Why do virgins have to be unmarried women?

A government medical college in Patna left its employees stumped with a question on their virginity.

 |  3-minute read |   04-08-2017
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The Indira Gandhi Institute for Medical Sciences, Patna is in the news for asking its employees to declare whether they are virgins or not. This is part of a declaration form on marital status that employees need to complete as part of mandatory joining protocol. Although the form has been in use since 1983, the form was exposed on social media only recently.

Following the furore it caused, Bihar health minister told mediapersons that there was nothing wrong with the declaration sought, for after all the word "virgin" simply meant a kanya or an unmarried girl.

A search for the meaning of the word "virgin" in both the Merriam Webster's dictionary as well as the Oxford dictionary reveals that a virgin is a "person who has never had sexual intercourse." But, wait. There's more. This is only the very first meaning given to the word. Oxford dictionary goes on to give "she is still a virgin" as an example sentence that uses the word virgin. Webster's next few meanings are interesting.

They are, "an unmarried woman devoted to religion," "an absolutely chaste young woman" and, "an unmarried woman." Oxford Dictionary does us all a favour and uses the word "archaic" placed strategically before its third meaning of virgin, which is written down as, "an unmarried woman". So, perhaps the Bihar health minister consulted a dictionary before his press interview (and this is entirely conjecture) but that does not make him right.

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Feminists have long pointed out that language, the human meaning-maker, is almost entirely androcentric in nature, that is, the presentation of the masculine point of view serves as a representation of the whole population. So while we have mankind to signify all of humanity, and mailman, policeman and chairman, amongst others, to signify occupational categories, the virgin is always female thanks to organised religion and culture.

Feminists have argued that the historical masculinisation of language has often led to the erasure of female experience. Think of terminologies such as the "rational economic man", the "industrial man", the "average man on the street" etc. (This, however, is a separate topic in itself and deserves its own post).

Language, culture and organised religion operate in ways which adverse gender terminologies that are wholly gender-neutral. The concept of virginity as entirely a female paradigm is based on the patriarchal regulations on women's bodies and sexuality. Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution states that, "The woman's body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected."

In many cultures, a woman's virginity requires something more than verbal assurance. One such "proof" although archaic and parochial in intent are expected blood stains on bed linen after the night a marriage is consummated. Further, a woman's need for sexual pleasure is denounced as an "impure" need associated with immoral behaviour.

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Therefore a woman must indulge in sexual intercourse only for the "higher" utility of procreation, all the while preserving her virginity for this "higher" calling which will come to her when she marries. An unmarried woman has to necessarily abstain from sex so as to be considered chaste.

In the Indian context, men seek virgin brides without any comment on their own state of virginity and therein lies the injustice. For while the male virgin is considered "inexperienced" amongst his peers, the female virgin is considered "ideal" and going by recent events must also be unmarried.

Also read: A Mother’s Day gone wrong

Writer

Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind

Feminist research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is also the author of The Heavens We Chase published by Roli Books, Delhi.

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