My friend’s cousin recently got married and the husband was ecstatic to find that she was a virgin. Apparently, the cousin bled on her wedding night and received a hug from her husband, who hadn’t really thought much about his wife’s virginity, but felt great that she was one. Unintentionally, the cousin had passed the "agnipariksha equivalent," or the test of chastity of our times.
After we were done gaping at the absurdity of the situation, considering my friend’s cousin will never find out if her husband was a virgin too, or if she would be surprisingly happy to find out that he indeed was, I thought really hard. I wondered how being a virgin helps a newly formed relationship, a.k.a. a marriage. In a normal situation, the woman takes care of the household, has a job, cooks if she can, and dotes on her partner among a zillion other things. Later, when the couple has kids, it is the woman who becomes the primary caregiver and raises an entire family. Does she ace all of this because she had bled the first night? Would she be horrible at all these things if she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night?
You see where I am going with this?
It is painfully ridiculous to think that a person needs to pass a virginity test. Even if I don’t count my friend’s cousin, who comes from an urban household in a metro with "liberal" views, there is a huge majority of Indians (and people elsewhere, for that matter) who still swear by their idea of a woman’s purity. And it is all the more cringeworthy because virginity is a subject that bothers everyone but the person whose body it is. Like the news in a local paper, the subject of a woman’s virginity is spoken about in groups of men and women who, ideally, should not have any say in the matter.
This month, a man sent his newlywed wife home because she hadn’t bled on their wedding night. The caste-specific jury of elders in their community decided he should send her away. The last we heard, he had brought his wife back, as she was a police services aspirant and used to a lot of physical activity like running and cycling — so, her hymen could have broken on any account. Wow. The bride was fine with it too, as he had duly apologized.
This reminds me of a beautiful Turkish film called Mustang. A poignant tale of five sisters who are seen playing at the beach with some schoolboys in the first few shots of the film, are later made to endure allegations of not being virgins anymore. Their grandmother tells them that "rubbing their parts on boys’ shoulders" is akin to being whores. They are rushed to a clinic where all are made to take a virginity test. The rest of the film follows each sister’s story as they face a lockdown and get married, one by one.
Selma, the second sister, is matched to a dull chap and resigns to her fate in a catatonic way. On their wedding night, she doesn’t bleed, and the whole family rushes to the clinic with the father-in-law subtly threatening the doctor with a gun to check the new bride’s privates. Inside the clinic, the doctor asks Selma if she is indeed a virgin. She says, “I have slept with everyone in the world.” As an audience, you feel shocked because that is not the idea you were given. But then the doctor says that her hymen is intact and that it will break sometime or the other. Also very curious, the physician asks why she lied about sleeping with everyone when she clearly hadn’t. Selma, with a poker face, says, “When I say I am a virgin, no one believes me. Why wont you all leave me alone?”
This is how female sexuality is curbed across the world — through restrictions, tenets, guidelines and eventually, through threats and violence. Being a virgin is so important in our cultures that a woman forgets her body is her own and never learns to love it. She starts to form thoughts and actions on the basis of what people want to hear.
A crackling example is of Selma’s sister, Sonay, who tells hers sisters that she has sex with her boyfriend regularly — only she has anal sex so that she "remains a virgin." This is the extra mile women will go to keep that myth of the ‘all important virginity’ going.
The virtue of virginity is a concept run on fear, lies and treating women like they know nothing of their own wants. If only the society would mind their own business and let women mind what goes on with their bodies, this world could inch a little closer towards equality.
After all, safe sex and sex by consent are all that matters, really.
Photos and video: Mustang
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Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist and author of the book Your Truth, My Truth: Stories of New Age Relationships. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.