Growing up in India, children learn about the concept of virginity quite early. However, they don’t understand why it's deemed so precious. Through Bollywood movies and Ekta Kapoor soap operas, we learned the chronology of an Indian marriage. It's a series of rituals that we comprehended as collective events where a large group of people were present. But the part that the kids secretly discussed and speculated at lengths about was the night of the marriage - 'Suhaag Raat' - the event that only the bride and groom were privy to. This was the part of the arranged marriage ceremony where the bride and groom would have their first intercourse and strangely, everyone knew.
So, the idea that married couples had to consummate their marriage on their wedding night became common knowledge. The significance of this night was unknown to us, one would assume that the purpose of having sex was just to fulfil the ritual. One only realises later that this ritual stems from the patriarchy's sinister motive to test the bride for her virginity or 'sexual purity' by not just the groom but his whole family, in some districts. One such example is the Kanjarbhat community in Pune.
The Kanjarbhat community’s disturbing virginity test
In the Kanjarbhat community, a tribe in the western state of Maharashtra still follows this 400-year-old practice. The relatives send the newly married couple to a hotel room on their wedding night, ensuring that the bed is covered with a white sheet. They choose a white sheet so that they can inspect specks of post-coital blood. This is based on the belief that women bleed after their first intercourse. While the groom and bride engage in sexual intercourse, the family members, the pancha (judges) of Caste Panchayat wait outside their room for the 'verdict' on the woman's virginity.
Asia Times reported on a similar instance based on an acquired recording of the groom talking to the family and Jat Panchayat members. A social activist present at the post-marriage ceremony had recorded their conversation. In the recording, the Panchayat members can be heard asking the groom if the "Maal (product) was pure or not?" The community equates the girl to a product, a material thing that they have to inspect for quality.
To this, the groom replied, "Khara, Khara and Khara", this meant that she was 'pure'. But if she wasn't, the bride's whole family would be socially boycotted by the community. The Kanjarbhat community’s outdated and ancient tradition is biased towards men and unscientific as it is remarkably ignorant about female sexuality and the workings of women's bodies. This obviously isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. People can witness this obsession with virginity in Indian through history and even in popular Indian mythology.
Why did Sita have to go through ‘Agnipariksha’ and not Rama?
Ram, the supposedly perfect man, from the mythological story Ramayana, asked Sita, his wife to go through an 'agnipariksha' (A test in which the person has to walk through fire to prove themselves) to prove her purity and loyalty towards him. After Ravana kidnapped Sita and she spent time apart from her husband, he doubted her purity. When one views it from a contemporary lens, the story of Ram and Sita can be deemed problematic for its double standards for men versus women. Technically, Ram had also spent time in Sita's absence but she never put his purity under scrutiny.
Draupadi, an unconventional polygamous woman with five husbands, had the ability to regain her virginity by walking through fire. So before she moved on to spend time with her next husband, she would chastise herself to offer sexual purity to that husband, as if untouched by the previous husband. This reveals men's desire to control women's sexuality and a need to own the woman and examine them like a product. No mortal or even goddess is exempt from their subjugation.
The hymen is not a ‘seal’ but a thin membrane surrounding the vaginal opening
In 2019, a professor from Kolkata's Jadavpur University compared virgin women to sealed bottles. A disturbing reminder of contemporary men harbouring such backward beliefs. In his Facebook post, he said, "A girl is born sealed from birth until it is opened. A virgin girl means many things accompanied with values, culture and sexual hygiene. To most boys, virgin wife is like angel." The seal here is the hymen and according to most men, the hymen can only be broken through heterosexual penetrative sex. A complete myth.
Despite science proving otherwise, there is a widespread myth that the hymen is a layer of tissue that covers the vaginal opening like a seal and that after the first penetrative sex encounter, it permanently vanishes. Here is a biology lesson for everyone, the hymen is a rim of tissue at the outer vaginal opening. It is usually in a doughnut shape but can be of varying shapes. It's not a seal and it never really disappears or breaks. If it was a seal then how would menstrual blood be able to flow out?
However, in rare cases, the hymen covers the whole vaginal opening called an 'imperforate or microperforated hymen'. The truth is that the hymen can stretch, get thinner overtime by other activities such as cycling, riding bikes, horse riding, masturbation and even insertion of tampons, according to a Gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter as she explains the above in an interview with Huffington Post.
The definition of virginity excludes the LGBTQ+ community’s sexual experiences
The meaning of losing one's virginity for men simply denotes having sex. However, the meaning for women must consist of the rupture of the intact hymen through penetration. It blatantly disqualifies oral sex, homosexual sex, lesbian sex and 'everything sexual excluding penetration' as not real sex. Why must a penis be involved in a women's sex life for it to hold significance? A bisexual woman tells the Medium about her dilemma about the same as she has only had sex with women. "LGBTQ+ people deserve the chance to lose their virginity the same way a heterosexual person does - even if there's no male genitalia involved, " she argues. This shows the pervasiveness of heterosexual culture trumping over other sexualities. Now, the toxicity of the heterosexual definition of virginity is leading to the rise of new products to fake virginity for women.
i-virgin pills and artificial hymen - the capitalisation of the pressure on women to ‘preserve virginity’
Because of the stigma of premarital sex by women, companies and medical agencies have capitalised off the pressure on women to keep their virginity. In 2019, Amazon India was selling artificial hymens and fake blood pills (i-virgin) online. An artificial hymen is a cellulose membrane that a woman inserts into her vagina an hour before intercourse. After penetration, it ruptures and releases a small amount of red liquid resembling blood showing that this was her ‘first time’. The pill has a red dye inside it so when the woman inserts it in her cervix, it melts as her body temperature gets higher releasing the dye or 'blood' during sex. Amazon had removed the products after people expressed their dismay at them and concern about their possible biological side-effects on the woman.
Another medical intrusive procedure is becoming popular in India - hymenoplasty, a hymen reconstruction surgery. Anup Bhir, a cosmetologist at the Apollo Hospital tells Feminism India, "There has been an increase of 20-30 per cent in these surgeries every year. The majority of women who come for this surgery are in the age group 20 and 30". Brij Nathani, a senior plastic surgeon at Max Health Care hospital at Saket explains the reason behind the demand to Feminism India. He says, "The reason cited by many women who come for hymenoplasty surgery is premarital sex." This is an indication of to the lengths women will go to modify their bodies through invasive and painful procedures just to appease men. Just to satisfy her husband's inflated ego. Why do males put female’s virginity on a pedestal?
The fetishisation of ‘deflowering’ a girl by men
The reason why men are obsessed with women's virginity is that they find the idea of 'deflowering' a girl very appealing. An Indian director, Abhinav Shiv Tiwari explains his analysis on why young girls are trafficked, he had also directed a movie, Oass on human trafficking. He tells the First Post, "Indian men are obsessed with girls' virginity and that is what fans child trafficking more than anything. The entire idea of deflowering a girl is very appealing to them." It's a way of asserting their power and feeding their ego.
For males, it's a very common fantasy to be able to deflower a girl, and a lot of times, this can also refer to younger girls. Porn also exploits this trope by having categories such as 'teen' and 'young girl', or they also create videos on this storyline where the boyfriend takes the girl's virginity on her 18th birthday. Notice the word 'take' as if virginity is a tangible object. Often, girls are told that their virginity is a gift. So, you hear people saying, boys "get lucky", "get laid", "get some" but for women, it's more about 'giving it [virginity] up', 'taken advantage of', 'deflowered'. Men's sexuality is celebrated while female sexuality is monitored and stripped off its autonomy. Men often accept this predicament since it rarely affects them. But some men from the toxic Kanjarbhat are taking the responsibility to reject this demeaning tradition.
The youth of Kanjarbhat in their fight against the ‘virginity test’ tradition
The youth from Kanjarbhat are raising their voices against the misogynistic practice of monitoring a new bride's virginity. In 2018, Vivek Tamaichekar, 25, had started the 'Stop the V ritual' campaign to protest the virginity test in his community. In 2018, he had told the BBC the horrific details of the ritual, "It's a complete violation of a couple's right to privacy and the way it is done is very crude and traumatising. They are forced to consummate the marriage with many people sitting outside the room, and the groom is often given alcohol and shown pornography to 'educate' him." During his campaign, he had faced a lot of flak and threats from the members of the Kanjarbhat community.
Women’s vaginas are neither sacred nor pure
It's good to see the youth rising above regressive traditions of the past and supporting women. It is imperative that we include the concept of virginity in sex education so that we don't grow up to be misinformed for so long. This notion of protecting a girl's virginity needs to be discarded along with other patriarchal structures. Women's vaginas are not sacred, neither pure. People wouldn't go parading about how women should walk, well, nevermind, people do that as well. This is proof of how women have been policed in every way imaginable. But it's high time we give them their bodies back, it must be their decision whether they want to have sex or remain abstinent and why should it matter because virginity is a myth.