There is a saying: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
In light of human nature, I feel moved to posit a companion phrase: that those who know history are still capable of repeating it, particularly if they thought it was a good idea the first time round.
With that in mind, here are three recent, related, news articles:
As far as the history of womens’ rights is concerned, I’m a remarkably privileged person. I wasn’t raised to believe that sex before marriage was bad (or, conversely, threatened with shame, penalty, violence or social exile should I indulge in it). Although I’m happily married now, I had a choice about how to live my life, with whom and under what circumstances. I was taught that women and men are equal. I live in an era of contraception and sexual freedom, and believe these are both good things. And because of my friends and family; because of my Australian citizenship, race, socio-economic status and – yes – atheism, I’ve never had to fight for this to be the case.
In a nutshell: I take these freedoms for granted. To a certain extent, I can’t help it – because I’ve never had to seriously defend them. Oh, there were times early on at primary school when boys would tease or exclude me from games because I was a girl, and therefore The Enemy, but the fact that I was persistent, assertive and more than a little tomboyish meant that, nine times out of ten, I won them over. As a teenager, I butted heads with blokes about the social role of women, and as a university student, I went online and debated feminism (of a sort) with Christian Evangelists, but these were all theoretical debates, and society – I knew – was On My Side. Day-to-day, I’ve never been kept back, excluded, ridiculed, restricted or punished for being female: my gender has never earned me a separate set of social rules or expectations. Unlike my mother, I’ve never had a bank laugh at me for trying to take out a loan as an umarried woman. I know these are recent developments, and I’m grateful for them. Should the need arise, I’d be ready to come to their defence. I also know women in most of the rest of the world aren’t half so lucky.
But what I struggle with – what I really struggle with – is the idea that glass ceilings, sexism and patriarchy still exist, not overseas, but in my society. The idea that western democracies can still have double standards where women are concerned feels…wrong. Logically, I know it’s true. And despite a wealth of inner scepticism, it’s not that I’m sceptical when I hear of it – not in the least. It’s just so far removed from my own experience that it’s like finding a sweatshop under the local council.
Take the idea of purity balls, for instance. The article mentions talk of making a similar thing for boys, but only as an afterthought. The problem isn’t with encouraging teen abstience: it’s in the execution and the mindset. Because only girls are targeted. There is no balancing idea that mothers keep the virtue of their sons: rather, it harks back to the day when men passed their daughters on to other men, and the women went quietly. One father, at least, drew a line at the idea of Indian-style arranged marriages, just wanting the parents to be involved, but presumably this can happen without attending a purity ball. As a system, it seems more likely to encourage parental veto of potential suitors than not – mostly because these dads use the word suitors to begin with, a term which connotes the necessity of permission. And where permission can be granted as a matter of course – by gum, it can be withheld.
‘Purity’ isn’t a helpful word, either, because more than promoting abstience until such-and-such a time, it actively suggests dirtiness, or wrongness, in the alternative. This, I suspect, is the core of why abstinence-only sex education programs fail: they consider virginity more important than waiting until you’re ready. This isn’t a semantic distinction. As a religious concept, virginity means considerably more than not having had sex. It implies waiting, not until you’re ready, but until marriage, committing to this ideal rather than simply being sensible about the circumstances of your first time. Because, sooner or later, there will be a first time. Exalting virginity rather than talking about being comfortable – which, of necessity, means talking about actual sex – isn’t a great approach. And purity balls, as an extension of the concept, are hardly a step up.
They’re a step down, in fact, because they’re only aimed at girls. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t fun, especially for teenagers, but the idea that female virtue needs to be guarded that much more closely because women give birth overlooks the whole notion of male involvement as anything other than guardians. It says that because boys can’t get pregnant by slipping in the abstience stakes, there’s less (or no) need to worry; the fact that they can still impregnant girls is, apparently, the girl’s problem. Jumping to another glaring anachronism, the whole ‘purity ball’ concept hinges on daddy giving his daughter to a strapping lad, as opposed – say – to someone else’s daughter. That, methinks, is a whole ‘nother issue for the type of folk likely to attend purity balls, but damned if it doesn’t rate a mention.
Hymenoplasty – surgery to reconstruct the appearance of virginity – is another concern. In France, young Muslim women in particular have been paying to have it done before their weddings, which raises an interesting question of sexual progression vs. traditionalism. Clearly, their husbands-to-be place a value on virginity, as one notorious court-case has made clear; but the women themselves, comfortable with sex outside of marriage, need only the semblance. Need, not want: this is a key point. They feel they’ll be punished for having had sex, and sadly, in some instances, they will be.
The last sworn virgins in Albania are now old women; they’ve lived their whole lives as men, on the condition that they never have sex. In some instances, it was all they could do in a patriarchal society where their family had lost the male head of the household; others, doubtless, chose as much from sexual orientation as a desire for social standing. Oddly, the basis for this system was the appropriate weregild – blood-price – paid for the deaths of different people. Women were worth less than men; but virgins were worth the same. Logically, then, a virgin was as good as a man, and for as long as she stayed a virgin, a woman could live as a man. As ever, there’s no extra worth for a virgin male, because regardless of where on the globe you are – France, America, the Middle East, Albania – virginity is only praised in women. Sometimes, we pretend otherwise. But not often.
And in this spirit, we have father-daughter purity balls.
In this spirit, we have hymenoplasty before traditional weddings.
In this spirit, we have women only equal to men through celibacy – and even then, they cannot live in equality as women, but must take on the role of men.
Because in this spirit, women are not equal.
“How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I’m no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t buy into it. Women’s inferiority – in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished.
“…I can’t contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we’re shaping…I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.”
Because no matter how civilised or enlightened we think ourselves, if we want our daughters to be pure and virginal above all else, and if we punish them for straying, then this is where we are headed.
And history, as Shirley Bassey sang, keeps on repeating.