But first, here is a bit of a preamble talking about my tone in this piece and my approach regarding critique of Islam in general. If you don’t want to hear it, you can scroll down to Part Two and read what I have to say about virginity tests. Suffice to know that yup, The Snark™: I am bringing it with this one, because I’m going to talk about my own virginity test, my own trauma, and I will do it on my own terms.
Part One: On Snark, the Tone Police, and Bad Allies
So in the stark majority of my posts I try to regulate my tone lest I am read to be condescending or arrogant while I’m making these arguments regarding the horrors women like me have been through–and I think that’s a good strategy in general, overall, and I will employ it repeatedly, and I advocate its general use. But you know, sometimes, you gotta bring the snark, knowing that there are people who will hate what you have to say anyway, because there are certain things you deserve to be assertive and harsh about–I feel that my virginity test is definitely one of those things.
And it’s kind of a larger issue. Don’t get me wrong, I get a whole lot of beautiful, invigorating support. The support and appreciation of my readers has kept me going when I’ve wanted to quit, and has helped me take care of myself when I’ve been too crippled by PTSD and depression to keep things going. Messages from people who feel supported, validated, who feel hope that I am saying what I say help me keep going too. And of course, I get tons of really civil and reasonable disagreements and requests for clarifications, and compelling challenges to my arguments that don’t unethically misrepresent my positions–that’s all good too. So what I’m talking about now is about a very powerful and systematic minority of responses. Keep that in mind:
There’s a consistent way that the contributions of women like me are treated by these people, from both ends. There’s this weird tone policing from purported allies, this same shit that implies that we have to dissent in exactly the ways that they say we must dissent, to paraphrase a friend of mine who is now suffering severe backlash for her role in The Honor Diaries. Unless we agree with and pander to the opinions of all popular liberal critique of Islam, we’re going to have a hard time. It doesn’t matter how good our reasoning or arguments are–if we are snarky or sarcastic we’re accused of being arrogant and condescending and our views discounted. If we take issue or disagree with or critique some famous guy’s positions or approaches, or even if we fucking ask for more representation instead of being overshadowed by people not as equipped as we to discuss our own experiences and traumas, especially if we use words like ‘white’, ‘liberal’ and ‘racist’ in regard to very specific circumstances and people– then that obviously means we’re saying that other people aren’t allowed to critique Islam, or that critiquing Islam is racist (lol), that we don’t support other people who want to critique Islam, and we are being Bad Critiquers™ of Islam, and we should Feel Bad. If we disagree with that one guy indiscriminately bashing Islam on Twitter or if we moooooostly like Sam Harris but don’t want him to be the driving voice regarding our issues over our own voices, then we are making enemies and we must have such feewwwwww friends, and if we have so few friends to begin with, how can we afford to value nuance and high standards of inquiry? Because a couple of famous guys are the be-all and end-all of critique of Islam, amirite, and our entire thriving, supportive ex-Muslim communities, our progressive Muslim allies, and the liberal skeptic, feminist, and atheist movements that support us don’t count because everyone knows that Brown Friends™ aren’t Real Friends™. I mean, way to prove the point about ex-Muslim and progressive Muslim erasure–the fact that we are so ignored and invisible is the reason I claim that maaaaaayyyyybeeeeeee we need to be given more representation regarding this issue.
And in the majority of my posts, I don’t often talk like this. I make great effort to seriously, carefully examine the issue at hand. The caveats come rolling aplenty. But inevitably a bunch of folks will come along and have a problem with it, in a particularly persistent and exhausting way. If you try to give an even-handed, nuanced account of atrocities that does anything other than give a blanket condemnation of Muslims everywhere, based on you know, your extensive knowledge and lived experience of that sort of thing, then you get these people who come around and in a really laughable condescending way explain how it’s important to critique the treatment of women in Muslim societies and to support evvvverrrrrryyyyyyyyy liberal who does it and enables it too. Like seriously, some people actually try to explain to me how Muslim women are oppressed, totally unaware of how oblivious they appear while doing that–like, while they’re talking to someone who was hunted down by an Islamist organization and whose abuse, assault, and torture was enabled and covered up by it, and who wore hijab against her will for 15 years. Like do you realize how fucked up you sound trying to explain to me that Muslim women suffer. And why? because you take issue with my regard for nuance and my condemnation of the destructive purposelessness of blanket insults to Islam? Get the fuck out of here, for serious.
And yeah, I’m sure that some of the people reading this right now are already really pissed and are totally thinking precisely-not-what-I-saidisms like ‘what, so now we can’t talk about the suffering of women unless we experienced it ourselves?’, ‘what, so now we can’t criticize Islam unless we know everything about it?’ and other straw-manny indignant positions that boil down to “I would like to express my opinion on this subject without anybody critiquing my approach, position, or relevance, without being corrected, challenged, or even considering that I may be silencing the people I claim to be defending while doing it, and be unequivocally received with applause and acclaim for being supportive.” Look, it’s nice that you care about critiquing Islam, and you can say whatever you want about it. I have never claimed that people of any gender, ethnicity, or national belonging can’t or shouldn’t talk about Islam–but I don’t have to think that your methods and knowledge are completely rigorous or adequate, and I don’t have to shower you in thanks for doing the fundamentally non-douchey thing of recognizing that we need to address and critique the causes of blatant human suffering.
And I’m sure others who are reading this are like “but I don’t do any of that! I’ve always expressed kindness and support”–Thank you! I’ll remind you that I’m not talking about you then–(just like I say to the hijabi who says ‘but I wear my hijab out of my own free and proud choice’ that that’s great and all, but I’m not talking about her- I’m talking about the people who are precisely not her). But it all bears repeating. A lot. I said it above, I’m repeating it here, and I’ll repeat it again before long–much love, kudos, and gratefulness to all of my supporters and friends. This is the lesson you learn when you write extensively– that even multiple disclaimers and caveats aren’t enough to clarify to some people that I’m talking about specific things in specific contexts instead of generalizing.
The flipside, of course, is the crowd of condescending Muslim commentators who exhibit a frightening lack of human compassion and integrity, who value defense of an ideology over acknowledging the suffering of real people, who brush over the thousands of words you’ve painstakingly crafted examining the circumstances that oppress women in detail, your condemnations of anti-Muslim bigotry, your attention to specificity and the sources you cite to support the religious nature of the oppression you critique, your attempts to be as fair as you can be, the caveats you keep giving, the way you repeatedly condemn blanket generalizations and all your disclaimers about your experiences not being universally representative–none of that matters because they have an urgent, compelling need tell you that you’re wrong about everything you know or say, that you don’t understand anything about Islam and you don’t really know what the hijab you wore for 15 years in the Middle East is about. And then there are the inevitable violent, aggressive, and sexual threats I receive in my various inboxes, pretty much proving all my points. I’d say more about that, but you know, I don’t expect anything other from them–they’re not my purported allies, and they’re going to keep on coming..
None of this is to say that because a powerful minority approaches me in this manner that I should give up my dedication to an even-handed, non-sarcastic, careful mode of writing most of the time, because it is valuable. But there are times when it’s cathartic and empowering to mix the tone up a little bit, and, knowing that the tone policing is going to happen anyway, no matter how careful I am, I’ma say fuck it this time and just bring on the snark and the sarcasm (which incidentally, none of my pseudo-allies have a problem with if I use it against Muslim denialists and apologists). You want to hear it, read on! If you can’t stomach it, away with ye! I’m going to talk about things in as direct and abrasive a manner as I want to.
Shout-out here to the many beautiful, loving fans and allies who don’t do any of the above–you are everything that keeps this blog running, for serious.
TL: DR Today, I’m going to write about my virginity test again, because it’s my trauma, and I don’t have to apologetic and pandering about it, and people are going to comment about how insufferable I sound about the whole thing and GAWSH why can’t I just be GRATEFUL that people are trying to SUPPORT me, but you know *shrug*, who am I to critique the way people talk about the circumstances that oppressed me my whole life, heaven forbid I condescend to those who try to speak over me and explain my own trauma to me.
Part Two: No, Doc, you are NOT a hero for telling my daddy I’m a virgin
So someone linked to this Reddit comment thread in one of my Ex-Muslim groups. The comment being discussed is by an expat doctor in Saudi Arabia talking about how he sometimes has to perform virginity tests on girls getting ready to marry, and he risks his practice by issuing virginity certificates to the girls who don’t ‘pass’ the test, so to speak, in order to try to help and protect them from the shame and backlash of their families. And he has thousands of upvotes, and the whole thread is basically a fest of commentators patting him on the back, talking about what a hero and help he is to these young women, some of whom he described as sobbing in shame during the procedure.
And it really does kind of make me sick, as someone who has been trying to come to terms with the trauma of this forced procedure for the past few years. I’ve frankly just been trying to do my best to just not hate the gynecologist who did it to me. I’m incredibly disheartened that in most of this thread there is little discussion of the procedure itself and of consent, little mention of how a girl being brought by her parents to have this done to her, unless she’s completely on board and desirous of the process herself, is being touched non-consensually, against her will. It’s a humiliating and traumatizing thing to go through, and it is a form of assault. Why are these people not discussing the assault and non-consent aspect of this at all?
It seems to have totally gone over all of their heads that what is problematic about this whole thing is not just how ignorant and bigoted people will treat daughters who are not virgins, that it’s not just about reducing the purity and worth of a woman to a piece of tissue, that it’s not just the bad science and the weird fixation on controlling women’s bodies it entails–that the procedure itself is a non-consensual invasion of women’s bodies, that the procedure itself affects women like us, possibly for years to come. Independent of what happens as a result of it. They haven’t begun to consider what it is like for us, against our will, at the whim and power of our parents who effectively own our bodies, to lay prone and helpless before a stranger who will touch our genitals and examine them in order to judge our purity and worth in an entirely unnecessary and dehumanizing procedure. And did someone on that thread seriously compare the custom of forcing girls to undergo virginity tests with other cultural customs like eating Turkey on Thanksgiving? Fucking cultural relativists, I swear.
Before I express the greatest of my many very strong sentiments regarding this thread and what’s happening in it, let me acknowledge some of the ‘buts’ probably brewing in your brains:
Yes, I recognize that it is likely that this doctor and others in his position have very little choice in conducting these tests–that it is probably impossible for him to just pretend that he did it because family might be present in the room for the procedure (for instance–my mom was there with me during mine–she couldn’t see exactly what the doctor was doing, but even if a doctor is only pretending to touch and probe, being prone and exposed to a stranger against your will is likely traumatic in itself).
Yes, I recognize that if he refused to do it, someone else very likely would, and that someone else might not be willing to lie about a girl’s virginity status to help them. Yes, I recognize it’s a fucked up and difficult choice for anyone to have to make, a supremely unenviable position to be put into, and that he seems to be expressing plenty of regret and empathy and distress at the entire situation, that there are dynamics of control and constraint that are prevalent and inescapable in situations as these, and he’s not from the outside perpetrating the system, but rather pulled into it himself at least in part against his will.
And I’ve been trying to come to terms with my virginity test for years, trying to have compassion and understanding for the doctor who so nonchalantly held me down and touched me. I wrote a blog post trying to explore her reasoning, trying to think of all the difficult constraints she faced, all the limited options she had, trying to remember that she too was caught in the same system that I was, and it was probably difficult, damning for her. I’ve tried, over the years, to recognize that yes, there is much to be said about how hard it is to choose the unequivocally ethical option in such a circumstance, and this doctor in Saudi Arabia–I don’t envy him being in that position.
None of that is to say, though, that he deserves roaring acclaim, that he is a hero to women like me. There’s a far cry between recognizing that someone is in a very difficult position trying to do the best he can and making him seem like a hero and savior to the poor women that pass under his probing tools. But there’s a reason that it’s such a difficult and damning choice to have to make–because there’s no right choice, there’s no easy option–it perpetuates suffering all around–damned if you do, damned if you don’t–and that’s why it’s still a tragedy. That’s why it’s not a matter of heroics. It’s still damned if you don’t–except the praise seems to be coming in because they recognize the potential cost to him and his practice if he’s caught lying about these tests–ie, how he is damned for this–rather than recognizing how damning and fucked up it is for the women who have to undergo the procedure. How blindsided, really.
And not that he asked for all of these people to come along treating him like a savior, but he does seem to be handling the praise with a good amount of complacency, and has made comments about thinking he’s doing good, hasn’t addressed how problematic the procedure is itself, even somewhat unbelievably mentioning the tears of girls undergoing it as a product of shame for not being virgins without thinking of other reasons why someone being examined thus might be distressed–and I’m almost dumbfounded by the complete and utter obliviousness of all these people to what is going on here.
And I’m sitting here reading all these comments from people about the women who’ve had to suffer through this ordeal, calling this doctor a hero to women like us, saying that there’s no way to understand how much a doctor such as this has helped the lives of these young women-and all this while, I’m sitting here with flashbacks of my virginity test and thinking do they not realize that he’s the one doing this traumatic and dehumanizing thing to those women?
[Activate full-on snark]. Like, I fucking have been struggling for years trying not to HATE the gynecologist who somehow found herself capable of doing that shit to me for making such a fucked up choice. She’s not my hero because she told my daddy I’m a virgin. She held me down and touched me without my consent. Fuck this shit. Don’t you fucking act like this guy is some noble savior for agreeing to invade women’s bodies and then keeping his mouth shut about it if they’re not virgins. Don’t fucking act like we must be grateful for this. Don’t fucking act like we’ve been granted a shining boon and we must skip along merrily for it if someone who just finished probing our genitals doesn’t accurately report the state of our torn hymens. Like, oh, you engaged in this dehumanizing and nonconsensual practice? Let’s fucking give you gold stars and call you a hero because you handed out certificates afterwards.
I mean the *irony* you know? Because the reasoning, presumably, for lying about these women’s virginity is so that they won’t suffer violation at the hands of their families for it. But in order to do so you conduct a procedure that VIOLATES THEM? Like, is it so outside of your fucking radar to not see how you’ve just supremely defeated the purpose by essentially assaulting someone in order to help keep them from harm?
But you know, this isn’t about the women, it really isn’t–what it must be like for them, their lives, their will, their bodies–so little of it is considered or thought about with any measure of sympathy or imagination. The whole thread–it doesn’t focus on the women regarding the procedure in question. It focuses on an othering appraisal of ‘these societies’ and ‘these customs’, talking about us as if we’re specimens in a zoo, and the choice the doctor was faced with and how difficult it is and how magically magnanimous he is and what an experience to have! and he should write a book about it! and be on talkshows!, because our dehumanization is your selling point! and then the whole strain of apologetic defenses of the cultures that perpetrate this bullshit and BLERGH. Talk about the actual living people who go through this and consider the horror of it all to them instead of treating them like curious specimens who are just so supported and helped by this guy–nope, nope. The very implication that I should be grateful to someone who’s done this to me–it makes me want to gag.
To any doctor, no matter how constrained, who performs virginity tests, I say:
No, Doc, you are NOT a hero for telling my daddy I’m a virgin. I am not your oppressed curiosity. You do not get to pat yourself on the back for helping me. You cannot imagine the trauma and pain of any of this. This isn’t about you and the supreme difficulty of the choice you have to make to violate others or be complicit in their violation–forgive us if we don’t melt into ecstatic thanks for the magnanimity of your choosing the somewhat less-shitty option, and appreciate just how much it fucking costs you to have to violate our bodies.
And enough, enough, in general of all of these narratives regarding the treatment of brown women being about those who deal with us and their attempts to help or whatever–it is not about them. It is about us–all of us.
It’s been 7 years for me. It doesn’t just become fixed, voila, an experience like that, you know, if you tell my dad that I’m a virgin and you explain to my parents that hymens aren’t a reliable marker of virginity to begin with. It doesn’t erase it. It doesn’t fix it. You’re not a hero, I do not have to be grateful to you, and I don’t need strangers who can’t conceive of what any of this is like talking about its unimaginable how much you’ve helped me. I can try to sympathize with you, though, to understand the difficulty and constraint of your choice, I will try as hard as I can not to blame or condemn you for it-but that is as generous and magnanimous as I can possibly get. I will never forget how you touched me against my will.
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