Among subjects that are not dealt with at all in any seriousness is the question of female virginity, which over the years in India and elsewhere has become the preserve of patriarchal
mindsets and male diktats.
Now in a daring departure from such hidden and unwritten misogynistic views governing virginity, US-based Geeta Tewari, has in a powerful story in Granta September 2017 issue taken the
subject headlong and given an Indian perspective to the narrative, something which few Indian writers did. Tewari’s story, written in the first person, rips through accepted notions of virginity in India and lays bare the ‘burden’ of virginity that women all over the world, especially India carry. Tewari sets the story in US campuses making it easier to tackle the subject in an environment charged with sex and where most women in the story do not lay much weight on virginity. Freed from patriarchal notions and owning their bodies completely, unlike in traditional societies like India, the characters in the story gives Tewari the opportunity to posit many aspects of the traditional versus modernity debate.
In her 2007 study of virginity, titled Virgins: A Cultural History, Anke Bernau writes what is reflected in Indian society as elsewhere: “The anxiety that one often finds in writing on virginity is rooted in both misanthropic and misogynist views. Human beings were fallen creatures and women, in particular, were not to be trusted. Stories of feigned virginity appear wherever the culture places a great value on purity and reveal a fear that there is no secure way of policing this elusive state of being.”
Bernau points out that superstition, fake science and male imagination have built up an entire cult around the subject and women were persecuted mentally through the years till today. Notions of purity and divinity and wrapped up in the question of virginity and while the male is free to lose his virginity the woman is condemned for life and even today has to spent the rest of her life as a ‘fallen women’ to all those who know her and her immediate family. The male losing his virginity is even today seen as a tool of empowerment something which he boasts of, while the
woman is supposed to fall into the male and religious trap of eternal guilt and suffering.
Over centuries mythology has played its part well in endorsing male notions of virginity. Various such myths were embellished by fake science and superstitions. A 13th century medical
text suggested that you could always tell a virgin by the fact that she hissed when she peed. What’s more, you only had to wave some ground-up lilies under her nose and she would “urinate immediately”. In Chaucer’s The Monk’s Tale, Zenobia the virgin had powers to hunt wild animals. In Christan mythology, the nun is supposed to be divine not because she prayed all the time but because she was a virgin. All this was of course enhanced by the Bibilcal myth of immaculate conception of Jesus and Mother Mary was always venerated as a virgin. “Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus” is the way many prayers in Catholicism start.
Tewari, a welcome new voice in migrant literature, has now brought the subject to the forefront. Her story ‘Discipline’ takes us through the life of the middle-class Indian girl who even while in school makes V-cards on which they write promises like, “You can date but you cannot have sex before marriage.”
This early drilling based on the imagined virtues of virginity puts the Indian girl in various positions of guilt, sorrow, pain.
“Your virginity guarantees you happiness,” my mother had explained numerous times,” the heroine of Tewari’s story says. This is what is drilled into all Indian middle and elite class India girl. “Rich husband, big house, fancy car. Stay thin, stay a virgin, you’ll never worry.”
The day she was to move into the US university campus her father pipes in, “Aarti, girls who have sex before marriage are whores. Don’t forget.” This is just the advice all Indian girls going abroad to study are told.
Aarti trying to break away from her Indian mores and customs in the US like all Indians try and is confronted by the US girl who is free of all such shackles. “White girls are raised to believe in themselves as individuals separate from her parents, gender and child-bearing properties,” Aarti says. “In truth I thought about sex often. But when I did get close to the point
with someone, I pretended I was no longer interested in them.”
Finally in a gripping climax, Aarti gives it all up and summoning the courage from somewhere murmurs the poisonous words to the guy she had fallen for the first day in campus, the day her dad warned her about not becoming a whore. “I want you inside of me.”
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)