My Body, Red Apples, and The Purity of the Nation
I was reading a book and came across the quote: “The genital area accounts for only 1 percent of the surface area of the body. But – 1 percent or not – genitals carry an enormous amount of cultural weight in the meanings that are attached to them, and I would argue that they constitute nearly 100 percent of what we, as both cultural members and as producers of cultural knowledge, come to understand and assume about the body’s sex and gender”. (Valentine and Wilchins 1997: 215).
That was such a simple and obvious thing to see, yet it never crossed my mind. I am a woman, born in Armenia, and I have a vagina. But the things I have been forbidden to do or even think about due to me being born with a particular genital organ were so many; they almost were entirely constituting my identity both as a woman and as a member of a nation. But what was the most exciting thing to me is how the woman’s vagina was associated with the purity and honor of the (any) nation.
Let’s take the old tradition of the “red apple,” present in Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan (and maybe other countries?). The idea that the first man who has taken away the woman’s virginity (read as purity) had at the same time dominated her - is still omnipresent in the societies across the Caucasus, where virginity is thought of as some kind of a commodity to be taken and given. There are, of course, historical connections of this, and predominantly the patriarchal ideology imagines women’s bodies as a commodity for the fulfillment of male desires and at the same time reproduction of an honorable nation. Importantly, with the marriage, the woman enters the eternal bond with a particular male body, and it is only his body that needs to be satisfied. Any possibility of her movement between different male bodies - in case of the divorce from her husband - might become the reason for femicide, when the abusive partner becomes highly insecure and cannot tolerate the idea of his ex-partner deciding the fate of her own body.
My first bitter experience was having a sexual relationship with my boyfriend. Although we loved each other and were together for two years, he left me two months later, saying he could not forgive me for allowing him to take my body before the marriage. As if his breaking up with me was not traumatic enough, he ended our relationship by blaming me for causing its end. I had the worst period in my life. I cried for days. I took a shower and felt that somebody covered my body in mud, and no matter how long I would wash my body, the dirt wouldn’t disappear. I was cursing myself and crying, cursing and crying. I could never tell my family about it, neither could I say to my friends since most of my female friends were having a “decent” relationship, and I was afraid they would think badly about me. Months were passing, I was going to work, meeting with friends, coming home, and still being upset about the whole thing. I stopped crying as I did before, but the heaviness and the mixed feeling of shame and guilt would not leave my heart.
Soon I met a great guy. We were immediately attracted to each other and we started talking as friends, although it was apparent that it was going towards a romantic relationship. We would never meet alone, but always in the company of friends, going to the cinema, or having a coffee and walking in the beautiful area near the Cascade. One time, two friends who came with us decided to leave earlier (I thought he asked them to do so). He said he would like to invite me to a nice place, and my heart was already jumping from the excitement. We went to a nice cafe on the top roof, and while having the meal, he talked about his feelings. The happiness and joy were burning me inside, but it was also mixed with the fear in anticipating his reaction when he learned that I was not a virgin. I was confused and did not know what to do. Should I tell him from the beginning about my relationship past? But he seemed such a progressive guy, in his early 30s, he does not seem like a person who would care about such things? The whole moment was so beautiful that I decided not to tell anything, at least for now, because in no way I was going to keep it a secret. Moreover, I knew that soon there would be a convenient moment to open the conversation and that’s when I would tell him. My intuition told me that he would never consider such a thing to be an issue. That evening he accompanied me home, and after so many months since the painful break up with my ex, I felt that my value, my honor, was brought back to me. I was smiling, dancing in my room. I was again happy.
Everything was going great, we would do our best to meet every day after work. A week passed, and as usual, that evening, he brought me home by his car. We were sitting in the car and talking. He always called me “my angel,” continually telling me I was the image of purity. In the beginning, I was feeling in need of such words since it would be a psychological medicine for my slowly healing wound from the past trauma. However, this time I felt unpleasant. I asked him semi-joking: “Why do you always emphasize purity as the most important feature in me?” He said: “Because you are my pure girl, my untouched beauty, and I am dreaming about the day when you will be mine.”
As if a bucket of ice water was poured over my head. I was shocked. “What? Oh my God! But how could he? So he is too? What am I going to do? All is a lie, they are all the same…” I felt how my hands were becoming cold and how my eyes were getting wet. I told him in a sad calm voice: “Why would you assume that I never was in a relationship with anyone? If that was such an important thing for you, why didn't you ask me from the very beginning? I had a boyfriend, and I was with him.” I was expecting him to get angry with me, to start accusing me of “keeping the truth from him” (even though I wasn’t even asked), but he just became deeply saddened. I was so angry with the whole situation that I asked him if he had affairs with women before, to which he replied “of course I did”. That made me even angrier. Then how come that him having an affair is such an absolutely normal and natural way to go, and having more affairs with women makes him an “experienced, charismatic man”, doubles his masculinity and value, while in my case that one tiny transparent hymen layer determines my whole life, my value, and status in the society and the nation. Surprisingly, I felt enormous energy and power. I did not want to spend another few months spewing at my dignity and hating myself just because the women in my society unconsciously follow the male representation of the world.
I broke up with him. Not because he told me that we could still be together but he would never be able to overcome the idea that “someone else owned me” before him and thus the marriage would be out of the question. But because I was fed up with that kind of men, for whom my whole value would be extracted from the purity of my hymen. How come I can be an educated, kind, open-hearted person who never harmed anyone, but I represent no value and have no dignity just because another human being with a privileged form of genitalia became that power that would decide the fate of my body and spirit. That means that my body and many other women’s bodies that exist of flesh and blood are treated a certain way based on the power relationship between men and women. Today, this all sounds like an absurdity to me. And it all makes sense as long as women take the patriarchal representation of life as the absolute truth. But is it so?