Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Thera MJAALAND, University of Bergen and Addis Ababa University

Not much has been written on virginity in the Ethiopian context that goes beyond stating that it continues, especially in rural areas, to be important for the girl’s marriageability and consequently for her parents’ respect in the community. Since the virginity ideal is decreasing in urban areas, a few newer studies are concerned about the possibility to strengthen it in order to reduce risky sexual behavior among youth that result in unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion and HIV/Aids infection (e.g. Mitike et al 2008, Meles et al 2016). No doubt this will put more pressure on girls to keep their virginity than boys who can continue to take advantage of societal sentiments that do not expect them to be able to abstain until marriage even if they are supposed to do so according to religion. Medical science has emphasized for some time now that it cannot be proven if the girl has had sex or not by inspecting the hymen (e.g. Kinkead 1887, see also Berenson et al 2002, IFEG 2015, Olson & Garcia-Moreno 2017). Despite the fact that the hymen is just an elastic mucous skin fold surrounding the vagina opening, health professionals and biology teachers continue to talk about it as if it is a seal separating outer and inner female genitalia. Virginity testing continue to be done also in Ethiopia, and virginity restoration operations has become good business in many countries. Girls continue to believe that the man can know if she is a virgin or not (which he cannot if she has not told him). Husbands and in-laws continue to expect blood on the sheet when the marriage is consummated (even if only around 50% of women bleed the first time from rifts in the vagina rather than the hymen). Based on research in Tigray this paper discusses the hard-lived myth surrounding female virginity from a comparative perspective. It asks, based on what Nancy Tuana (2004) terms ‘epistemologies of ignorance’, whose power over fertility are enhanced by ignorance and whose are suppressed by knowledge when the female virginity ideal is not questioned in a gendered sense.