When I was a child my mother prevented me from playing with boys, screaming, climbing trees, and jumping. These restrictions still apply today to ensure that girls do not lose their virginity. My mother always reminded me to az dokhtari khod hifazat ku, or “take care of your virginity.”
Virginity became a mysterious thing for me. I asked my mother several times, “Why don’t you tell my brother not to climb a tree? Doesn’t he have virginity?” My mother would answer that his virginity was not as important as mine. “You are a girl, you are the honor of the family and you have to take good care of yourself.”
I wondered why, in some places in Afghanistan, on the night before the wedding, women waited while the bride and groom went to the bridal chamber. After the groom returned, women would go to the room, cheer and dance around the shy bride, and show the bloody sheets.
As I got older, I learned more about these things. One day I saw a beautiful woman at a family wedding. As soon as my mother saw this woman, she sighed and I could see tears in her eyes.
The non-virgin’s fate
When I asked my mother to explain, she said it was discovered that the woman—who was my uncle’s first wife—was not a virgin when they married. When this was discovered, my grandmother persuaded my uncle to divorce her. I asked for more details and my mother explained that her brother’s first wife was raped by a male relative when she was twelve. She was probably scared for her life and kept the rape a secret.
On her wedding night she explained the reason she was not a virgin and identified the man who raped her. He was already married and didn’t want her as his second wife. The man was also rich and famous, which may be one reason the woman kept the secret, thinking that nobody would believe her side of the story.
The woman’s misery continued after my uncle divorced her. She married several times, but none of the marriages lasted. Some of her husbands were drug addicts and divorced her or died because they were too old.
My uncle told my mother that he wished he hadn’t divorced his first wife. He said that her love was like a deep mark in his heart that would never disappear. He said he would never forget his first wife’s beauty and innocence on their wedding night.
Police order virginity check
If a woman loses her virginity in Afghanistan, she loses her chance to marry a single young man. She either has to marry an old man whose wife has already died or has to be a second or third wife.
In addition to pressure from families and society in general, some women face demands from the very men they are engaged to marry; men who want to have sex before marriage. I had a classmate in high school who was engaged. She told me that her fiancé forced her to have sex with him before their wedding night. After having sex, the man warned her that if she refused to do whatever he said, he would tell the families that she was not a virgin. Since my classmate could not prove him wrong, she was forced to accept whatever her fiancé said.
This vigilance concerning virginity creates even bigger problems for women. In Afghanistan, having a boyfriend or running away to get married is considered an immoral act and is therefore a crime. If the police arrest a couple, they both have to go to the jail for adultery even if they are not married and have not had sex. Sometimes the case may even end up in honor killings. When the police arrest a young couple who are not related, the first thing they do is check the girl to see if she is still a virgin.
One of my sister’s colleagues decided to go out with a young man and was arrested by the police. They took her to the doctor, but the doctor refused to check her because he thought this practice was not fair. My sister’s colleague left her job and her entire family had to move so the neighbors would not look down on them because their daughter had a boyfriend. When I saw my sister’s colleague in 2010 she told me that she married the man.
In addition to the social pressures, the fear of being raped or molested can have negative psychological consequences for Afghan women. These young women worry about what others think of them, rather than focusing on what they want or think for themselves. In Afghan society, if one woman wants to hurt another woman, she will gossip that the woman had an affair with a man other than her husband. Hurtful scandals like this sometimes lead to suicide.
The aim of this essay is not to say that virginity is not important, but it should not cause all the stress that it does for Afghan girls. Afghan parents should educate their children about sex and virginity, but protecting virginity should not be the overriding focus of their children’s daily lives. Children become unable to trust anyone or have healthy social lives and this can lead to anxiety disorders and phobias in girls.
I believe Afghan parents need to support their daughters and bring them up as strongly as they do their sons. They should not make them weak by telling them that they bear the responsibility of the family’s honor.
Photo by Connie Houde