Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Doctors and Sheikhs: "Truths" in Virginity Discourse in Jordanian Media

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Doctors and Sheikhs: "Truths" in Virginity Discourse in Jordanian Media

Article excerpt


Jordanian media has seen a surge in coverage of phenomena related to virginity in recent years. Issues such as honour crimes, hymen reconstruction surgery, fake hymens, and virginity tests have all come to the surface and stirred considerable controversy in Jordanian society. This recent de-tabooisation of female virginity in the media is a significant change, given the enduring sensitivity of discussing sexuality in Jordan. The surfacing of such discussions also offers a unique opportunity to unpack the role of the media in re/framing the terms of the debate surrounding sexuality, and virginity in particular. Moreover, the discussions stimulated by this coverage are important to understand contemporary Jordanian attitudes towards female sexuality, which are difficult to research in other contexts.

In this paper I address these issues by focusing on two discourses used throughout the Jordanian media cycle-production, text, and consumption-to tackle virginity. I focus on medical and religious discourses which predominate in representations of virginity in the media and which are portrayed as "truths," absolute and uncontested. I broaden the scope of my investigation to include texts on fake hymens, hymen reconstruction surgeries, honour crimes, and virginity tests. Through this analysis, I unpack the discourses used to discuss these phenomena in a way that illuminates the interaction between the producer, the text, and the consumer within the media cycle itself. Concurrently, I argue that media texts themselves are simultaneously sites of hegemony where dominant virginity discourses are displayed and reinforced in favour of a conservative and patriarchal status quo, and sites of resistance where other discourses challenge that hegemony by proposing a liberal, yet rarely radical, approach to women's sexuality.

Virginity and Honour in Jordan

It is important to dismantle the link between virginity and honour in order to properly understand the social and cultural context of Jordanian media's treatment of the subject. Numerous studies recognised the connection between women's sexual conduct and the idea of honour in Arab societies (Becknell, 2005, Faqir, 2001, Saadawi, 1980, Araji and Carlson, 2001, Ali, 2008, Awwad, 2011, Devers and Bacon, 2010). This connection exists in Jordan as well and very visibly so in the media and in the reception of stories on sexual behaviour and virginity. However, discussions of honour in Jordan, academic or otherwise, usually concentrate on honour crimes (Ruane, 2000, Faqir, 2001, Nsheiwat, 2004) and ignore other manifestations of honour in public discourse and practice. This study aims to broaden the scope of these discussions by focusing on virginity, itself at the centre of honour as a concept, and by exploring other phenomena besides honour crimes.

The demand for female chastity in Jordan manifests itself in language and popular sayings. In a linguistic study of Jordanian Arabic and women's place, Abd-el-Jawad differentiated between /bint/ and /mara/. The study found that /bint/ (meaning girl) is used to address an unmarried woman regardless of her age and that it denotes virginity, while /mara/ (which means woman) is used to address and refer to married women who are no longer virgins and is also used as an insult to men (Abd-el-Jawad, 1989). The fact that the same word used to call a non-virgin is also an insult to men is telling: through language, it conveys the imbalance of power in gender relations in Jordanian society and the marginalisation of Jordanian women through sexist language. Virginity, or lack thereof, establishes a whole different category of women, a category which extends to men who are not manly enough. Of course, as in other languages, there are also derogatory terms used to label women who are not virgins outside the acceptable context of marriage. This elaborate categorisation of women according to their virginity confirms one tenet of critical discourse analysis: texts and language reflect social realities that exist in the "real" world through imbalances of power and domination. …

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