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Trapped in a pigeon’s neck: Making up the myth of the hymen

Virginity is a social construct, which defines sex in narrow ways, resulting in the policing, stigmatization and shaming of women’s bodies. Sandy Abdelmessih says we should stop talking about hymens altogether, and instead be more concerned with pleasure; with our bodies and their extraordinary capabilities.

Maftouha means ‘opened’.

It is a slang Egyptian term that describes a woman who has a broken hymen. As if that hymen was the seal of a milk bottle.

Curious to learn more about the messaging of fake hymens’ marketing, I surfed the internet searching for online outlets, and on my way I stumbled upon some Arab forums listing fake hymen buyers, with some offering home delivery services. Many women and their families search for fake hymens on the Internet, across these forums with some married women even undergo hymen reconstructions to spice up their sex lives. Very many go to incredible lengths to make their male partners feel that they are the first ones; the only ones to ‘break the wall’.  One should note that this term is never used in reference to anal sex because in that context nothing is ever broken.

Family’s dignity is more important

While hymen reconstruction operations are illegal in Egypt, it is allowed when a woman has been raped, to allow her to get married. This happens so she is not seen as bringing shame on her whole family. Aside from being disrespectful, offensive and humiliating, this allowance is not even made for the rape victim’s sake; it is mainly to please the future husband and to preserve the dignity of the family.

It is for the same reason that some doctors issue virginity certificates stating that a girl has lost her hymen through playing gymnastics or other sports, not through sex. So when the future ‘Mr Detective’ proposes, he will get all the official assurances needed to prove that his Virgin Bride is indeed pure and virtuous.

Read: Ubungcwele be Hule: The sacredness of women who flourish in their sexuality

What does virginity actually mean?

Virginity is something that is seen as being valuable for a woman, but shameful for a man. The common belief is that virginity keeps the hymen intact, meaning that the term applies only to women. In other words, any sexual practice that does not involve vaginal intercourse (kissing, oral sex, anal sex, outercourse) does not affect or take away a woman’s virginity.

To me, virginity is a state of mind. To be a virgin means a person (male or female) has not yet fantasized about sex, didn’t visualize having sex with someone whom they like, didn’t kiss, or sext, or strip, or lick, or smash, or grab, or rub.

That means, eventually, if you’re sexually attracted to other people, you would stop being virgin, when the hormones’ levels will start to rise and sex becomes an exclusive desire. Celibacy is a free choice. A person can choose not to have sex, but cannot prevent transitioning from a virgin to a non-virgin. Which makes losing virginity a big misconception, and preserving virginity a big lie.

What is it about the hymen that it should control the lives of so many women who are made to live with the daily anxiety of proving their virginity? I am reminded of a recent conversation with a friend, who told me: “I hated my virginity. It always made me feel that society was putting expectations on me, based on the assumption that I was a virgin. It was how I was being identified.”

And yet 50% of women don’t even bleed during their first vaginal intercourse. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to suppress the threat of shaming, divorce, or even honour killing. As a result, in some rural areas in Egypt, where hymen reconstruction or buying fake hymens are not options, women have discovered an alternative to hymen bleeding.

It is called Ra’abet El Hamama (the pigeon’s neck).

What this involves is slaughtering a pigeon, taking the crop from its neck, filling it with blood, closing it up and placing it into a woman’s vagina on her wedding night. After penetration, there will be blood, proving him to be a man and her to be a virgin.

Read: How kink is a whole new place of pleasure

Male virginity

Let us consider the existential question of why women were created with a hymen, while men were not. Is it just nature being unfair? The answer is that, actually, nature is fair, but humans are not. Most women are born with hymens (20% of women are born without), while men are also born with hymen-like tissue. This is the frenulum, which, in uncircumcised men, might be tight, so that when the penis is erect, they will feel pain. The frenulum might tear and bleed. But do we even know about it? Does it even matter? Are there any slang terms for a man without his frenulum? No, there is not.

Is abstinence the only resort for women?

Marriage is the only socially accepted structure in which couples can be sexually active, but many find it unaffordable. So they turn to an intermediate that allows for penetrative sexual activity, but doesn’t threaten the potential of future marriage: anal sex.

Despite being prohibited by culture and religion, anal sex is commonly practiced by unmarried couples in Egypt. Guilt makes some people believe that anal sex results in HIV infection, as a form of punishment. That fear would not have been as strong if vaginal sex, oral sex or outercourse was practiced. All that moral baggage stands in the face of pleasure.

One-sided pleasure is not a deal breaker

Women are either trying to prove love by having sex, or proving virtue by abstaining. She might fear losing her lover if she refused to have sex. Anal sex comes as a good compromise because the hymen remains intact and he gets to enjoy penetrative sex.

It is frustrating that social constructs should influence women into seeing the hymen as a precious gift that they were preserving for “the one” who deserves it. This belief plays an important role in the decision-making regarding women’s sexual activity, and the endurance of an unsatisfying relationship.

My last wish

Although I’ve been ranting about hymens and virginity, my wish is that we would stop talking about hymens altogether. We should instead be more concerned with pleasure; with our bodies and their extraordinary capabilities. My greatest wish is that women will stop going to such extreme lengths to accommodate men’s insecurities, their immature, silly desires. After all, we have our own issues to handle.

The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.

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