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Virginity Testing in Turkey

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Traditionally, young women in Turkey, as in some other cultures, are expected to avoid sexual relations prior to marriage, although the same rule does not apply to men. The morning after the wedding, the bride’s virginity is revealed by displaying the sheet that was spread on the couple’s wedding bed with the telltale hymeneal blood stain. An American human rights group condemned this practice, as well as reports of forced virginity tests on hospital patients, students and applicants for government jobs. Here is the question: Is the human rights group being ethnocentric in judging Turkish customs by American cultural norms, or is it correctly identifying abuses of women that must be corrected? And does it help if we further understand the so-called logic behind the belief? Anthropologist Carol Delaney, in her book on Turkish village society, The Seed and the Soil, describes how virginity testing is related to the way that Turkish villagers conceptualize and explain the reproductive process.

They see reproduction as analogous to the planting and growing of crops; the man provides the “seed” with his semen, and the woman serves as the “soil” in which the seed germinates and grows. As a metaphor for reproduction, the idea of the seed and the soil provides villagers with a way of thinking about and understanding reproduction. However the metaphor of seed and soil has at least one very important implication. Because seeds do not have a limited life span, villagers believe that once planted, the seed (semen) may grow at any time. Consequently, if a woman has had sexual relations with a man other than her husband at any time prior to her marriage, the paternity of the child will be in doubt. And because descent in traditional Turkish villages is closely tied to many things, including property rights, uncertainty about the identity of the true father can have major implications.

Thus, in the context of Turkish beliefs about procreation, virginity testing may make sense. Furthermore, Turkish beliefs about conception are not that far removed from our own, since our language draws from the same agricultural metaphors as that of Turkish villagers to explain reproduction. We talk about women being “fertile” or “barren” and semen “fertilizing” “eggs.” “Sowing one’s oats” as an expression of sexual activity is still heard in parts of the United States and Canada. Furthermore, these views are reinforced by religious proscription, legitimized in the Koran and the Old Testament. Thus, before we either condemn or accept the Turkish villagers for their treatment of women, we need to examine what their beliefs tell us about our own, which may be equally problematic.

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