But behind the smiles and occasional loud laughter lies a troubling nightmare that Ndiaye has to live with. It’s not the worry of living with a terminal illness or threat of eviction for unpaid debt, it’s the abusive daily tongue-lashing from her own husband that sends her into what she describes as a “frenzied near coma”. On this occasion, long after her guests left, it took some time before Ndiaye could muster the courage to speak. “I have been married for 13 years now and it’s like I am tied to it, not by love but the fact that my husband did not find me a virgin when he got married to me,” she said. “Walking out of this marriage could bring eternal shame on me and my four children because my husband could tell them why my marriage collapsed. Virginity is a big issue in our tradition.”
That tradition applies to certain Arab and African cultures and is still jealously guarded. In some places, it’s a matter of life and death for women. In such deeply traditional societies, in North and West Africa, a woman’s respect in her marriage home is determined not only by the household tasks she performs each day, but by how her husband found her on their first night of marital contact. Women found to be virgins are more trusted and respected by their husbands and in-laws.
In such traditional societies, women who aren’t virgins face daily ostracism, abuse and violence by some spouses, and communities. In certain North African countries, a woman would even, in days past, have been murdered for not being deemed a virgin on the first marital night. “This still happens in some very traditional societies … but it’s rare nowadays to murder a woman just because she is not a virgin,” says Fatima Bintou Ould Dada, a women’s rights activist in Mauritania. Normally it would have been “to keep family honour intact”. “It’s a very archaic form of tradition that is being used to subjugate women, mortgage them as household commodities,” Ould Dada continued. “Passions are high when it comes to these kind of issues, especially in countries like Mauritania. Men are brought up to believe that your woman is not supposed to have been touched (sexually) by any other person before getting married to you.”
Reconstructing social purity?
Ould Dada said this culture is even being transported to other parts of Europe, such as France and Spain, where girls from immigrant Arab backgrounds may be forced to secretly undergo surgery to re-connect their hymens to hide any sign of past sexual activity. Such operations cost an average of $3,000 in private clinics in Paris. One of the doctors running these types of clinics is Dr Marc Abecassis. He said many clients are in their mid-20s to late-30s, and born in France of Arab origin. The procedure takes no more than an hour but the healing process may take up to two weeks, he says; “I guess it saves a lot of these young girls from the abuses of the culture they live with.”
Another clinic popular with women of North African origin for this kind of surgery is the Instituto Universitario Dexeus hospital in Barcelona. Here Dr Barri, a surgical gynaecologist, says he performs both hymen re-connection and clitoris reconstruction for African women who have under gone female genital mutilation. Both doctors said their clients willingly undergo the surgery, though they are clearly motivated by social and traditional pressures in their own communities.
Ndiaye is very much alive to this deep-rooted traditional belief. For more than a decade, she has been living up with constant abuse and violence from her husband. The abuse, she says, “usually comes unprovoked but the fact of the matter is that my husband has a tool in his hand that can forever be used against me. There are many women like me but none of them dare complain because of the stigma that goes with it.” She showed us laceration marks on her back sustained from beating by her husband.
A random interview with people in the neighbourhood where she lived showed that opinions are still conservative. As one elderly man put it, “Who wants to live with the fact that someone had a taste of your woman before you?”
Even many educated men from North and West Africa’s elite tend to tolerate the practice. Pape Diop is an accountant with a local bank in Dakar. Notwithstanding his university-level education he still believes that women maintaining their virginity until marriage is important. “It is like the first layer of stability in the marriage because in our culture it is a strong belief that a woman sticks to the man she has her first experience with.”
Ould Dada says she is not afraid of being quoted. Virginity, she told us, is nothing more than a controlling tool used by men – and society – to abuse women. “Nobody cares about men having to stay virgin until they get married. Islam … is very categorical that both men and women should abstain from sex until they get married. It is the women who have to put their destiny in their own hands to fight this and other types of abuses,” she said.
You know how I found you
But for the likes of Aram Ndiaye, taking destiny in their hands means that they would need to be informed of their rights. “I may be lucky that nobody knows about my situation (at least for now) except my husband… But each time, he picks up a quarrel with me … a few words from him like ‘you know how I found you’ would freeze up my veins.”
The abuse of women in their marital home is not documented by rights groups as gender-based violence. We contacted the regional office of the UN Population Fund. The regional gender technical adviser at the UN Population Fund for West Africa, Idrissa Ouedaogo, said: “To the best of my knowledge no research study has ever been undertaken on this issue.” However, he acknowledged that the issue does fall under the framework of gender-based violence (GBV), “meaning it is urgent and important to find a way to undertake research on it.” The lack of statistics was partly caused by women who refused to speak out.
In a report published in 2012, the UN women’s organization recognized that “These categories of abused women are difficult to help because they remain largely invisible and the victims themselves largely silent, due both to a wide socio-cultural acceptance of this form of violence as well as the stigma attached to the victims.”
For Aram Ndiaye, the impact of perpetual silence has led to other physical complications: “The doctor told me that my blood level was high and that I should relax more. Unfortunately, peace of mind is what I lack in my own house.”
By Ebrima Sillah | Published in Le Monde Dipomatique in October 13, 2013