Translation by Ahmed Ikram.
The connotation of something being “rural” in Egypt can mean a bunch of things, sometimes denoting class-specific characteristics in a person, like their accent or choice of attire. Attaching it to something like a wedding night though? Polarising to say the very least. Exposing the topic to a group of middle class twenty-something Cairenes yielded some interesting results, ones that almost always made them all think about one place in Egypt, and one specific practice. “Isn’t that what they do in the countryside? It doesn’t happen anymore though, right?” Unfortunately, it still very much does happen, albeit on a relatively smaller scale, and it happens right here in Cairo, home to about 20 million Egyptians. It all starts when the bride-to-be’s mother goes shopping for a "bridal handkerchief" an affordable bit of crepe or gauze.
The phenomenon is that of a traditional 'proof of virginity' ritual conducted on wedding nights, often in rural areas of Egypt. The bride is to lie on the white handkerchief, and after she loses her virginity to her husband, the blood-stained cloth is to be waved - often out of a balcony - to proudly display to the wedding guests as a sign of her honour. Now in some cases, the husband is not the one to actually 'take' her virginity; instead it's a hired woman.
...the blood-stained cloth is to be waved - often out of a balcony - to proudly display to the wedding guests as a sign of the bride's virginal honour
This practice – among many others in Egypt – has sparked a litany of awareness campaigns, social projects and a whole department in the Ministry of Health dedicated to mothers and children. Campaigns about this ritual span everywhere from big cities to small villages and everything in between, all to inform local women of their health-related rights. Despite all these efforts, and within the heart of one of the Ministry of Health’s branches no less, elevator custodian Ibrahim* – a familiar face in the facility – is known for offering the services of a 'midwife' straight to the doors of middle and even upper class Cairenes to perform traditional wedding night virginity rituals. A midwife - or a Kabela – is the most common term for a woman whose job is to take the bride’s virginity beforehand. The rationale behind it, according to Ibrahim anyway, is that a lot of men aren’t particularly capable of doing it themselves, some need a little assistance. Other times, it’s so that they can metaphorically (and literally) wash their hands of the incident, putting the blame on a third party that the bride can feel free to hate. And often, the midwife's role is also that of a witness, to bear testimony to the fact that the woman is a virgin.
...in some cases, the husband is not the one to actually 'take' his bride's virginity; instead it's a hired woman.
Contrary to popular belief, Ibrahim says that folks here in Cairo have just as much demand for a midwife’s services as the countryside. “If something’s wrong with the girl, or people start talking about her, her family will want to find out what’s up. With the groom and his parents regularly refusing to get their hands dirty, a midwife takes the lead.” We tried talking to a midwife to get some authentic insights, and for a brief time, she was on board, but she later backed out of it. According to Ibrahim, she wasn’t too fond of the way the media routinely bashes her line of work.
The point that Ibrahim brought up about the bride directing her anger towards the midwife – not her family who made it all happen – was a great segue into my next question; why does Ibrahim continue to do this, knowing full well the kind of physical and psychological trauma the bride undergoes? She definitely won’t look at either her family nor her future husband the same away again. “It’s a living” was the kind of answer we expected from him, or that it was all just according to the wishes of the bride’s parents, or the popular “if it isn’t me, then it’ll be somebody else.” Surprisingly, Ibrahim had his own personal philosophy about the matter, enough to convince him about the “validity” of what he does to women.
The handkerchief thing happens with every girl in the countryside, usually with reasons that necessitate it, like in the case of a broken engagement; people usually think that when a man breaks it off, it’s because he got what he wanted sexually and bailed. So, whoever comes after him has to prove to everybody else that the bride’s honour is still intact.
“It plays more into the girl’s favour than they can imagine. Men can be vindictive, and if everything isn’t clear from the get-go and he starts doubting her morality, what’s she to do?" Ibrahim contends that by allowing a third party to act not only as the executor but as a witness of sorts, this means the husband and his family can never harbour suspicions against the woman, and the husband can also never try and take advantage of her by accusing her of immorality if he's unhappy with her. If the validation process is left entirely to the husband, he can at any point claim she was never a virgin - which would destroy the woman's reputation and that of her family. He could divorce her, and she would be considered damaged goods - more often than not, the woman's family pay a hefty price in order for him to keep from spilling her 'secret'. "That’s why I do what I do; to protect these girls, but they’ll never understand that.” He takes a brief pause, wondering whether or not he should continue, “Besides, none of this would be necessary if there wasn’t any doubt about the girls’ actions, neither I nor her family would agree to it.”
Back in 2009, the film Dokkan Shehata hit Egyptian theatres, becoming infamous for its brutally realistic portrayal of a rural wedding night ceremony, and causing director Khaled Youssef to receive his fair share of heat, as usual, from audiences far and wide due to the uncomfortable nature of the scene. The man has gone on record to say that bits and pieces of the original take were left out to keep it considerable more presentable, which leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. After all the commotion died down about the graphic scene, the film popped up again on Egypt’s small screen, and it became a source of massive discomfort for a real victim of the act – whose dormant memories were triggered after watching the disturbing segment, necessitating the aid of a psychiatrist to help her overcome what she went through.
Aya* says she married in Fayoum back when she was 19. In her village’s tradition, they marry their girls off as young teenagers via informal written contracts until they come of age at 18 - the legal age to marry - at which point, they make it official. Apparently 19 was a bit too old to be married, and she would often justify what happened to her with her father’s fear of what people would say about her, in addition to a prior broken engagement by the groom. “The handkerchief thing happens with every girl in the countryside, usually with reasons that necessitate it, like in the case of a broken engagement; people usually think that when a man breaks it off, it’s because he got what he wanted sexually and bailed. So, whoever comes after him has to prove to everybody else that the bride’s honour is still intact, making his life among them a bit more dignified."
I didn’t cry or resist much at all, I was just upset that they saw this as the right thing to do.
That was pretty much all Aya thought of the matter, at least until she moved to Cairo with her husband. Having moved to Giza’s Faisal area, Aya would always anticipate the sight of a handkerchief being thrown out of a balcony in a wedding, to the celebration of folk downstairs. “The first few times I went to a wedding, I’d see grooms taking their brides home, but nothing would happen. I wasn’t very familiar with the people around me, not enough to ask, but I managed to muster the strength to say how different the way they do things here is compared to the countryside.” That one sentence was enough to bewilder her neighbours – who weren’t of a particularly high social class either. “One of them asked me if my wedding night was how I implied it was, and I felt like if I answered truthfully, they’d never look at me or my husband the same again, so I said no. She started making fun of people who do that, and what she said really got to me, but I’d laugh anyway. It was the first time somebody I knew would say that a tradition such as this was appalling and demeaning to me, as if telling me something my whole body feels strongly about, but I would never think it was within my rights to say anything about. “
Eventually, Aya would see the infamous scene from Dokkan Shehata, staying up late at night trying to compare her reaction to the ceremony to that of the lead character. “I didn’t cry or resist much at all, I was just upset that they saw this as the right thing to do, and that everybody does it, but I wouldn’t refuse it for both their sakes, and mine as well.” Aya now believes her exodus to Cairo was the most significant factor to her realisation of what had truly happened, and her now strong knowledge of her rights and boundaries. Her daughter is only 8 years old, and despite her failure to dissuade her husband from circumcising the girl, she’ll be able to dissuade him from forcing her to go through a traditional wedding night. “If I was back in the countryside, I would never be able to tell him anything, but everything’s different here, and I can actually protect her.”
This concerns me and my honour, anything that happened to her while she was under my roof is my business, and I need to prove that she’s pure.
According to doctors in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, many women do not experience any bleeding after their first sexual experience, and the National Council for Women has hotlines set up to aid women at a moment’s notice, but how hard is it to report wedding night cases if the women going through it, or even participating in it, don’t know much about their own rights as people? Activists from all corners of civil society have also been fighting to stop the phenomenon from happening, but they can only go so far with how vague it can all be.
It’s not just the brides who aren’t well aware of their basic human rights; grooms as well have a problem understanding if it’s within their power to refuse a midwife’s services. Hanan* tells us that her husband wasn’t on board with the idea, but her father insisted that it happens, “This concerns me and my honour, anything that happened to her while she was under my roof is my business, and I need to prove that she’s pure.” Hanan’s father told her husband, to which he agreed to prevent any further drama.
I’d rather take an hour of hell with a doctor than an eternity of bringing shame to my parents, divorce and little to no honour left.
Kholoud* – a 32-year-old resident of a village in Munofia – got married about 11 years ago, and her wedding night also saw the presence of a midwife. The bed was covered with white linens, the groom stood by eagerly, there were a fair few white handkerchiefs and a bunch of women standing around in the same room you’d have your first sexual experience, all to see if it was actually your first. It took two gruelling hours to make sure she was “intact,” two hours that Kholoud described as “a bunch of poking and prodding with no friendly face in sight.” Following her first birth, she would discover that it was the kind of hymen she has that made it take that long – of which there are apparently seven kinds; Annular (round circle), Crescentic (crescent-shaped), Septate (similar to nostrils), Cribriform (multiple holes), Imperforate (no holes, pathological), Microperforate (very small hole) and Carunculae (ruptured post-birth).
Kholoud went on with her story, “When it was too difficult for them to figure out, we went to the infirmary, and of course, they wouldn’t tell the doctor about what happened before we got there. My husband told her that there was a problem, and the doctor used a surgical tool to get it over with.” So it would seem that there’s a separate party that Kholoud can turn to about what was going on, but she wouldn’t tell the doctor anything, why? Kholoud believes that pretty much all the doctors in the infirmary know about midwives and traditional wedding night virginity tests, and although these same doctors would be from the same village as Kholoud, they were estranged from the customs and traditions of the village, and somewhat far-removed from the locals. Kholoud remembers another scenario with a doctor in the same infirmary, “The bride wouldn’t have any of it and her husband beat her, so when they went to the infirmary and told the doctor, her father was called about the incident, and after some deliberation, they would make up in front of the doctor. On their way back, however, they dragged the girl back to her husband’s place as they beat her.
“If I start talking about it now and make a big deal out of it, I’ll risk harming my parents, divorce and eventually move back in with them, but with a far worse reputation. I’d rather take an hour of hell with a doctor than an eternity of bringing shame to my parents, divorce and little to no honour left.”
*All names have been altered to protect the identity of the interviewers.
Main images courtesy of Cosmopolitan and Mimi El Ashiry.