How Sexual Purity Affects Young Women in Lebanon
“Have you heard about that surgery that gives you a fake hymen?” Jana asks me, “I want to get it done. I’m actually looking for doctors.”
Jana is 21 years old, telling me about how she is choosing to stay with her ex-boyfriend even though she knows he is hurting her.
“I know I shouldn’t go back to him, and I know we don’t love each other,” she says, “but I can’t just date someone else. I can’t increase the number of men I’ve slept with. What would that make of me?”
Jana’s fears about the loss of her virginity are shared by many young women in Lebanon today.
Just last week, on March 27, Tala el Hakem, just 19 years old, was found outside the EVE IVF clinic in Beirut beaten nearly to death by her parents because they found out she was on her way to get an abortion.
What Does Purity Culture Look Like in Lebanon?
Women in Lebanon lose their lives every day over the concept of purity and virginity that controls them. Be it figuratively, because it controls their lives with shame and guilt, or literally, like all the women who lose their lives to honor crimes.
A study conducted for Health journal found that out of 706 young Lebanese students, the majority choose to remain celibate in fear of social sanctions “and feel that the safer option is abstinence till marriage.” Moreover, the results showed a lack of sexual education in their student communities, replaced by religious norms.
According to Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, the concept of purity is not new, it emerged in the late 1800s in the West as a Christian movement to abolish prostitution and all other things deemed “immoral” by the church. Though that definition seems vague, it is reminiscent of the Lebanese article in the Code of Conduct that punishes any behavior that is deemed to go against “morals” (“أدآب عامّة”).
In Lebanon, however, rather than being controlled by Christian definitions of purity, purity is found in every community and is justified differently by every religious sect.
Having vague definitions of what is deemed improper and wrong is one part of the control these teachings can have on us. Purity can mean abstinence, remaining a virgin until marriage. As for remaining pure, it entails stopping yourself from acting improperly.
This can mean dressing modestly, controlling “impure thoughts”, avoiding interactions with the opposite sex, etc., and more often than not, these guidelines are only enforced on women.
Huda, a 21-year-old Bahraini veiled person living in Lebanon argues that these teachings always have a deeper meaning than just dictating sex lives.
She recounts her experiences when she had gotten into fights with her parents for wearing clothes they deemed too revealing or inappropriate for a veiled woman, criticism driven by patriarchal control.
“Our purity is not even linked to just our virginity anymore, it’s even about how you’re perceived,” she says.
This is a universal sentiment all the people I have spoken to echo. Purity is rarely just about outlining a way to act sexually, but it is a tool to control lives, namely women’s lives.
Lissa, who is Lebanese and grew up in a strict Christian home in the UAE, a Muslim country, shares the same feeling. They tell me how growing up they were “sweetly terrorized” into celibacy.
“Our bodies were constantly policed, and compared to half-eaten apples,” they recount, “I’m trying to unlearn all of these things, but it’s not easy.”
Lissa shares that they still hate being touched, even platonically. After being taught for years that their body represents ‘family honor’ they don’t even feel it’s theirs anymore.
Women’s bodies are ‘policed’ as Lissa says, but they are also controlled in the most basic ways, like not letting your daughter get a shorter haircut, according to Huda.
Such teachings can be harmful because they are less about guidance and encouragement and more about forcing abstinence with shame. Moreover, since these exhortations occur in early adolescence, the shame adolescents feel at that stage in their life stays with them forever, along with these rigid directives.
In addition to that, they are disproportionately more likely to be enforced on young women rather than young men, resulting in young men upholding these values and enforcing them on the women in their lives. A study published in PubMed found that though young men are more than twice as likely as young women to approve of premarital sex (61.0 vs. 27.3 %), they are less likely than women to agree to marry a partner who is not a virgin (78.3 of women vs. 57.3 % of men).
Withholding Information as a Weapon: Hymens and Doctors’ Consultations
Another way to enforce this call to purity is to withhold information from adolescents. Out of the seven people I have interviewed, no one told me that they had proper sex education at school or at home.
Misinformation is also a pillar in these teachings. The one that stands out the most is that hymens are not only a sign of virginity but a sign of purity.
The hymen is an external membrane on the vagina that is often seen as a marker of virginity, despite its presence being unrelated because many hymens can be broken by everyday activities like riding a horse or a bicycle or even doing some forms of gymnastics. Moreover, a hymen may not even be present at birth.
The surgery Jana is referring to is also known as hymenoplasty or hymen repair surgery. According to a report by the BBC, there is a rise in hymen repair surgeries, especially for Muslim women in the Arab world.
According to Dr. Naomi Crouch, Chair of the British Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, the surgery has “zero medical benefits,” and all patients are coerced into it. It is used to create a fake hymen for women to seem like virgins in case their family ever chooses to check them.
In Lebanon, it is known that most plastic surgeons in the syndicate perform this surgery.
Its rise shows that many women would choose to save big amounts of money and undergo surgery rather than live with themselves and with the threat of being exposed for not being virgins.
This obsession with protecting the hymen can also dictate young women’s sex lives in different ways, like choosing to exclusively engage in non-vaginal sexual acts
A survey administered in 2017 by the International J Gynecol Obstet to 416 Lebanese women between the ages of 18 and 30 actually found that almost 40% of women choose to partake in oral or anal sex instead of vaginal intercourse to protect their hymen. Moreover, this study reveals that the women who later on move to vaginal intercourse are less religious than the women who still choose to protect their hymens, implying a religious connotation.
These findings point back to the fact that a woman’s hymen is what dictates her life and her worth.
When Reem chose to visit a gynecologist when she was 19 to get checked for STDs and to be prescribed the correct form of contraception for her, she was met with scrutiny from her gynecologist for being sexually active before marriage.
Upon her arrival, Reem says that when she told her physician she wasn’t married, he immediately told her that he cannot give her an examination or do anything for her, adding that “he doesn’t understand what she wants.”
After she pushed him further, he eventually agreed to examine her. When Reem was finally seated for her pelvic exam the doctor stopped mid-consultation and called her a derogatory term for non-virgins in Arabic which directly translates to her being “opened” (“مفتوحة”), implying that someone opened her, rather than her partaking in consensual sex.
After the examination, Reem told me that he immediately assumed she’s not Lebanese simply because she has had premarital sex, and refused to recommend her contraception.
The doctor told her he cannot give her an intrauterine device (IUD) because she hasn’t had kids yet, which is again, medically incorrect.
These experiences just serve to validate the idea of the hymen’s presence as an indicator of a woman’s worth. The more we regurgitate that idea, the deeper these ideas run. At some point, the hymen is no longer the indicator of worth but her purity is, and as Huda mentioned, purity is not only a woman’s sex life but just how others around her perceive her. And as Lissa mentioned, a daughter carries her entire family’s honor.
A Family’s Honor: The Danger of Purity
This idea of honor is very prevalent in the Arab region, most notably when we’re referring to instances of honor crimes.
Since there are no laws that excuse honor crimes, and crimes are not legally processed as honor crimes, clear research cannot be done on the subject. Despite this, we all have memories of reading about honor crimes in the news, we all have memories of these instances. Honor crimes are defined as crimes of violence done against women more often than men, for deviating from sexual “norms”.
A study by the University of Windsor analyzed 36 cases of honor killings in Lebanon in 1998. The study revealed that the courts afforded the killers “leniency” in their sentences compared to other violent crimes.
This is because crimes against women that are deemed “impure” are more likely to be justified. As soon as a woman is deemed dirty and unfit, she is treated like she deserves these crimes done to her, because she cannot be further ruined, just like the case of Tala el Hakem that was first mentioned.
Tala was publicly beaten by her parents on the streets of Beirut, but no one interfered to protect her. Passers-by called it a family issue because everyone deems it okay for families in Lebanon to turn to violence to protect their honor.
A young girl was beaten almost half to death, but no one intervened to help her because she is now deemed dirty, thus undeserving of protection.
Purity and Sexual Violence
Research also shows that ideas of purity don’t only excuse honor crimes, but they also excuse rape or sexual violence against women who are already deemed impure.
One study conducted in 2021 by the Journal of Psychology and Theology surveyed 99 Christian men and women. The results show that those who endorsed the concept of purity were more likely to endorse “rape myths”, and to excuse marital rape as consensual sex.
Another study analyzed six Evangelical abstinence books. The content was shown to promote “traditional heterosexual script, engage in victim blame, and frequently fail to label sexual assault narratives as such (particularly when the victim is not purity adherent)”. In other words, when someone is labeled as “impure”, violence against them can be justified under religious norms.
To quote a story from Marie Claire that showcases both sides of this argument:
“With tears in her eyes, Shannon Dingle approached a female volunteer, the lone woman on an all-male staff at a friend’s church youth group. Dingle was 16 and had finally worked up the courage to disclose that she had been repeatedly raped as a child. “We had just heard a talk on purity and modesty, which was the only context in which sex was ever discussed in the church.” […] “She asked me if I had repented for my role in what happened.”
This story showcases both sides of purity culture, and how it makes young adolescents think that sex can only be mentioned in terms of purity and modesty, but it also showcases how adults can internalize these harmful definitions and repeat them to impressionable adolescents.
Angela is now a 20-year-old university student, but she tells me a similar story of what happened to her when she was 16 and an active member in her local church.
When she was 16, she and a group of friends she met at her local church organized a camping trip. Prior to this, she was already labeled as “sexual” in that group, despite her having never engaged in sexual acts. She had told them she was an atheist, and she had a boyfriend who was 18 at the time.
During that camping trip, her boyfriend sneaked in alcohol, and when they were sharing a tent, he had shared the drinks with her, and her being so young and not used to drinking alcohol, she passed out after a few drinks. A few hours later her friends found her unconscious with her neck covered in bruises.
Their reaction? “They didn’t want to take me to the hospital even though I clearly had alcohol poisoning,” Angela says. “Instead they just freaked out that I was an atheist and they couldn’t ‘save’ me before I passed.”
Following this incident, she tells me she has been excluded from every group outing: “I really was slut-shamed into oblivion. I was so ostracized. There would be outings where 40 people in that group would be invited, but I would be the only one left out.”
Having this sort of reputation as a teenager can really damage an adolescent’s self-esteem, especially when it leads to being mistreated by one’s friends and family.
“After this, men would refer to me as ‘easy’,” Angela tells me. “I remember one time a mutual friend asked if I’m the girl who everyone says ‘sucks dick’. Mind you I was 16 and he was well into his 20’s.”
When I asked her what happened to her boyfriend after the incident, she said she thought at first, “He was a saint”.
“Everybody around me would defend him, and even believed him every time he lied about it,” she recounts. “At some point, I really thought he was a saint and did nothing wrong. I didn’t find out that what had happened to me was assault until a year ago.”
Homosexuality and Remaining Pure
Moreover, religious teachings can affect people in different ways. When growing up as a pastor’s daughter, for example, Lynn carried the fear of losing her virginity even when she moved out, and even when she came out as a lesbian.
“I constantly felt ostracized for being both sexually active and a lesbian, which didn’t help me with my inner turmoil at all,” she explains. “I would just worry to myself- am I still a virgin if I sleep with a woman? The lines were blurred.”
Being gay in Lebanon remains a silenced and taboo topic. When I spoke to Ava about it, she told me about how when she was in high school their English teacher would never let anyone in class bring up homosexuality: “This is taboo and we don’t talk about it”.
Homosexuality in Lebanon is another dimension of the vague definition of “public morals” that the Code of Conduct refers to. It is both shamed and punished, hidden and erased.
It is so concealed that people in Lebanon grow up not understanding that part of themselves exists, Ava tells me. And part of purity is always to uphold the idea of a heterosexual nuclear family, where wives save themselves for their husbands.
But what about women who are not attracted to men? As Lynn asks, how do they fit in? How do they define their own purity and their own virginity?
Ava tells me that shame only ever followed the sexual experiences she had with men, not with anyone else.
“With guys I did feel pressure to sleep with them, to prove that I like them,” she says. In other words, it would be so ridiculous that she didn’t like them that she had to force herself into these sexual acts.
She tells me that to her, sex with men can feel vulgar because they only care about them being pleased.
“In my mind, they always see me as an object, so I always feel used”.
In other words, even when women do feel comfortable enough to engage in intercourse before marriage, they are still stuck under the same patriarchal system.
Angela mentioned a similar sentiment in our conversation: “During sex with men, there is a pressure on you as a woman to perform, to prove you are good in bed.”
When purity teachings define women as temptresses, and men as beings who only have sex on their minds, their roles in interpersonal relationships are automatically dictated and set in stone.
This is where the danger of purity teachings lies. When social norms seep into people’s personal lives and control them so rigorously, we can’t be surprised when they turn into violence.
As Villarreal writes for Sojourners:
“We can overcome trauma. It is shame that is so incredibly difficult to overcome,” Donna Coletrane Battle, chaplain at Meredith College, said at the Courage Conference in Raleigh, N.C., last September. ‘… At its core, [shame] exposes what we feel is a deficiency in our dignity. Shame goes directly to the heart of where we feel worth and value and it tears it; it rips it apart.”
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