Honor means more than a hymen

Heba Yosry
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Pictures and videos emerged recently of a procession in an Egyptian village. It featured cheers, singing and embodied an unmistakable sense of pride. A fifteen-year-old girl hoisted on her father’s shoulders emerged from the crowd and her relatives announced the arrival of the “chaste and honorable.” One might imagine that this special girl exhibited some saintly qualities, or a miracle to be celebrated in such a way. Or perhaps she accomplished something so exceptional to deserve being paraded around the village for everyone. The reality however is both are simple and complicated at the same time.

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This girl was married to a man, only to be divorced the next day because her husband claimed that she wasn’t a virgin. Dismayed by the “damaged goods” he received, he returned her to the original vendor: her father. Her patriarch, quite troubled by the “damaged goods” accusations, reached out to experts to assess the intactness of his daughter. The experts, who comprised local doctors, validated that the young girl’s hymen was not broken and that the seal of chastity was intact. The father brimming with pride at having been vindicated from the malicious accusations declared his daughter chaste and paraded her around the village.

After the video was widely shared online, both the father and husband were arrested on charges related to child marriage. Egyptian law states that 18 is the minimum age for marriage. Although legal sanctions are in place to block child marriage, it is a quite prevalent tragic phenomenon that plagues Egyptian society. And, despite the gravity of child marriage, and the detrimental consequences on the individual and society, I believe there is a more insidious topic that needs to be discussed related to this event.

On a social media post commenting on the incident, a man perfectly articulated the essence of the problem. He said: “in our village; a girl’s honor is everyone’s concern and a man’s honor reside in his women’s bodies.” Perhaps there isn’t another way to encapsulate the opaque reality that is exemplified in this incident. In our societies a girl’s action is open to the discursive forces of society, to be viewed and judged by everyone. She isn’t allowed to make a mistake not because it is wrong to err, but because of what people will say about her father or her brother. When she gets married, she acquires limited freedom as a married woman, but she remains confined within the parameters set by her husband.

A woman’s body has always been the subject of heated contests throughout mankind’s history by religious, social and secular forces. A girl is born almost within a battlefield, where everyone tries to lay claim to the body she inhabits. As she starts to develop consciousness, she is indoctrinated that her body isn’t hers, that her role is to safeguard it for another and not for herself.

We teach our girls that any mistake they may incur, any indiscretion they might exhibit, or any eyebrows they might raise is a stigma that sullies their father’s, brother’s or husband’s honor. We tell our girls that their bodies aren’t theirs, that they are the vulnerability that could undermine the strength of men. We convince them that they are a weakness, that their bodies are a burden, that all eyes monitor their every step, and all ears listen to their every word. We shroud them in chains of antiquated concepts and conceal every trace of femininity not to protect them, but instead another.

Some might claim that my words are instigating immorality. That I am effectively calling for sexual promiscuity, and debauchery. That I am asking young girls to revolt against their parents. I would say that I’m asking both parents and young girls to revolt against obsolete ideals and not against morality. I’m asking our society to investigate the foundations of enslavement that we subject our girls to and demolish them.

I’m requiring that we all stop reducing honor and chastity, which are noble ideals to a girl's hymen.

The jubilant father who anointed his daughter as chaste was proud of himself; not of his daughter. He was proud that she merely kept a piece of tissue intact. He wasn’t proud of her excellence, her accomplishment. When we reduce virtue to a woman’s body, we all lose.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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