests at the airport for Pakistani immigrants to confirm they were arriving in the UK for marriage. Recently, during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, authorities said it was necessary for detained female protesters to have virginity tests, so they won’t cry rape when held in custody. If they “failed” the test, it was reported to relatives and they are told they have shameless daughters.
In other extreme news, an ethnic group in India use a white thread instead of a sheet. A thread. Thread!…to see if blood will stain… a thread, because they expect a bloody avalanche. Another tribe in Sudan have elderly men examine girls before marriage. Per-verts. Popularly known in Pakistan is the two-finger test by doctors or older women. The hymen’s presence is checked and the laxity of vaginal walls also examined. In Australian native tribes, an elderly woman examines and breaks/removes the hymen of the bride a week before marriage. If the hymen is already “broken”, the bride is beaten. Sometimes even beaten to death
While some are probed before consummation, in parts of the Middle East, if sufficient blood is not detected, then a vaginal exam takes place afterwards to ensure it was a bride’s first time. And it’s still not a conclusive indicator of virginity. It is silly that such an invasive procedure is done to determine virginity, and it still won’t prove anything. Such tests are inaccurate and on the sexual abusive spectrum.
THE MISOGYNY OF VIRGINITY TESTS
Do I have to explain how straight up creepy these virginity tests are? Do I need to explain that it is weird to have people outside a matrimonial room, waiting on a stained sheet? It is an invasion of privacy! It is humiliating. It also causes unnecessary conflict. Plus it would be quite awkward if the sheets weren’t stained. Especially if the husband expected a bloody river Nile. (“Maybe the mattress is super-absorbent, sweety.”)
Sadly, it has happened in the past that the lack of blood could be deadly. In some cultures, while gunshots are fired upwards to signify “my bride is a virgin!”, those same shots might be directed at the bride when no blood stain is found. And remember not all women bleed. Sometimes the blood seen is not from the hymen, but from abrasions possibly because of insufficient lubrication or tightness from anxiety. A man should not expect to see a pool of blood. It is not a murder scene. Therefore do not make it one!
Some southeast Asian cultures return the bride to her family or ask for compensation. (Petty). Sometimes the disappointed in-laws beat the bride or publicly shame her. In Africa, the Zulus claim that regular virginity checks prevent premarital sex and the spread of HIV. Fathers of virgins are honored, while those who failed to protect their daughters pay a fine for dishonoring the community. But those same virgins will dance topless for their king in a festival celebrating their virginity. (But I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. For now.)
Recently, in Brazil and Georgia, activists have spoken out against virginity screening of school girls before admission into certain schools and acceptance in selected government jobs. In Indonesia, even wives of servicemen are examined. But alas! If only they knew that it is all in vain.
HYMENOPLASTY / HYMENORRHAPHY
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there is no hymen, we will get one anyway.” Frankly, the hymen and bloody sheet saga needs to end because in the event that an experienced woman wants to appear inexperienced, there are several ways ladies reconstruct their hymens. This might come as a shock to some, yes, hymenoplasty is a thing.
Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure to repair or replace a “torn” hymen. Some doctors go as far as performing the surgery to make a pop sound. Even though hymens don’t make a pop sound when broken/torn/stretched/
Locally, there are herbs and chemicals that women use to tighten up. Then the rest of the work is good acting. All this effort on deceit because of social pressure on women. If that doesn’t work, there are fake hymens. Available. Everywhere. Search online. Go ahead. See?
To be continued…