“Inga, can I stay with you for a week? Something terrible happened.” This is a message I got from a close friend earlier this week.
Apparently, she went out with her friends and did not hear her brother calling. Then, in the middle of the night, her brother and her mother burst into a bar that she was in with her friends, screamed at her and forced her into the car to take her home.
No, my friend is not a teenager in high school. She is in her early twenties and has lived and studied abroad. However, her current monetary situation does not allow her to move out of her parent’s house, and she must face a life full of unwritten rules and restrictions that do not apply to men of her age: how to dress, where to go, when to come back and so on. And when she is not willing to obey, she is subjected to psychological abuse by her otherwise loving and caring family.
Those familiar with Georgian language, knows the word ‘patroni’, which literally translates as an owner, a protector. A ‘patroni’ for an unmarried woman is usually her father, uncle, brother – basically, an older male relative who sees his main duty as to protect the honor of his young female relative.
And what is the main threat to a girl’s honor? Of course, to loose her most prescious jewel, her chastity. There is a wide spread understanding that a girl must behave in a certain way if she wants to get married. And most importantly, she needs to stay virgin until her wedding night.
Why is it so important? A romantic notion of an inexperienced girl who will learn everything from her new husband hides a patriarchal will to dominate over woman’s body. A centuries-old dichotomy of virgin vs whore restricts women’s choices, because any extramarital sexual activity can lead to her being seen as promiscuous and dishonored.
And for ‘patroni’ to protect her honor means more than just prevent sexual intercourse from happening. It is about expressing power and control over her, about regulating her decisions, which can lead to psychological or even physical abuse.
Too dark? Here is a joke to brighten it up.
A highlander wants to marry. He goes around villages, door to door, looking for a perfect girl to become his wife. When he finally finds one, her father swears that she is a very smart, very well behaved and of course, a virgin. The highlander is happy, takes her home and marries her. The morning after the wedding night he thanks her father for a perfect bride. However, the day after, he kills her. Shocked, the father asks – why? And the highlander answers: “She wasn’t a virgin on the second night”.
The red ghost of virginity haunts not only Georgia, but all the South Caucasus. For example, a ritual called ‘red apple’ is still apparent in small towns and villages in Armenia. According to this patriarchal ritual, the newlyweds are visited by their families on the second day of their marriage to check if the bride was really a virgin. And to symbolize her virginity they bring a basket of red apples.
In Azerbaijan, women get married in white dresses with red ribbons around their waists. Which, of course, also symbolizes their virginity. And in some Azeri villages one can see red ribbons decorating houses – this tells that a girl of marriageable age lives there.
Georgia is not an exception – just a few years ago international media reported an increased interest in hymenoplasty in Georgia; and last year it was possible to get an official virginity certificate for 175 laris.
Such obsession with female virginity and a will to protect them from any intimate experience in an overly sexualized world brings around a lot of negative consequences.
First of all, constant pressure from family members and constant control costs long-lasting psychological consequences in a woman’s life, restricting her sexual and social choices. Also, it forces a lot of women to live double lives and hide their intimate relationships from their families. For example, a number of my female friends in Georgia kept lying to their parents every time they would spend time with their boyfriends.
A spontaneous marriage can be seen as a way out, but it also causes a lot of problems. When a couple gets married just so they could have a healthy sexual relationship, it can easily lead to divorce. And the divorce rate in Georgia is constantly growing. Now it is 1.8/1000 people; when in 2001 it was 0.5/1000 people. What is even more important, 30 percent of all divorced couples in 2013 were those who had been married for less than 4 years.
“I really don’t understand why are they guarding me so hard. If I want to have sex, I will have it in the day time, or before I need to go home,” my friend once told me after another argument with her family. These words underline the uselessness of ‘patroni’, because if a woman wants to do something and if she is strong enough not to succumb to a surrounding social regulations, she will find a way and will do it. And the world will not stop spinning.