One day, a Moroccan man kisses the hand of his 28-year-old fiancée and leaves to finish his studies in South Korea. From there he writes back telling his sweetheart that such hand kissing is haram, and now sounds as if he regrets his romantic gesture. Hurt and bewildered, Fatiha, encouraged by Jessica, her American friend, Arabic student, and filmmaker researching family law in Morocco, leaves Fez in search of a religious explanation. Jessica Woodworth’s newly released documentary, The Virgin Diaries (2002), records the story of that quest.
The first thing that strikes a Moroccan viewer is that the story of Fatiha and her American friend is part of the Oriental lore that simultaneously fascinates and repels many Westerners. The articulate Moroccan woman tries to seek an explanation in her native city, but faced with stonewalling and the empty refrain of “go back to Islam,” is soon encouraged by her American friend to go south in search of a religious answer. The excursion into the kasbahs and sand dunes of the south turns out to be–you guessed it–an exploration of sexuality in Muslim Morocco. Thus, although the plot doesn’t make much sense–Fatiha could have easily found the answer in Fez, which is, after all, the spiritual capital of Morocco and the seat of Al Qarawiyeen–the two friends’ journey across the country, and even to Germany–where the filmmaker resides–allows the women to probe Moroccans’ attitudes toward sex and sexuality in general. Fatiha is well aware that the project is risqué, but she now feels an obligation to members of her generation, even though it may upset the “fathers.” Conservative herself and strongly attached to her Islamic identity and cultural values, she is not only interested in why her fiancé’s hand kissing is haram, but also in Moroccan men’s double standards when it comes to virginity, and the predicament of women who reach an “advanced” age without finding a husband.
The two women drive to the edges of the desert and seek an audience with a major fquih, but he refuses to see them, and only allows them to communicate their questions through his male disciples. The imam of an all-boy religious school addresses Fatiha with eyes half-shut, declaring that women who fail to marry by 16 will be tormented with desire and may thus sin against their own pure nature. This worsens Fatiha’s guilt. Camel shepherds offer no relief either: they tell Fatiha that is a woman’s job to guard her virginity because men have nothing to lose. French-educated, modern men allow that women may flirt and have sexual encounters before marriage only as long as their virginity remains intact.
Like all societies going through a critical cultural transition, Moroccans want to have a sexual life but also stay within the limits of Islamic morality. There is the siren call of desire beamed out of every screen and billboard, on one hand, and the moralizing language of religion, on the other. There is no desire in Morocco, Fatiha tells Jessica, only obligations. As if this tension were not enough, the hypocrisy of non-observant males adds insult to injury by demanding that their future wives live up to Islamic ideals even while they themselves avail themselves of whatever pleasure they can get. Not all men are like that, of course. There are men who don’t expect from their future spouses what they don’t expect from themselves, and there are men who have bravely defied the “honor code” and married non-virgins. But such men seem to be in the minority. Most Moroccan men expect nothing less than angelic purity from their female partners.
Fatiha and her friend learn from women and a sociologist who receives death threats that repairing or stitching back the hymen (tarmeem al bakara) is the “most common minor surgery in Morocco,” yet the filmmakers could only find one physician who was willing to discuss the matter–and even then, very cautiously. In Oued Noun, reputedly the hotbed of matriarchal culture in Morocco, a man explains to the women that if a man during the wedding night cannot penetrate his bride, then a female attendant walks into the bedroom and manually ruptures the hymen in order to display blood on the handkerchief. This is not common, but that it still occurs is quite remarkable. The burden of proof is always on the woman, never on the man, even in such a situation.
Fatiha later travels to Germany and, accidentally, falls in love with an Iranian on the train. She comes back home determined to let go of the arranged relationship with her fiancé in Korea, and is relieved when she finally finds out from a French-speaking ‘alim in Rabat that kissing the hand of one’s fiancée is perfectly fine in Islam. But virginity, he warns, is another matter. After all, who would want to buy a broken watermelon? But just as Fatiha starts celebrating her newly found innocence and goes back to Germany, she learns that she cannot join her Iranian boyfriend because such a union isn’t possible under some German law. This is a cruelly ironic moment. Has she lost both men? Will she accept a fate of celibacy or choose the trickier path of freedom? What will she do?
I am not a psychologist or ‘alim, but, as I watched this drama unfold, I got a glimpse of the unexplored powers that animate the present global conflict. The rise of extremism is partly explained by the bewildering change Muslims are undergoing right now, when God and the devil live in closer proximity than ever before. The fate of Muslims is, in a way, being worked out in this epic battle between desire and duty. And, unfortunately, as positions harden, women will bear the brunt of the crisis, as their behavior and dress will be used as an index of cultural purity or weakness. When cultures are under severe stress, as was the case in late 17th century New England, women are carefully monitored for signs of transgression or witchery.
The fate of women is at the forefront of political debates in Morocco, but not to accept that women have the same rights as men is to translate men’s fear and paranoia into law. An enlightened polity is one that is legally blind to gender differences and capitalizes on the strength of both sexes. Every Moroccan and human being has the right to determine his or her future and life any way they see fit; to deny at least half of Morocco’s population this right seriously undermines our democratic aspirations.
When I was younger, I used to hear that the relaxed sexual mores of the Amazigh of the Middle Atlas are healthier than the severe puritanism of our Arab ancestors and the general machismo of Mediterranean societies. Perhaps we could all benefit from excavating our long-repressed heritage and spend our energies worrying about other life-and-death issues. Agonizing over a single kiss of the hand strikes me as a waste of time and mental effort.
The Virgin Diaries
A film by Jessica Woodworth
56 mns color 2002
First Run/Icarus Films