All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Violence Against Women

So did anybody read the Sunday New York Times this week?  My mom sends me a little care package with the comics every week and she always sends the Sunday Week in Review section with it.  (She calls this my OCBs–Only Child Benefits.) 

I read Nicholas D. Kristof’s column “Not a Victim, But a Hero” (26 July 2009).  If you didn’t see it, it’s about a young Pakistani woman kidnapped by a group of thugs and repeatedly beaten and raped, who, upon being delivered to the police, endured yet more sexual violence at their hands. 

It is important to be aware that in most parts of the world, a rape survivor is not considered to be a wronged party with a right to see justice performed on her attacker (yes, men too can be victims of rape, but statistically it is by far a danger that affects women more).  Rather, once raped, a woman’s honor is lost.  She is like a stained piece of cloth that will never become clean again; you might as well use it for all the dirty jobs.  She’s on the wrong side of society now, not something to be protected by the police because there is no honor left to protect.  This is why it was perfectly acceptable for the police to repeatedly rape young Assiya Rafiq.  Kristof quoted a Pakistani gynecologist who said that he always advises rape victims not to go to the polce because they might just rape her again–clearly what happened to Assiya is not an isolated incident.

Assiya is now in the process of doing something courageous: she is prosecuting her attackers, both the original kidnappers and the police.  I don’t have the words, I simply do not have the words, to express my admiration for this young woman who is stepping forward against all the influences of her extended family, her neighbors, and all the powerful forces in her society to point out that she isn’t the one in the wrong here.  Her whole family is in danger from the police, who have been continually threatening her since she first brought the charges.  But she refuses to give in. 

I may not have the words, but what I do have is the ability to take action.  You can donate money to help Assiya through the Mukhtar Mei Fund through Mercy Corps–Kristof’s blog update on Assiya indicates how to stipulate the cash specifically for her; it’s in the comment screen near the end of the checkout process.  I always suggest writing to your senators and congressional representatives for any international issues you care about; they can put pressure on the State Department to get involved if they hear from enough people about the issue. 

There is a part of Kristof’s column, though, that bothered me.  In the process of verifying what happened to her in order to prosecute her attackers, Assiya underwent a medical examination.  Quoting Kristof: “The medical report confrims that Assiya’s hymen had been broken and that she had abrasions all over her body.”  I fear this sentence is unintentionally encouraging another form of violence against women.

The use of the hymen to determine whether a woman has or has not lost her virginity is a completely discredited medical practice.  Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying: if Assiya says she was repeatedly raped and beaten, I have no doubt that this is so.  But I strenuously object to the idea that sexual intercourse can be determined by a broken hymen. 

For my female readers, raise your right hand if you ever put in a tampon before the first time you had sex.  And that’s not the only thing that can break a hymen (if you don’t have the book “Vaginas: An Owners Manual” by Dr. Carol Livoti, rush out RIGHT NOW and get a copy; for a quick fact-verification see the NHS page on the issue).  Strenuous excercise like horseback riding can do it, and plenty of women are just born without one; kind of like wisdom teeth, not everybody has them.  

You might be thinking to yourself, why does this matter?  (Or possibly, whoa Cait, where did all the vagina talk come from all of a sudden?)  But I mentioned violence against women.  The reason this is important is the virginity imperative. 

In many societies, including vast parts of the Arab world, both men and women must be virgins when they get married.  Luckily for men, it’s almost impossible to physically determine whether or not they’ve had sex before, whereas it is still widely believed in many parts of the world that it’s possible to decide whether a woman is a virgin by checking her hymen. 

In fact a traditional Arab wedding includes a ceremony called the dukhla in which the woman’s hymen is broken, in some cases by an older female figure a bit like a midwife who uses a specialized tool (or possibly a sharp fingernail).  (For an academic perspective on this, see “Victims and Heroines: Women, Welfare and the Egyptian State” by Iman Bibars.)  Bibars does point out that the dukhla can be a complicit act between the bride and the ceremonial hymen-breaker, in which the ceremony preserves the illusion that the hymen is being broken there and then even though it’s already long gone, so actually the ceremony can be turned to the bride’s advantage.  But even so, no matter what the situation, whether the woman has a hymen or not, the blood has to come from somewhere.  The girl’s got to bleed to prove her innocence.  Violence against women?  The worst kind: it’s perpetrated and perpetuated by women.

However, if a potential bride is found not to be a virgin upon examination of her hymen and she doesn’t have a sympathetic dukhla performer to guide her through, she is then considered a dishonorable person, bringing ill repute not only to herself but to her whole family.  She most likely wouldn’t be able to get married, possibly even her siblings would have trouble doing so because of her dishonor, and most honorable people would probably stop associating with her.  She is in the same situation as Assiya: this kind of honor, once lost, can never be regained.  A dishonored woman is at risk for sexual and other types of violence, as Assiya’s story shows. 

This is why I really fear for the implications of a medical examination (and an uncritical description of that examination) in which the breakage of the hymen is taken as an indication of sexual intercourse: it plays into the whole illusion that the hymen always stays intact until the first instance of intercourse in the first place, which is dangerous for all women in societies where virginity before marriage isn’t just smiled upon but an absolute necessity for leading a life of safety and honor. 

I hope my criticism of this issue doesn’t come off as a reproof of Assiya’s incredible bravery.  I really hope that you, like me, take the time to donate funds to help her legal costs, and for protecting her family from threats.  But I also feel so strongly that such misguided understandings of the female body are harmful, not helpful, to women that I couldn’t let an instance of it (even when stated with the best of intentions) pass without objection.  

I’ll be sending this blog to Nicholas Kristof in the hope that he can appreciate both my gratitude for his continuing commitment to eradicating violence against women in various parts of the world including Pakistan, and my assessment that in this case, he messed up a little bit.