We totally bought into the virgin/whore dichotomy. Hook, line, and sinker. But we didn’t see it at the time. Or to be more precise, I refused to see it. Actively refused to admit it to myself. But that was what we did.
What were we taught, exactly? And why did we buy into it?? And why does it have such a long-lasting influence on me even today?
In trying to sort through all this, I have found Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women to be fairly helpful. All this conditioning is so hard to disentangle, so reading her polemic is has made some things clearer to me.
First of all, although the ideas we were taught were presented to us as the morally superior Muslim way over against morally bankrupt “western culture,” the reality is that a lot of it actually reflects misogynistic notions that are found in “western culture” as well. That is undoubtedly why they had such a deep impact on me—on some level, they were already there to begin with. And, even though I am no longer surrounded by conservative Muslims, there’s enough in the wider culture that keeps reinforcing these destructive ideas.
Valenti points out that there’s a “virginity myth” in “mainstream” North American culture, that is mainly concerned with girls’ and women’s virginity. At best, lip-service is paid to male virginity, but the main focus is on female virginity.
She terms virginity a “myth” for several reasons: First, there is no working medical definition of virginity. Rather, it is a cultural (and heterosexist) notion that is mainly about male penetration of a woman’s vagina and concerns that historically have often resulted—questions about the paternity of children, a father’s loss of face as a result of his daughter’s premarital “loss” of her virginity, issues with her marriageability, etc.
But all definitions of virginity become rather incoherent when pushed to their logical conclusions. As Valenti points out, if “virginity” means penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis, then lesbians whose sexual interactions have been solely with women would be “virgins,” which is absurd (and trivializing). Or, women who have engaged in every sexual act with men except for vaginal penetration would still be “virgins.”
Second, although it is not really clear what “virginity” is, it is often presented as though it sums up a girl’s or a woman’s moral standing. While for males, being an ethical person is seen as a multifaceted thing, for females “morality” usually ends up being about their presumed sexual history. Which means that women aren’t allowed to be complex moral and ethical beings as men are—their “morality” and their ultimate value becomes reduced to what is (or isn’t) going on between their legs.
This all sounds so familiar to me. The concern about the definition of “virginity,” as well as the mystique about it, and the notion that a “loose” girl or woman is unethical or immoral. I grew up with these ideas. My experiences in conservative Muslim communities further solidified them, and raised the “purity” stakes significantly higher. But leaving my conservative community didn’t enable me to leave all of these ideas behind, because they also exist in the wider culture.
Part of the concern about how to define virginity as I recall it was essentially because people wanted to have their cake, and eat it too, in a world full of sexual and moral double standards. So, some girls tried to perform the impossible balancing act of being “moral” and also being sexual, by technically maintaining “virginity.” After all, being forthright about being sexual was seen as being immoral for girls. But boys had no such tight-rope to walk, and they stood to gain from pushing the girls they dated as far as they possibly could. In such an environment, sexuality was all too often about male entitlement, manipulation, arm-twisting, control… as well as point-scoring.
The Muslim environment I first ended up in was also like that, on steroids. No wonder it all seemed to make a weird sort of sense to me. Sex as men’s entitlement and women’s moral minefield was a notion that I had grown up with. But the Muslims I first met cloaked it all in talk of morality—supposedly, a morality superior to that of “the West.” The core of this “superior” morality in their minds seemed to be a greater male willingness to get married and settle down at an earlier age. But their view of marriage was pretty much about male entitlement as well.
Valenti asserts that both the promoters of sexual abstinence and the hypersexualized media images of girls and women are two sides of the same coin—because they both reduce women’s value to their sexuality and what they are or aren’t doing with it. Which (she says) is one reason why girls and women sometimes react to the pressure to live up to a perfectionist model of modest femininity by opting to dress and behave in a hypersexual way instead. They have bought into the idea that being female is about being sexually objectified in one way or another, and that in the end, girls and women are reduced to their sexuality.
This sounds eerily familiar. As we were raising our daughters to be pious, hijab-wearing model Muslimahs, we were often dismayed by the behavior of some of the teenage Muslim girls that attended our daughters’ Muslim school. Here they were, receiving more access to Islamic learning than we had had, being raised in a pure Islamic environment, and they were… ungratefully more interested in fashion than in reading the Qur’an, whispering among themselves instead of listening to the khutba, posting rather suggestive pictures of themselves on Facebook….
But their behavior was nothing to that of some other Muslim girls we had encountered, who not only refused to wear hijab, but wore scandalously revealing clothes, and seemed to go out of their way to shock as many conservative Muslims as possible. I and some of my convert friends honestly wondered what on earth was going on. If a girl didn’t want to wear hijab, why would she decide to go to the opposite extreme? Why embody all the conservative stereotypes about vain, immoral, worldly females? Why not dress sensibly, and devote her rebellious energies to doing something useful or educational, like studying law or traveling the world? Was there no middle ground??
Looking back, I can see that we turned female “morality” into a zero-sum game. A moral female had to fit into a narrow template of dress and behavior. So, there wasn’t really any middle ground for the girls in our community to see. We had pretty much eliminated it from view.