As painful as it is to wait in line at the beginning of your first semester to pick up your OneCard, at least the cheerful student volunteers sitting at the booth never have to tell you, “Sorry, you can’t have your uPass until I see your hymen.”
Western readers were shocked this week to hear that Egyptian MP Elhamy Agina wants women to pass a “virginity test” in order to continue attending university. Agina proposes that female students not be given student IDs until they can prove their purity. The sexism, ridiculousness, and disregard for basic human rights is obvious here.
And it’s tempting to denounce Egypt for perpetuating a culture of disrespect and violence against women — after all, despite the criminalization of the practice, it is estimated that 90 per cent of Egyptian women have been victim to some form of forced genital mutilation, in an effort to keep them pure, clean, and free of sexual desire — a practice Agina also supports. A woman’s virginity is viewed as a foundational identifying feature, and in Egypt, the term “Miss” directly signifies a woman who hasn’t had sex yet.
But this creepy preoccupation with female sexuality isn’t unique to “other countries” like Egypt. For starters, lots of Canadian men (and women) probably couldn’t tell you that virginity is essentially nothing more than a social construct — the hymen is vastly misunderstood as a barrier you magically break through, heterosexual sex isn’t the only sex that matters, and nothing about you has to fundamentally change when you “pop your cherry” (also a misnomer) — but they could surely give you 12 synonyms for slut.
Our culture may not endorse virginity exams, but it does endorse chastity balls for girls as young as six years old. Our politicians may not imply that women should be circumcised because their sexuality is dangerous, but we do employ judges like Robin Camp, who asked a rape victim why she “didn’t keep her knees closed.” We must be willing to acknowledge our own obsession with women’s sexuality, our own rape culture, our own propagation of messages that simultaneously tell women to be sexually desirable at all times, but abstain from sullying themselves with actual sex. We still live in a country whose parliament gets to legislate reproductive rights, and yet only 26 per cent of our parliamentarians are women. We must be wary of patting ourselves on the back for electing a government whose cabinet has gender parity, if that tooting of our own horns means that we ignore the real challenges our culture still presents to women’s equality.
In defence of his remarks, Agina said, “I did not make a demand, I made a suggestion. There’s a big difference between a demand and a suggestion.”
We’re surrounded by these “suggestions.” Parents “suggest” that their daughters guard their virginities by buying them promise rings at an increasingly early age. The media “suggests” to women that they be constantly conscious of their boobs, their butts, and their bellies — also at an increasingly early age. The idea that Agina’s proposal was merely a “suggestion” doesn’t excuse him, and it doesn’t excuse the way we – all around the world — define women by their sexuality, or hypothetical lack thereof.