Arab woman’s burden of proof

A new "virginity device" sold from China and marketed to Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere has conservative clerics up in arms. But what should be discussed is the hypocrisy that burdens women with proof of virginity while the men involved are ignored. Because of this, thousands of widows, divorcees and rape victims in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are forced to live lives at the very margins of social acceptability.
Rafia Zakaria
After Dark in a hotel room, Bahrain 2008. © S.M. /
After Dark in a hotel room, Bahrain 2008. © S.M. /

Conservative clerics in Egypt are in a conundrum. A new device sold by a Chinese company threatens to make every Egyptian woman who uses it, a virgin. The “Artificial Virginity Hymen Kit” distributed by Gigimo costs about $30.00 is intended to help newly married women fool their husbands into believing that they are virgins by producing a small amount of blood like substance during intercourse.

The controversy began when a reporter from a Dutch radio station broadcast an Arabic translation of the Chinese advertisement for the product. Conservative members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s Parliament have since asked for a ban on the device. Prominent Egyptian scholar Abdel Moati Bayoumi said anyone who imports ../../the_device_should_be_punished_saying__ldquo.css;This product encourages illicit sexual relations, Islamic culture forbids these relations except within the confines of marriage,” Bayoumi said.

The controversy over virginity and the newly provided ability to fake it, hits at the center of questions regarding the status of women in much of the Muslim world. Questions regarding female purity hold a crucial position in evaluating the worth of a woman and negotiating marriage contracts. In Egypt itself, thousands of women undergo hymen reconstruction surgery every year in order to fulfill preconditions of virginity for marriage and to avoid bringing shame to families.

The practice of hymen reconstruction surgery has migrated with Arab populations to European countries like France where young Muslim women may undergo the half hour surgery for a cost of about €2000 ($3,000). Others choose to go back to countries like Tunisia where they can get the surgery at lower cost. The surgery is legal in the European Union as well as in the United States where it falls in the category of elective surgery. While surgery itself is less common in Pakistan, women are routinely abused tortured and even killed if they are found not to be virgins upon being wed. In several cases, young brides have been known to commit suicide rather than risk bringing shame to their families.

The issue of whether virginity constitutes the total worth of a woman upon marriage (rendering her otherwise unmarriageable) was dealt with recently in a courtroom in the French city of Lille where the judge initially ruled that a marriage between a Muslim man and a woman could be annulled because the bride had lied about her virginity. A French appeals court then took up the issue of whether virginity was “an essential quality of a woman” and ended up reversing the previous decision that had decreed lying about virginity to be a grounds for fraud that would justify annulment. Of course, the outcome of the case would have been markedly different under Islamic law where deception regarding the virginity of the bride would result both in an annulment of the marriage and a repudiation of the dower.

Expectedly, as the news clips from Egypt amply illustrate, much of the clerical debate over the device has focused on the fact that it allows women to fake and flout the theological precept prescribing a prohibition on extra marital sexual relations. No argument is provided of the fact that the male involved may also have come to the marriage without proof of virginity which is equally theologically culpable but less easily verified. The assumption is that women’s virginity must necessarily be verifiable hence necessitating the ban on the Chinese virginity gadget while male virginity can conveniently be glossed over. Equally sexist are attempts to justify the concern over women’s virginity as one motivated by insuring the sexual purity of society in general since it ignores the reality that every extra marital sexual act involves by definition two parties, one male and one female which are both equally responsible for their actions.

The fact is, in Egypt, Pakistan and in a majority of Muslim countries the onus of protecting a society’s delusions of purity and piety are placed solely and singularly on the shoulders of women. In insuring that virgins are venerated and non-virgins vilified social constructions of good and bad women are enforced in a society where the value of a woman is little else than her ability to breed sons, please her husband and be a good housekeeper. The myth that is continually forwarded is that all those women who are not virgins are somehow dirty, impure and unworthy of marriage. No consideration is given to the fact that the majority of these women may be widows, divorcees or victims of sexual assault. In other words, male complicity in reducing women to non-virgin status is completely ignored in the whole discussion.

Because of this, thousands of widows, divorcees and rape victims in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are forced to live lives at the very margins of social acceptability. Not only can they not expect to be married again but they are further dealt the burden of being somehow morally compromised simply because they are no longer the pure virgins venerated as brides. Examples from Islamic history that suggest otherwise. For instance, the notable fact that the first marriage of the Prophet (pbuh) was to a non-virgin are given short shrift and virtually ignored.

It is interesting indeed, that the device in question that provides Muslim women with some semblance of empowerment against the strictures of proving their purity is being sold from China. Indeed, it brings to focus the vast disparity between nations like China, who have put their women to work and hence harnessed 51% of an unused labor force to become a manufacturing super power and countries like Pakistan and Egypt who are still squabbling over inanities that necessitate a device like the Artificial Hymen Kit. While Chinese women work to produce anything that sells and raise their country to new heights as an emerging power; Muslim women remain embroiled in proving that their worth is more than just their virginity.

Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of