Trigger Warning: the entire post talks of state sanctioned rape.
The recent changes brought about by the inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood taking control in Egypt has brought it back to centre stage. Reducing the powers of SCAF and replacing top commanders, it would seem the moves are afoot to neutralise the entity which has been associated with one of the most widespread and public instantiations of state rape in recent years.
It is less than a year, since a Cairo court determined ordered that such tests on female detainees must be stopped after protester Samira Ibrahim brought a legal case against the authorities. The justification given by a military general for these tests were was “we didn’t want (the women) to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place“. So, what they did – to avoid such accusations – was to strip-search women in front of up to ten military personnel, holding them down as a military doctor inserted his fingers into the woman’s vagina to check the level of vaginal laxity and the presence of a hymen. Under the classic test, if two fingers can be inserted, the woman is considered not to be a virgin.
The test itself is deeply flawed, not all women have hymens, some women naturally have greater vaginal laxity than other, hymens are routinely torn in sports or physical activity and digital penetration – of the type used by the Egyptian military – is frequently sufficient to cause it to tear. The justification of systematic sexual assault and rape to avoid accusations of sexual assault and rape put women in a double bind, forced to undergo unwanted penetration to test whether they had previously been penetrated.
Yet, the existence of virginity testing in the Egyptian military is symptomatic of a wider misogynistic culture which transends the conflict between the factions in Egypt and a fightback that Egyptian women are leading. When an American reporter was sexually assaulted while reporting on the celebrations on the fall of Mubarak, it lifted the lid on what women protesters had been enduring as they continued to be part of the movement. In June a march to demand an end to sexual violence, even a protective ring of pro-feminists could not stop the march ended in sexual violence as several of the women were molested, a more extreme version of what French women have experienced where “Rage of the Night” marches have been attacked by groups of men, and leading female member of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than defending them, suggested that they were undignified and suggested they should get male family members to “protect them”.
It is not only in Egypt however that this virginity testing takes place. In both the countries that the UK and US have “liberated” over the last decade, state sponsored rape can be decreed through the courts. In Iraq, a man who believes his new wife may not be a virgin can apply to the courts to have her virginity tested. A failed virginity test requires the family of the slut to compensate her husband for the costs of the wedding and gifts, forfeiting any dowry paid. In Afghanistan, a failed virginity test then gives her husband and family immunity from her murder, and makes her vulnerable to charges of adultery which carries up to five years incarceration. Such state sponsored rape is however not perhaps that surprising in a country “liberated” by an imperial power which mandates the rape of all women seeking abortion in one of its states.
Such state inflicted rape is however not restricted to women. In Zimbabwe, a country overrun by child sexual abuse, schoolgirls were raped in front of male classmates, after some were accused of not being virgins, while in one state, the Chief has decreed that girls must undergo monthly virginity tests, obstensibly to attempt to halt the spread of HIV/AIDs, with ceremonies and certificates reminicent of the Purity Balls of the United States. In Lebanon, men suspected of being gay have been arrested and raped on the pretence of “virginity testing”, each rape costing the victim $85 for the cost of raping them, despite their being no anal equivalent of the vaginal hymn.
Here in the UK it was only in the late 70s that women moving here to marry were not systematically raped as proof of virginity was sought, and even Diana Spencer was virginity tested prior to her marriage to the future king.
Yet what is this “virginity” that is being tested? There is no such thing.
I’m not a virgin
Because virginity isn’t even real
Not a virgin
It’s just a heteropatriarchal construct
Designed to police how you feel.
Most, but not all, females are born with hymens, a small flap of skin which covers the vaginal opening. Vigourous exercise, sporting activities and the wear and tear of everyday life, not to mention masturbation, sees a great many broken long before there is any penetrative contact. Genital mutilation is performed to sew up the vaginal opening forming an artifical and more sturdy hymen, while hymenoplasty is available for women whose cultures hold it in high regard, sometimes in higher regard than their lives. This high regard is constituted on a heteronormative phallocentric sexuality – where virginity is regarded as vaginal penetration by penis, regardless of other sexual activities. It is female identity couched in relation to men – those who have been fucked exist in one state, those who have not, another. The transition from maiden to matron seized from us and defined by men.
Given that there is no physical difference in being first fucked, what then, really, is this virginity that the patriarchy promotes and seeks to find evidence of. For all over the world the state of being unfucked and the state of being fucked are distinguished. The difference is social and psychological. It is womens first induction to their patriarchal purpose. A woman who subverts such purpose by fucking from desire has undermined the patriarchy which is designed to control her while a woman who falls victim to rape has undermined the patriarchy by exposing its failure to regulate ownership of her.
The power that the patriarchy seeks to uphold through the concept of virginity is that of access to women’s bodies, not only at an individual level, but at a group level. State sanctioned rape ensures that if women don’t get their patriarchal purpose the first time round, the state will ensure that they are re-educated.