I’ve always been bothered by the relationship between honor and women’s bodies that exists in many cultures.
Countless women throughout the world grow up in societies that teach them to guard their bodies against men. Men, however, are never taught to avoid sexually harassing or raping women.
In fact, we see this occurring even in Western cultures, as demonstrated by the creation of items like “rape shorts.”
After the Arab Spring, women were violently pushed out of the public squares and many of them were sexually assaulted.
Instead of feeling sympathetic for these women and trying to enforce some level of justice, many people simply stated, “What was she doing there?” or “It’s her fault…she must have asked for it.” It’s greatly concerning that people, especially within the Muslim environment in which I was raised, rarely talk about the double standards placed on women and men.
We cannot begin to confront the power dynamics in our societies if women continue to be victimized and forced to carry the blame for the disgraceful actions of men for centuries. Our communities need to shift the focus from women’s conduct, dress, honor, and bodies, to an overall restructuring of gender relations.
I believe that this is a conversation that needs to happen and is long delayed.
Three years ago, my Aunt Leila and I were on a bus to Essaouria, a small port city in Southern Morocco, when we met a girl of about 17 years old. Her name was Samia and she was headed towards Agadir to visit relatives. Samia and my aunt really hit it off and spoke for about two hours straight while I read a book.
At a pit stop, Samia excused herself to use the lady’s room and as soon as she was gone, my aunt turned to me and blurted out, “She’s not a girl!”
“What do you mean she’s not a girl – is she a cross-dresser? She looks like a girl,” I responded.
My aunt incredulously stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. “No,” she started, “I mean that she’s been with a man so she’s not a girl anymore – she’s a woman!”
At this point I began to understand what she meant; the Arabic word for girl is “bent,” and Samia, because of her previous sexual relations, was now a “marah” (woman). When I asked Leila what she considered herself to be, she quickly replied, “bent” and seemed offended that I would think she was a “woman.”
At that time, Leila was 33 years old, never married, and still lived with my grandparents. As a self-identified feminist, I was horrified by the idea that a girl, no matter what her age, could not achieve womanhood until she engaged in sexual relations with a man. Throughout the rest of the bus ride, I was haunted by Leila’s words.
I couldn’t help but ask the question: What right do men have to hold the diploma to womanhood? Or does it not have to do with men at all? Is losing one’s virginity somehow equated with losing one’s childhood innocence?
Thoughts flitted through my head for hours and I came to the conclusion that what bothered me the most was that womanhood did not stand on its own. It was always attached to something, be it men, virginity, or sex in general; a woman couldn’t be a woman for herself. She couldn’t be a woman because she was intellectually, emotionally or physically mature. She couldn’t be a woman because she had enough confidence in herself. She couldn’t be a woman because her identity demanded it.
She couldn’t be a woman because she felt like it. No – she could only be a woman if a man took her virginity away.
To all the Leilas out there: you do not need a man to be a “woman.”
You are allowed to be in control of your body and to determine your identity. Embrace and cherish your womanhood. Don’t let them keep it from you or tell you that only a man can give it to you.
You were born with it and it’s only yours to own.