What I’ve learned about virginity growing up in Tunisia
I was 10 years old when I first heard the word “virginity.” I was having the sex talk with my mother. She told me, “You have to lose your virginity in order to have babies.” Back then, I didn’t fully understand the word, but little by little I realized that “virginity” is a crucial element of a broader sexist culture that aims to oppress women through their bodies.
I live in Tunisia, and virginity here is sacred; it’s the most valuable thing a woman can have. A woman’s virginity here is proof of her prudery, decency, and dignity, and indicates that she is trustworthy, honest, and eligible for marriage. In order to maintain that virginity, girls’ freedom is restricted once they start to develop a feminine shape. At ages as young as 9 or 10, girls are not allowed to wear shorts or to go out by themselves. When they’re a bit older, they can date boys, but only with the understanding that the couple will eventually marry. No matter if a girl has a boyfriend or even a fiancé, however, she is still required to keep her virginity until marriage.
A perceived lack of virginity, on the other hand, can potentially end a marriage. If after having sex for the first time, a husband doesn’t conclude that his wife’s hymen has broken, he can question her very dignity. These men feel that because they’re not the first man with whom their wife has had sex, their masculinity has been insulted. It doesn’t matter to them that many women don’t break their hymen when they lose their virginity, due to reasons ranging from being born without a hymen to having broken it years ago through some physical activity — many men only care about proving their own virility by “drilling the balloon” (a term used to refer to breaking the hymen).
What’s worse, women who have been raped often aren’t considered eligible for a respectable marriage at all because this act of violence is equated with them losing their virginity. Women who have been assaulted or raped can’t even go to the police and make a statement because their claims won’t be heard. Most abused women therefore don’t report sexual abuse and rape and instead suffer in silence.
This results in a culture in which many families care more about their daughter’s eligibility for marriage (and in turn, their family’s reputation) than her well-being. Thus, they marry their daughter to whoever proposes — even her rapist. This was the subject of a high-profile case of one 13-year old Tunisian girl who was forced to become engaged to her 20-year-old rapist last year. While the court first approved of that marriage, Tunisian feminists and other empathetic members of society mobilized in protest of the decision. They marriage was eventually annulled, as was the law allowing a rapist to marry his victim.
Unfortunately, this type of mobilization is not the norm. I have heard stories of some Tunisian women actually taking advantage of the misfortune of nonvirgin women by victimizing them. They seem to want to take this moral high ground in order to improve their own reputations. Even mothers frequently don’t support their own daughters. I have also heard of parents who hit, verbally abuse, and harass their daughter when they find out she has lost her virginity. In rural areas where there is an even more conservative culture, females who lose their virginity are sometimes even killed by males in their family. Unable to bear this harassment, some women develop mental illnesses or even commit suicide. The recent legal victory regarding this issue, therefore, doesn’t address the bullying and discrimination women who lose their virginity out of wedlock are still subjected to.
At the same time that this stigma persists, many men who adhere to these ideals about women’s virginity and dignity have sex with many women themselves both before and after marriage. Eastern and Arab communities uphold a sexual double standard: sex for men is a part of their virility, whereas a woman’s virginity is the most valued thing she can have. In this way, the concept of “virginity” is used to oppress women and control their bodies, as if they belong to men.
Of course, there are Tunisian women trying to create change in their own lives and communities — women who try to stay in their families’ homes and keep their jobs despite their sexual activity. Yet the social stigma of these women as “loose” and to blame for and deserving of the violence committed against them still often follows them. Ultimately, Tunisian women are deprived of a fundamental freedom: the freedom of choice.
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