The darker side of “purity”

So yes, I (and a number of my convert friends) bought into the “virgin/whore” dichotomy which existed in the conservative Muslim communities we got involved in in the ’80’s. We had grown up with a similar way of looking at sexuality, after all. Looking back, I can say that many aspects of my upbringing (in a North American small town in the ’70’s) pretty much groomed me for buying into it.

“Saving yourself for marriage” was presented as a good thing, full stop. Avoid sin, avoid sexually transmitted diseases, get your marriage off to a good start…. The seamy underbelly of this sort of thinking was not discussed—not in conservative Christian circles that I had contact with growing up, and not in the conservative Muslim communities I got involved in either. As far as either were concerned, there were simply no downsides to it, or to the whole bundle of attitudes to gender, sex, and marriage of which the expectation that girls in particular should be virgins when they marry were a part. If you thought there were problems with it, then the implication was that there was something wrong with YOU.

In otherwords, it was (again) more about social control—control of girls and women, in particular—then about “women’s best interests” or “women’s true nature” or “morality.”

What lay on the other side of virginity?

The idea that men should marry in order to have lawful sex—and that it is the wife’s duty to supply this, as her husband desires. If she doesn’t, then she is committing a very serious sin. The angels curse a woman who refuses her husband, we were taught. And not only that, but a wife who doesn’t put out should not be surprised if her husband divorces her, or takes another wife, or cheats. Of course, adultery was also seen as a very serious sin, but still… a wife who wasn’t sexually obedient was often thought to bear at least part of the blame for a man’s cheating, in the circles I moved in at least. My own (now-ex) sister-in-law justified my ex’s cheating on me with that very accusation. Supposedly, I hadn’t been doing my wifely duty, so… (she said) his actions are understandable.

It was hard enough to hear that from her—it was all I could do to ask her if she didn’t value herself or at least her daughters more than to present such a demeaning vision of marriage as “normal” or reasonable—but I decided to keep quiet, because I knew a fair amount (far more than I wanted to) about where she was coming from. She had been raised in a society in which everything in a girl or woman’s life revolved around being marriageable and then staying married. Saving oneself for marriage meant not only staying away from boys, but (ideally) avoiding any physical activities (such as bike riding) which might possibly result in damage to the hymen. And once married, a woman was supposed to be “patient” and long-suffering no matter what.

Marriage was supposed to be every girl’s goal, but at the same time, it was somehow innately degrading—to the girl, and to her family. My ex was surprised to see conservative North American Muslim men from other ethnic backgrounds who not only helped their sisters get married (by introducing them to suitable candidates) but also attended the resulting weddings. Because in the community he grew up in, a brother would never attend his sister’s wedding. He wouldn’t even be seen publicly on the day she got married, because of the disgrace involved. His sister was going to have sex. Even though it was with her husband, it was still shameful. Even though if she had remained unmarried, this wouldn’t have been acceptable either.

(Looking back, I can see that women simply couldn’t win, no matter what they did or didn’t do. And that marrying someone with this kind of baggage about sex could hardly be expected to work out well. And also, that ways that the conservative Muslim communities I was involved in or had ties to dealt with such baggage—typically, either by labeling practices or attitudes they didn’t like as “cultural, not Islamic” as if that would make them magically vanish, or by essentially justifying them, while conceding that maybe they were a tad extreme—were completely unhelpful.)

But anyway. I could more or less understand where people like my ex-SIL are coming from. But one thing that has long disturbed me is North American converts who enthusiastically buy into the notion that wives must be sexually obedient to their husbands. And that such converts were not only to be found back before marital rape was declared a crime in my region of North America, but even now.

Thing is, when certain ideas become less “mainstream,” it doesn’t mean that they have gone away. They’re just under the radar—at least, if you are sheltered from the discourses of conservative religious communities they are. Recently, I happened across some posts about certain fundamentalist Christian notions and Mormon teachings about marriage and sexuality which are all too familiar.

In my experience (and in the experiences of some of my convert friends), there were some serious problems that resulted from this mind-set. It is only very recently that I have been able to admit that the problems were with the ideas, not just with certain individuals and the choices that they made (or didn’t make).

All the fuss about virginity and modesty and chaste behavior was supposed to be about morality. In reality, it often served as a convenient cover for all kinds of other, less savory goings-on. Or even for abuse.

What better way to keep girls’ mouths shut about sexual harassment, or inappropriate advances by authority figures and even family members than to make sex (for girls and women) all about who is or isn’t a “slut”? And to present boys and men as “naturally” predatory?

Because men are supposedly innately predatory, they “push the envelope”, before marriage—and after. Marriage is supposedly a respite from the worry of doing something haraam. Except that sometimes it isn’t. There are certain limitations, according to Islamic law—and in lived reality, the burden often falls on the wife to set the boundaries in so far as it is possible, so that her husband doesn’t have sex with her at a forbidden time, or in a forbidden manner.

Girls and women in particular weren’t really allowed to develop a sexual subjectivity. It was all about fitting into molds. A girl who wasn’t interested in boys was “moral” (or lying). It couldn’t be that she was in fact a lesbian… or that she was asexual. Because such things didn’t exist in the simplistic hetero-normative template that we were given. There were women who had never had much interest in boys when they were teenagers, got married young to conservative Muslim men, and spent years trying to be ideal wives and mothers, and had ongoing problems with depression but couldn’t figure out why marriage wasn’t really doing it for them.

And when virginity is treated as the ultimate prize–once you’ve lost your “jewel,” then what? What if you realize that your marriage was a mistake? But how can you turn your back so easily on the man you “lost” your virginity to? Sometimes kept women in bad or even abusive marriages a lot longer than necessary.

Simply writing this is unbelievably depressing. I now realize that we were basically conned. Manipulated into a lot of unnecessary guilt and pain, because we wanted to do what we thought was the right thing. Well, at least I hope that we can avoid inflicting the same stuff on our daughters.

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  1. #1 by Sunni Side Up on September 20, 2012 - 4:22 pm

    Now I’m really curious about your ex-husband’s origin. I thought I had it figured out from the political events you mentioned a while ago, but this “My sister is getting married – OMG, the SHAME! I must hide!” is altogether new to me. I’ve never heard of this, anywhere. Is it unique to some village in the middle of nowhere, or is it more widespread in his native country?

  2. #2 by xcwn on September 21, 2012 - 2:16 am

    Sunni Side Up—I don’t know how widespread it was in his homeland, and even in the particular region that he was from, I don’t think they usually do it any more. But that was what he was raised with, and what he saw as “normal” when he married me. Lots of red flags….

  3. #3 by Chinyere on September 22, 2012 - 5:30 am

    The shameful to attend your sisters’ wedding because she would be having sex is also new to me, and wow, I have no words. Completely dysfunctional way of treating sex. That ultimately means that, by having sex with a woman, even if she is your wife, you are not respecting her in the midst and you certainly do not respect her overall, if a woman having sex is so shameful. Dark side of purity indeed. A lose-lose situation for women indeed.

    The view of marriage as lawful sex and dowry in marriage as buying sexual access to a woman probably feeds into that view. If you see marriage that way, as sexual access, then it’s like you’re selling your daughter or sister to a man. Better than him using her for free, but still distasteful. I don’t know.

    Oh, patriarchy…

  4. #4 by Aichah on October 4, 2012 - 5:43 pm

    I remember the first time I spent the night in the arms of a man. I did not have sex but it got me thinking, ‘this is love, why should it be bad ?’ I preserved myself for many years, much more than my friends. I don’t regret it. I just regret the way many muslims around me picture sex in public, some impure thing, not an act of sharing or love or play. Talking about orgasm seems out of question but a body is whole and most important, God would not have put the whole mecanism there if it was not meant to be used !

  5. #5 by rosalindawijks on May 12, 2014 - 2:16 pm

    I agree with Chinyere and Aichah. Good and powerfull posts. 🙂

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