They say love is a beautiful thing.
For many women in Saudi Arabia, that just isn’t the case. We were taught that love is only allowed after marriage. It is also expected that one’s marriage will be arranged by one’s family. That didn’t stop us, however, from searching for love. You just had to know how to keep it a secret.
Like many girls, I had always dreamt of finding love. And I did find love—or so I thought. I had a secret boyfriend, as a lot of girls in Saudi Arabia do. Even so, the unspoken rule was that you should never have sex before marriage. The reason is simple: a woman needs an intact hymen for her wedding night. As young girls, we were taught that no man would want to be with us if we were previously touched by another man.
My plan was to follow the rules and save my virginity for my wedding night, even though it was difficult to because we loved each other. We just couldn’t wait until we were old enough to get married so we can be together.
One day, my boyfriend’s family were out of town for the weekend so I sneaked into his home. It was our only way to meet since the religious police didn’t allow women and men to meet in public if they were not related. We were alone. We only planned to talk, to laugh, and to kiss. Nothing more. But as is often the case, one thing just led to another. He convinced me to have sex since we had been together for several years at this point. Our plan was to get married anyways, as he had always promised.
I fell into the trap. That day, my entire life changed. The loving man that I had known for many years turned into a monster. He told me that I was a whore for letting him get physical with me. He exclaimed that women should know better, and that I was lucky that he had still wanted to marry me, even though I had now become in his eyes, a “filthy” woman.
With time, my boyfriend became even more abusive. He wanted to control every aspect of my life. He wanted access to my email, to my phone bills—you name it. He demanded that I call him to ask for permission for every little thing. Whenever I wished to leave my own home, even if it was just to go to the corner store, I had to call him and ask for his permission. My boyfriend explained to me that he needed to “train me” for when I became his wife.
My once-boyfriend had now become my abuser. He stepped up the intensity of his interference in my life. Whenever I had exams to prepare for, he wouldn’t let me study. His strategy was simple: in sabotaging my education he could sabotage my career and, as a result, sabotage my prospects for a future with any degree of independence.
If I ever dared to question his authority, my abuser threatened to expose our secret to my parents. He threated to reveal to my parents that many years earlier, we had had sex. At the very least, such a revelation would mean that I would never be allowed to leave the house again, given the shame that this would bring to my family. At worst, I might even be honour-killed.
My boyfriend’s threats terrified me. And yet, at the time, I believed that I had deserved all of this. I thought that I deserved his oppressive control and manipulation, because I had disobeyed Allah—and this was Allah’s punishment.
From childhood we had all learnt of the stories in the Qur’an, where Allah’s harsh punishments have been meted out to people who had disobeyed him. In Islam, the penalty for fornication is quite severe. Even if one escapes the physical punishments mandated in the Qur’an, the humiliation of being seen as filthy by one’s own family and community can take a tremendous toll on one’s emotional well-being. It stunts the trajectory of one’s life, with negative impacts that can last a lifetime.
I believed that the only way for Allah to forgive me was by “fixing” my mistake. I would have to marry my abuser. I cried myself to sleep every night. I even had recurring nightmares about being exposed.
I worried that if I ever needed to see a gynecologist for a pelvic exam, my doctor would find out and then tell my parents. In Saudi, all doctors take this issue very seriously. In fact, for this very reason, doctors avoid transvaginal procedures in virgin women unless absolutely necessary. It’s imperative that doctors avoid the risk of damaging a virgin woman’s hymen. When such procedures are absolutely unavoidable, doctors give the women who undergo such procedures a certificate of virginity. These certificates state that the woman in question was indeed in possession of a fully intact hymen on the date of her medical procedure.
Knowing all of this, I suffered alone in silence. I couldn’t share this secret with anyone else because I didn’t know if anyone around me would accept this. I became depressed and wished to die so that my suffering would end.
For many years, the abuse and blackmail continued. I thought I had no choice. If I tolerated the abuse, I might actually be able to protect my honour and maybe – just maybe—Allah might forgive me too. On the other hand, if I did decide to leave my boyfriend, he would tell my family. That would trigger major fallout.
There are serious consequences for a woman in Saudi Arabia if people found out that she had sex outside of marriage. I would never be able to find a partner who would accept that I had already been opened. For the uninitiated, “opened” is a derogatory term common to Arab countries and is slang for describing women who are no longer virgins.
I tried to reach out to my parents for help. I told them that I was depressed. I told them that I needed their help. I just couldn’t explain the underlying reasons why I was feeling the way that I was. Unfortunately, my parents just turned me away. They told me to snap out of it because I had enjoyed a good life in comparison to other women. Allah loves people who are thankful for their blessings, they would remind me.
Deep down I had a feeling that there was another life out there for me; that something was going to change. I just couldn’t believe that this was it. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life this way. With him. With my abuser. This just couldn’t be my fate.
The next summer, it suddenly got real. My boyfriend contacted me with an important update: he was financially established enough now for us to be engaged. The marriage would soon follow.
I was sick to my stomach. The idea of spending the rest of my life with this monster was unbearable. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see myself marrying him.
I tried to come up with excuses to postpone the engagement, but he insisted. It had to happen, and soon, otherwise he would expose me to my entire family.
I finally summoned the courage to push back and said, “No.” I stood my ground for the very first time since he trapped me. It had been four years since my once boyfriend had become my relentless abuser. Given my newly summoned resistance, my abuser was furious.
Without delay my abuser called my mother, just as he had threatened to do for so many years. He told her what had happened between us. She didn’t believe him and said, “My daughter is too good to do something as horrific as having sex before marriage”.
My mother’s disbelief worked in my favor, even though her words stung. In very real terms, it was unambiguously clear: I now knew exactly what my mother would think of me had she known the truth about what had actually happened.
My situation had improved, though. Now, suddenly, my life had possibilities. I was finally liberated from the abuse. It felt like a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The sense of freedom and being able to make my own choices without my abuser’s permission, was exhilarating.
My struggle, on the other hand, continued. I wasn’t completely out of the woods yet. I still had to come up with a plan to solve my lack-of-virginity dilemma, and my options here were limited.
I could be honest with my future partner about having lost my virginity, but that was risky. Very risky. Most Saudi men were likely to reject me. Even worse, was the possibility that a future suitor with whom I might be honest, could spread such information far and wide. Such an event would be absolutely devastating.
I could try to fake my virginity for my wedding night in the hopes that my future partner believed me. Still, how would I explain the lack of bleeding, should he ask?
I could save up enough money to go abroad and get hymen reconstructive surgery. That would in theory, solve the bleeding problem.
I could try to find a westerner to marry since western men don’t care about virginity culture—but exercising that option would almost certainly mean that my family would disown me.
The final option I considered was staying single. I could simply reject all of the Muslim men who would ask for my hand.
I was confused and overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. Given my situation, there was no one I could talk to. I tried searching the internet and any magazines that I had access to in Saudi, hoping to find an answer.
One popular Arabic magazine touched on this very topic in a Q&A column. An anonymous girl had written in, seeking advice about her troubling predicament. The girl had lost her virginity to a man who had also become abusive after their relationship became intimate. The magazine’s relationship expert responded by lambasting the girl, “How could you put yourself in this situation? Unfortunately, your only choice is to marry your abuser!”.
After I read the relationship expert’s response, my fear just intensified as I realised how grim my situation was. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the solutions that came to mind. I decided that, for the time being, I would ignore my predicament. I turned my focus to other pursuits, namely my education. I hoped that this would help me gain my independence. My education would be a stepping stone to an eventual solution.
I continued to struggle emotionally. Flashbacks of my abuser persisted. I had recurring nightmares that I was back with him and unable to escape. It was like one of those paralysis nightmares where you can’t move, no matter how hard you try.
I decided to see a therapist to help me with my recovery. At first, I was hesitant because I was worried that my secret would somehow leak from the therapist’s office to my family. In Saudi confidentiality rules are not well respected, and my father could demand release of this information if he learned that I was seeing a therapist. In Islam a father is an unmarried woman’s legal guardian. As a woman in Saudi, I am forever a minor under the law.
When flashbacks of my abuser became unbearable, I finally got the courage to see a therapist. It was still very difficult to open up as I feared my therapist would judge me. But I knew that I had to see someone about this.
I decided to test the waters by telling my therapist about wanting to move to the West after completing my university studies. My therapist became extremely defensive. She told me that my idea of a better life in the West was a delusion. She insisted that life in Saudi was much better and that this is why many westerners came to work in Saudi Arabia.
The therapist went on and on about why my plan to emigrate to the West to live in freedom was a bad idea. She continued to ramble, consuming the rest of our time. I didn’t even get the chance to open up to her about my virginity dilemma. By this point, however, I already knew that talking to this particular therapist was a dead end, so I decided to search for another therapist. This time, I wanted someone more liberal in her thinking. I figured that such a therapist, if I could find her, would be more likely to understand and empathise with my predicament.
I found a non-hijab wearing therapist who, according to many, was quite open minded. She was popular and as such, had a long waiting list. I finally managed to see her. When I told her my story, she asked about my plan. I told her that I wanted to live an honest life and tell my future partner the truth about my past. She told me that doing so would be a huge mistake because no man would ever accept my past, and that it would always haunt him. It would always be in the back of his mind. The therapist recommended that I start planning and saving up for surgery abroad. Hymen reconstruction surgery, that is.
I wondered what to do next. Was she right? Was I out of my mind for wanting to choose a life of freedom, authenticity, and honesty? My therapist’s advice just didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want to give up on my hopes, dreams, and values.
Several years later, I met a man in my undergraduate years who told me that a woman’s virginity did not matter to him. He never asked me about mine; it just wasn’t important to him. He was also gentle and kind. We got married, and decided to move out to the West for a better life. Initially, it was difficult adjusting. A culture shock. Back home I was a shy girl. I had been sheltered. In my upbringing women were encouraged to stay quiet and to speak softly.
I acclimated quickly, though. I made wonderful friends who loved me unconditionally. I also found a community of former Muslims with whom I could finally be myself.
As time passed my husband and I faced difficulties in our marriage (unrelated to anything in my past). We decided that it was best to separate. He was kind and nonjudgmental, even as we parted ways. Although for the best, the loss of my marriage was still difficult to bear. Most break-ups are.
My family strongly disagreed with my decision to end my marriage. They feared the shame and the stigma that would surely befall us. My parents advised that my options for finding another partner would be limited after this divorce because I am now a “woman” and no longer a “girl”. This of course, was a polite way of saying that I was no longer as desirable for marriage as I had been when I was a virgin.
But this didn’t stop me from seeking real happiness. I wasn’t going to give fear another opportunity to dictate my life’s direction. I am now thriving and living my life to the fullest. I realise that this life is the only life that we know that we have. As such, it’s worth fighting for.
I am sharing my story today to help empower women who have been shamed by society for their sexuality and sexual experiences. Please know that you are not alone. There are many other women who share your struggle. I wish I had known all of this a decade ago when I had felt both helpless and hopeless.
Please don’t give in to feelings of oppression and despair. There is hope. Things can get better, but you need to put in the work. You need to create a plan. An escape plan. You will never know what’s out there for you if you don’t take the chance to live authentically and explore all of the beauty that life has to offer.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, take control of your life. And all the best.
Main Pic Credit: Pic Credit: Yara Kassem / Flickr
Reema is a Saudi woman who is now based in North America. She was raised in a religious Muslim family, but left Islam because of its inequalities towards women. Reema is a skeptic who believes that we need to question what we are told and think for our selves. Reema writes to help empower women from oppressive religious or cultural backgrounds as she believes that speaking up can help normalise taboo topics such as women’s sexuality.