Last week a 22-year-old from San Diego, California, whose "virginity" has been famously on auction in recent months, said an Australian man had offered $3.8 million to be the first to have sex with her. In November the manger of a private girl’s dormitory in Istanbul alleged that an 18-year-old female student was sleeping with men Ğ due to bruising on her face and neck Ğ and tried to dismiss her. After two hospitals administered virginity tests on the girl, her father told the media that the tests proved she was a virgin.
The media often does little more than provoke further ignorance and expose that no culture is immune to the continued sexual objectification of women. From one form of exhibitionism to another, recent news magnifies virginity’s status as a commodity.
Since the dawn of humankind, man’s belief that he is "taking a woman’s virginity" has given him cultural and biological comfort that his woman and children belonged to him. Only in the last half century has this begun to change. Confronted with millennia-old misconceptions from cultural pockets to arcane state policies, women the world over argue that the focus on virginity remains a powerful means of men’s control over women.
A Turkish telling
In October Emek Ergün’s Turkish translation of Hanne Blank's critically acclaimed book "Virgin: The Untouched History" (Bloomsbury, 2007) was published with an extensive introduction by Ergün on the assessment of the issue in Turkey.
Though scholarly, it is Blank's ability to share her own discoveries with candor that engages the reader: "I had stumbled across a subject clearly related to the human body, one whose existence and importance has been asserted for thousands of years, and yet it appeared, somehow, to have left virtually no trace in modern medical literature."
Ergün met Blank while doing research for her Master’s thesis in 2006, which focused on the social, medical and legal construction of female virginity in Turkey. While Blank’s book examines the history of virginity in the West, the Turkish introduction analyses the concept of virginity in Turkey, which is typically unquestioned as a natural, physical and fixed entity, Ergün told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review Tuesday.
Born in Antakya near Turkey’s Mediterranean border with Syria, Ergün said she was lucky to be able to work more closely with Blank after asking her to be her thesis advisor. "I soon started dreaming of translating her book into Turkish after I read a manuscript of ’Virgin’ and loved it!" Ergün said.
From ideology to control
In the translation "Bekáretin El Değmemiş Tarihi" (Iletişim, 2008) Ergün presents a history of the public debates and feminist struggles relating to virginity in Turkey since the 1980s. She also reviews problematic conceptualizations of virginity in major legal documents Ğ such as the Penal Code Ğ and exposes the medical profession for allowing virginity examinations and virginity "repair" surgeries.
By creating an imperforate hymen, a group of Turkish doctors invented a difficult "repair" treatment to ensure the "intact" condition of the patient’s hymen and thus, "protect" her virginity, Ergün told the Daily News. In fact, as Blank explains in the book, in other countries this type of hymen is considered a birth defect because it closes the entrance of the vagina, preventing menstrual blood and vaginal discharge from flowing out, leading to health problems. In Turkey, the intact hymen remains the predominant definition of virginity, turning an ideological construct into a powerful and scientific control mechanism, Ergün said.
The women’s movement in Turkey has engaged in a long and determined struggle against the Turkish state to have the practice of virginity testing legally banned and criminalized, but Ergün said recent amendments in the Turkish Penal Code were still not satisfactory. On the other hand, virginity "repair" surgeries might constitute the primary problem in other countries or as in the U.S., premarital "virginity pledges" could emerge as a serious issue, she said. "So, the ideology of virginity has repercussions in many different cultures in many different forms but it shares the ultimate function of oppressing and controlling women," she said.
Blank is troubled by the recent U.S. support under George W. Bush for abstinence over contraception, but she said the right wing had begun to panic in earnest" and that it "may be best understood as a signal of nothing more than a deep-seated terror of change."
Using footnotes and offering cultural explanations, Ergün takes on sexist concepts in the Turkish language. She chose to translate the word "hymen" into Turkish as "himen," which is used exclusively in medical contexts, rather than as the commonly used "kızlık zarı," which literally translates as "the membrane of the girlhood". She explains her rationale in the introduction: "Terms such as girl, girlhood, and membrane of the girlhood, which are widely used in Turkish, reflect the definition of the female body from the male-dominant perspective."
Ergün is currently translating the book "Our Bodies,
Ourselves" which is expected to be published in late 2009.