The Maghreb’s Obsession with Women’s Virginity

A couple sitting on a wall by the ocean in Rabat, 5 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - Fadel Senna)

By: Hamid Zanar

Published Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fearing that their daughters may secretly lose their virginity, Muslim fathers resort to many methods to preserve their girls’ hymens – their most precious assets, as far as their fathers are concerned. These methods include gender segregation and confinement, and sometimes pre-emptive over-protectiveness.

For many reasons, most importantly economic factors and social progression, fathers can no longer do without the help of women in the fields, nor can they prevent them from continuing their education or even intermingling with males in the cities.

Faced with this new situation, folk culture in the Maghreb has come up with an almost comical practice, which some believe can allow girls to guard their vaginas against sexual assault and against love-making when they are ravaged by desire.

This practice is known as tasfih – [Arabic for rendering one impenetrable]. Tasfih is a magic ritual comprising two stages: “sealing” a girl before she reaches puberty, and “opening” her a few hours before her wedding night.

The individuals who perform this ritual defend their practice, claiming that by virtue of tasfih, many girls managed to keep their hymens intact even after they were raped, some even after they had gotten pregnant.

But regardless of whether it works or not, the practice serves another purpose. Through tasfih, the Islamic community in the Maghreb seeks to send a message to young people, particularly young women, that it has zero tolerance for any sexual relations outside of marriage.

More importantly, however, the practice aims to convince girls from a very young age that losing their virginities means that they have become “broken,” unusable things. Various terms are used to describe such girls, including “damaged,” “ruined” and so on, all slang insults that underscore the obsession with the loss of virginity.

The process of “restriction,” “sealing” or tasfih is carried out before girls get their first menstrual periods, i.e. between the age of six and ten. The process is a symbolic ritual that mostly takes place in rural areas of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, aimed at disrupting girls’ sexualities by ingraining into them the belief that sexual penetration will become impossible until the process is undone, by ‘opening’ them once again.

The way the ritual is performed differs from one region to another, and sometimes from one mystic – usually an old woman with the knowledge of these rituals – to another.

The process involves making some incisions in the knee of the girl undergoing tasfih, often seven cuts, and then smearing seven dates or raisins in the blood coming out from these incisions. After that, the girl is forced to eat them one by one, uttering each time the following words, [loosely translated as]: “I am a wall and the man a thread” [Sic]. She does so while facing Mecca; the ritual usually takes place at a house with no males present.

The charm means that the girl has become the equivalent of a wall, and the rapist or lover the equivalent of a thin thread – a euphemism for her impenetrable vagina and his penis becoming flaccid as a result of tasfih.

To undo the magic, and allow intercourse within wedlock, the services of the old mystic woman – who preferably should hold a meaningful Islamic name like Fatima or Aisha – are once again solicited. The girl is asked to repeat the charm in reverse, and this time say, “I am a thread, and the man a wall.”

There are other rituals, charms and practices to fortify and protect girls, with ignorance being the common trait among them all. These practices are reinforced by religion, in order to perpetuate the irrationality that in turn ensures their continuation.

And then it is only natural for people to cheat, lie, and deceive when they are ruled by outdated religious traditions, and when they have to observe the laws of a cruel, inhumane code.

So is this practice a form of illusory reassurance invented by charlatans who seek to profit through blackmail? Or is it a trick by an entire society with a view to circumvent its own scriptures and fossilized traditions?

More questions can be raised as to whether tasfih is a method to protect women and adapt to the times, or whether it is encouraging backwardness and hypocrisy. It could also be yet another trick by men in some cases to cover up their impotence, as it is perhaps sometimes better to acknowledge the power of tasfih, than to admit to erectile dysfunction.

Could tasfih be an attempt to invent an illusion of chastity prior to marriage? But since Islam absolutely forbids extra-marital sex, one may wonder why this practice is at all necessary. Is it then an explicit recognition of the absurdity of religious discourse, or an attempt to dodge religious laws and the collective conscience? Why resort to mystical rituals for protection against illicit sexual relations, when women are ‘“protected” in Islamic law - as the Quran says?

If extra-marital sex is forbidden for both men and women, according to those who claim that Islam treats the two sexes equally, then why not “seal” or “restrain” men too? The answer is that the illusory chastity belt serves no purpose but to deepen discrimination between the sexes, and prevent the sexual maturity of young women, while unleashing the sexuality of males.

Notwithstanding the above, tasfih may in fact have a role in the emancipation of girls who have undergone the process. For instance, these young women can do as they please knowing that their virginity is protected. Thus, this trick may have serious consequences, and indeed, some women became inadvertently pregnant out of wedlock, and soon found themselves single mothers in a society that shows no mercy to those who do not comply with its superstitions and outdated morals.

In other words, the results of tasfih can sometimes be the complete opposite of its intended goals. True, the function of tasfih is essentially to turn women’s bodies into fortresses that render every man who dares approach them sexually impotent. But ironically, it became, over time, a way to protect a bride that may not be a virgin, or a way for a bridegroom to save face if he fails to perform on the wedding night.

So perhaps the best virtue of this ritual is that it can lift any blame from both the bride and the groom should they encounter any surprises on their wedding night. However, its worst vice, just like with both male and female circumcision, is that it represents an assault on the sanctity of the bodies of innocent women who have no sin except that they were born in countries where the men believe virginity is sacred; so much so, that the joy of love often turns into a nightmare for them, a nightmare called “the wedding night.”

Hamid Zanar is an Algerian writer.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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