Mona Eltahawy recently did an interview with Ron Kuby on Air America Radio on the recent New York Times articles about hymen reconstruction, a Moroccan couple in France who divorced because the wife was not a virgin, and feminism in Islam. The interview was 12 minutes, which is longer than those five segments you see on cable newschannels. Still, I feel that a topic like this, especially for non-Muslim audiences should be afforded more time. The interview itself, though, did cover a lot of topics for 12 minutes.
First, Kuby brings up the the NYT articles in his introduction. He says that hymen restoration is an increasing practice among Muslim women. I’m always skeptical when something is said to be increasing but no actual numbers are given and I’m skeptical in this case since the the Times articles say there are no reliable statistics on this procedure. So, on the one hand, I always wonder if this issue is being overblown. At the same time, the operation, no matter how large or small the number of women having it done, does point to a bigger problem of patriarchy and control of women’s sexuality.
Also, Kuby didn’t mention that this practice does not only occur among Muslims (Eltahawy did mention this point later) but said that there are similar practices of people trying to give themselves “do-overs”. An example he gave was annulment in Catholicism. While it was great that he saw that this idea isn’t isolated to Muslims, I definitely think the analogy he gave misses factors at play with hymen reconstruction. It’s not simply about a “do-over”, nor is it something these women are doing to make themselves feel better. They’re doing it so that they are accepted by their families and communities and sometimes to even protect their lives. There is much more at stake for a woman who undergoes this operation than for a Catholic who annuls her marriage.
As Kuby began discussing the divorce with Eltahawy, she brought up the issue of marriage as a contract. She said that the husband considers the marriage a contract. The Religious Studies major must have jumped out of me at this point because as I heard her say that I thought “aren’t all marriages contracts in Islam?” Without getting technical or derailing the post, a marriage in Islam becomes valid as soon as the marriage contract is signed by both parties. Marriage in Islam isn’t seen religious sacrament, as it is in some other religions, but literally as a contract and if one of the parties breaks the contract, the marriage could be over. Also, I wondered if this was actually relevant to the issue, especially considering that marriage contracts could be used to actually help women. For instance, a woman could put in her marriage contract that she does not want to be a co-wife.
Going further into the contract issue, Eltahawy asserts that the husband used “breach of contract” in a secular court to fight for a religious issue. Initially, I would have agreed with Eltahawy but again, considering that marriages are contracts in Islam, I wonder how far that logic can go. In the U.S., Islamic marriage contracts can be used in secular courts. It is not hard to see how a marriage contract could also be viewed as a legally binding document in a French court. I think the issue isn’t contracts but the fact that the man felt that his wife’s virginity was such an issue that he put it in the contract and thus based his marriage on it. The real issue is patriarchy and control of women’s sexuality.
Later in the interview, Kuby asked about women who get hymen reconstruction after living “Western, secular” lifestyles. It wasn’t the question itself that bothered me, but how it was phrased. “Muslim” and “Western” are usually portrayed in the media as being mutually exclusive. When we ask about Muslim women who live “Western, secular” lives there seems to be an assumption that one can’t possibly be Muslim and Western. This view is problematic because it ignores a whole portion of Muslim women who are indigenous Western Muslims. White, Latino and African American converts are Western and Muslim.
While I thought Kuby’s question could have been phrased differently, Eltahawy’s response was great. She focused on how this was an issue with “conservative” families and how hymen reconstruction is done in other communities that aren’t Muslim. This is an important point because it shows that the issue isn’t Islam but conservative patriarchal social norms that force women to present an ideal of virginity.
Another excellent point that Kuby raised was cultural relativism. Eltahawy pointed out how cultural relativism is usually harmful to women. In regard to the recent divorce case in France, cultural relativism might have possibly played a role in the verdict. Eltahawy acknowledged the tendency of some Muslims and non-Muslims to fall back on cultural relativism, especially in face of the attacks to immigrants and Muslims by right-wing politicians and ideologues in both Europe and the U.S. However, she also challenged Muslims to prove ideologues wrong by challenging our own norms and values. This is such an important point because some Muslims have a tendency to become defensive when attacked, while not looking at our own actions. Eltahawy seemed to be making the point that change can only come when we challenge ourselves to change. Perhaps that was the most important message to come out of the interview.