Virginity and The Red Tent

TheRedTentI’d been meaning to read The Red Tent long before my last post on menstruation positivity, and prompted by a reader, I finally did after the New Year. (Spoiler alerts for those who haven’t read it.)  I remember reading about Dinah’s mention in the Old Testament, as part of a university class on militant metaphors in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I remember being upset about Dinah’s rape and feeling betrayal at Jacob’s allowing her to be married to her rapist for the price of a few hundred foreskins. I saw it as God being more important to Jacob than his own daughter. Although, that is the pattern in the Old Testament. Parents sacrificing children for God, who at the last minute swoops down to save the poor offspring. I think of God asking, “Am I not merciful?” like emperor Commodus in The Gladiator. I did not see Jacob or Joseph as positive characters, but instead sided with her murderous brothers. At least she got her revenge.

The Red Tent certainly turned that story on its head. What if she chose to lose her virginity? What if she and the prince were in love? What if we heard a story about the women in this chapter told in their voice, instead of them being afterthoughts or accessories? This is the premise of The Red Tent, written by Anita Diamant and published in 1997. I’m 19 years late to the game, but better late than never. It is now my favorite book, having replaced Veronica Decides to Die, by Paolo Coelho. I love the descriptive storytelling in the manner women shared stories in the menstrual red tent. The tent that was their domain for 3 days a month and during births. I read enthralled for hours in their sisterhood, motherhood, management of the family and land, games, love, and sorrow. This time, when the Shechem massacre happened, I cried for Dinah’s loss and shared her fury at her brothers. In comparing the novel to the Biblical story, I’m reminded of the 2002 movie Hero, in which the same story is told from three different perspectives: a lie, a conjecture, and the truth. I enjoyed Anita Diamant’s foray into the unknown with The Red Tent.

The part of the novel that most affected me was Rebecca’s admonition of her daughter in law’s treatment of her grand-daughter Tabea’s menarche and the following menarche ceremony for Dinah. Rebecca disowns Tabea and her mother because Adah, the mother, did not conduct the proper ceremony. Rebecca promises to Dinah that her virginity will not be a prize to be paraded around on bloody sheets. Dinah, too young at the time, doesn’t understand. Later, Dinah tells us of the menarche ceremony, a beautifully detailed account of welcoming into womanhood with pride and joy. Dinah’s first blood is buried in the earth and her hymen broken with a fertility idol. It was fascinating in addition to being uncomfortable. In a way, this gives Dinah ownership of her physical virginity. But because Dinah wasn’t aware of the ceremony’s details, how could she consent to the idol penetration? Is this not another rape?

It brings up questions about society’s focus on women’s virginity. Being from a Muslim background, virginity was important to me. It meant virtue, was precious, and I was taught to wait until marriage. There are plenty of women in the world who still are subjected to bloody sheet parading. And I find it disrespectful. I also find it disrespectful for men and women to expect women to be the guardians of the holy virginity, assigning responsibility only to them and not to men. It’s the same thinking as the “Don’t get raped” mentality. By focusing on the physical state of the hymen, women are reduced to objects to be owned. I wonder, what if we had a different mindset toward it? If women owned their virginity for themselves and not as a gift or a prize, how would that change the dynamic of that first sexual encounter? If it wasn’t such a precious thing, would I have reacted as strongly to my first partner’s transgression? Would our relationship have been more equal? What if it wasn’t about a THING, but about us as precious and whole people? Instead of guarding our virginities, we own and choose to share our whole selves? It becomes a connection of soul instead of just body.

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