Not one to bite her tongue, Sally Sampson recounts that time she spoke to her bus driver about hymens. Seriously.
My mother thinks I have no shame. And to her ultimate horror, she’s probably right. As a general rule, I am brutally honest about practically everything. I say what I want to who I want, in the way I want anytime and anywhere I deem fit. I’m not rude, but I sure as hell don’t shy away from sharing my opinion just because someone is uncomfortable with me expressing it (I think that’s been fairly clear from the get-go…).
And as a result, more often than not, and particularly these days, I catch my parents looking at me as if to say ‘if I had known this would be the way you’d turn out, I might have ‘accidentally’ left you to choke on a pacifier as a child or something.’ (They love me really!)
Thing is, I am willing to openly debate societal double standards, the role of women in Egyptian society and sexually transmitted diseases with my parents, microbus drivers and college professors alike. I don’t believe that there are some things better left unsaid because, overall, I believe our society would benefit enormously from all of us learning to accept a difference in opinion, without the incessant and overbearing need to convert others to our way of thinking hanging over us like an ominous cloud (Yes, Muslim Brotherhood...I’m especially talking to you!).
We need to get over our intolerance and, ultimately, our fear of being judged by the community, so we can learn and benefit from each other. I, for one, stopped giving a shit years ago about what people thought of me for being outspoken. And, as you can imagine, it’s led to some very interesting encounters (not to mention clashes) along the way.
I once had a long conversation with a microbus driver about hymens and the uselessness of the Egyptian tradition that requires a woman to bleed on her wedding night to ‘prove her virtue’. (My mother almost shit herself when I told her about this conversation!)
Aside from being initially gobsmacked at the idea of me speaking openly on the matter, the driver gradually took an interest in what I had to say (probably because no one had bothered to talk to him about it before). And once we had established that I wasn’t hitting on him, I wasn’t a whore and I wasn’t addicted to any psycho-altering drugs, I went on to ask him what I thought were some important questions all of which, I might add, he had vague or no answers to, including:
What if the woman you married had been raped or had lost her virginity against her will before you met her?
What if her hymen had broken in an accident or as a result of a surgical procedure that she’d previously undergone?
What if her hymen was the kind that does not break without external gynaecological assistance?
Who’s to say that she hasn’t undergone a hymenoplasty (surgical reconstruction of her hymen)?
Were you a virgin when you got married? (His response to this was, as expected, a muffled ‘no’, vaguely discernible amidst grunts and a series of futile attempts to suppress an irrepressible desire to clear his throat and laugh simultaneously which led me into the next question…my home-run question!)
Then why do you expect the woman you marry to be a virgin and, moreover, DEMAND her to prove her virginity to you and to the world when no such thing has been or will ever be asked of you?
Like I said, although amused and confused that I had no qualms in discussing hymens with him, the poor man initially really didn’t know what to say, but once he got talking, I was able to make out that:
A) He felt that if a woman was raped, then it wasn’t her fault. But he still insisted that he would need definite proof of the fact that she had been “violated.” I didn’t know what ‘proof’ he was expecting, since most families still cover up incidents of rape in shame, but he still seemed pretty adamant to get it. For me, he might as well have demanded that a woman’s vagina take the stand in a court of law to recount and provide a statement of the incident for official records.
B) I might as well have been talking about leprechauns and unicorns when it came to explaining that some women (albeit a small percentage) require medical intervention in order to break their hymens. He seemed somehow to think that this was the man’s fault for not being manly enough to… get through the tunnel if you know what I mean. Hymen reconstructions were also a thing of legends and myths to him…
C) He had no idea that some women do NOT bleed on their wedding nights. And to my horror, when I asked him what he thought should happen in those cases, he nonchalantly said “Well, she should be killed…!”
D) On why a woman should be a virgin before she gets married even though a man is not held to the same standards in our society, he looked at me puzzled and slightly embarrassed and said “Well it’s haram (wrong) for both, but at the end of the day, a man and a woman are different.”
That was the fucking cherry on top for me!
I knew what he was really saying because we’ve all had that bloody statement thrown in our faces, at one point or another in our homes. It’s the societal explanation for every double standard and for every injustice that has paved the way for men to experience life completely and utterly differently from women in Egypt.
It’s why parents allow their sons to travel abroad alone and prevent their daughters from having the same life-changing opportunities. It’s why boys can sleepover at their friends’ houses, but girls cannot. It’s why going out in the middle of the night is not unusual if you’re a boy, but is unheard of if you’re a girl. And it is why women are murdered (and yes, I say murdered!) in these so-called ‘honour killings’ that we hear about, for not bleeding on their wedding nights, when men can get away with fucking everything that moves without anyone questioning their actions.
And that is pathetic reasoning thrust at us for the blatant discrepancies and gender biases that are propagated in Egyptian society... ‘Because men and women are different…’
‘Men and women are different’ coupled with ‘What will the neighbours think?’ are two of the most common and worthless phrases, in the history of mankind, that every household has encountered at some point.
And hearing my driver attempt to pacify me with that rubbish, I couldn’t help but unabashedly cut through the bullshit.
“A man and a woman are different because you can tell if a woman is not a virgin, but you can’t with a man. So why are you talking about God? It has nothing to do with God or religion at all; it does, however, have everything to do with the way we are brought up to preserve our image of godliness within our communities! So don’t tell me, men and women are different…”
The driver smiled and stayed quiet. And I decided to leave it there.
To be honest, I don’t know what he thought of our little conversation and anyone reading about it might think that it was an angry debate, ending with me bursting into tears and the driver driving as fast as possible to get me to my stop and kick me out of the bus. However, that wasn’t the case at all.
It was, surprisingly, a very civilised debate. We talked our way through the issue and we both, I like to think, learned something. And there were no hard feelings at the end.
I can’t speak for what he took away from the discussion, but I learned that if I had focused on all the reasons why not to talk to the driver about hymens (i.e. he’s a traditional Egyptian man, he has a different background, he might think I’m a whore, he might spread rumours about me…), I would never have had the opportunity to share with him information that may change or influence his perspective on these sensitive gender issues down the line.
If I hadn’t crossed that barrier, then I also wouldn’t have heard first-hand about gender roles in the village that the driver was from and I certainly wouldn’t have learned that, overall, people who we may think are unchangeable or are set in their ways may be more willing to listen than we think; all they need is to trust the source of information and have someone take the time to enter into conversation with them.
That’s why being a BITCH is an honour that I don’t take lightly. My reputation paves the way for me to have conversations that many others shy away from. People call me a bitch for not shutting up when most people would, but I’m so fucking glad I don’t shut up because it’s served me damn well.
I know my parents are horrified that I don’t have any shame, as they call it. And I feel for them…they never know what the fuck is going to come out of my mouth at any given moment.
My mother tells me all the time, “You are going to be the death of me!”
I imagine that deep down, despite the generally hostile sentiment behind that statement, what’s she’s really trying to say is that she’s proud that I have a mind of my own and that I’m not afraid to express myself.
For safe measure though, I do try keep her away from any objects that she might be able to use as a weapon against me. After all, one can never be too sure.