What would you do if you found out the girl you love is not a virgin? scriptwriter Amal Fawzy asks a university student in Cairo.
“I would leave her, the student answers.
“And what if it was you she lost her virginity to, in a moment of weakness? continues Fawzy.
“I would never marry her, the young man replied confidently.
The eternal question of honor (‘ird or sharaf in Arabic) was lingering in the air at the screening of director Saad Hindawy’s new documentary “Malaf Khas (A Special Report) which premiered last Sunday at the Cairo Opera House’s Artistic Creativity center.
Hindawy approached Fawzy with the idea of the project in 2001. Since then, the pair has been working on the documentary, interviewing random people in Cairo, Alexandria and Minya, as well as experts and professionals in order to understand how Egyptians perceive the concept of honor.
Most of the answers Hindawy and Fawzy received highlighted the narrow perspective which ties a woman’s honor to her virginity – a rule that accepts no exceptions.
This opinion was evident in both men’s and women’s answers.
Mothers go to extreme lengths to protect their daughters’ virginity. They act as chaperons, accompanying their daughters on dates with their fiancés, if they agree to let them out in the first place. One mother from rural Egypt says her presence is required to “keep the devil away.
Even if it wasn’t the woman’s fault – if she was a rape victim, for instance – the social stigma persists.
Middle-class men said that they would break up with a girl if they found out she is not a virgin, even if they are in love. Why? “She lost her honor, one correspondent said.
Fathers from rural areas, interviewed for the documentary, said a girl who has been raped deserves to die. They do not regard her as a victim, but as an embarrassment and a shame in their closed, unforgiving communities.
These ideologies are common throughout the Arab world. And although religion prohibits premarital sex for both genders, Egypt’s patriarchal society gives leeway to men while punishing women for engaging in the act.
In the documentary, First Deputy of Al Azhar Sheikh Abdelfattah Allam explains that Islam does not discriminate between men and women. “Islam dictates equality in belief, in worship . in rewards and punishment, he said.
In the film, men attribute their views and beliefs to the long-held values and traditions of their society which they never question.
“Both the Sheikh and Priest say religion is forgiving. A girl who loses her virginity can repent and be forgiven. It is society that does not accept this or forgive, said Fawzy.
Hoda Zakaria, a sociologist who channels the debate in the documentary, says that in Egypt a woman’s honor is only defined by her virginity.
“What about a man’s honor? Asks Fawzy. “A man doesn’t have honor, answers one young correspondent laughingly.
The young man meant that a man’s virginity is a secondary issue; he just uses the terms virginity and honor synonymously.
The filmmakers did however present two rare male correspondents with more open-minded views on virginity. One of them said that if a man convinces the woman he is in love with to turn the relationship physical and then refuses to marry her, then it is he who has no honor.
A woman, who refused to show her face on camera, discussed the circumstances that led to losing her virginity. The woman, who appears to be from the upper-middle class, does not feel the need to hide the truth, or have hymen reconstruction surgery, a practice that is becoming increasingly common nowadays. The man she chooses to marry should not hold the loss of here virginity against her, she insists.
With the obsession of virginity comes the obsession with the hymen. In the film, sexologist Dr Heba Kotb recalls the story of a girl who was born with a defective hymen, too thick that it constricts menstrual blood in her body.
The girl’s stomach was continually growing, so her father took her to the doctor assuming she was pregnant. The doctor reassured him that she is a virgin, and that her bloated stomach was the result of accumulated menstrual blood.
A simple medical procedure would have solved the problem. This, however, required puncturing her hymen to allow the natural flow of menstrual blood.
“So on her wedding night will she bleed? asked the father. The answer was no, yet as Kotb explained, if the operation is not performed the girl will lose her life. “Let her die with her honor, replied the father.
The girl died shortly afterwards.
Fawzy would like to continue exploring women’s rights, not only the topic of virginity. “There are lots of social issues in the country that need to be addressed, she said.
Although the subject matter of the documentary has been tackled before, this treatment highlights the shocking anecdotes, inherited attitudes as well as the prejudice Egyptian women continue to face, rendering the topic both urgent and bewildering.