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Monday, August 22, 2011

Arranged marriages and restoration of virginity (hymenorrhaphy)

I was born and spend my school/Uni years in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Back then Azerbaijan was the part of Soviet Socialist Republics (former "Russia" as everyone knew it). It is now an independent country.
Azerbaijan was populated mostly by Muslims. There were plenty of other nationalities,of course, and everyone got along splendidly back in those days, but Muslim influences were predominant.
All the other nationalities were affected by those influences, subconsciously adopting traditions, views and mentality.
For instance, wearing very short dresses/skirts would attract attention on the street and not a nice kind:there would be nasty comments from men and disgusted looks from women.
It took a long time for it to be acceptable for women to wear pants.
It was extremely rare for women to drive cars.
It was frown upon for women to smoke, especially in public places... Etc,etc,etc.

Arranged marriage is part of Muslim culture. It was very common in my home town.
In small villages, parents discussed the future of their children when the kids were barely in their teens. Girls were promised to the boy's parents and deals were made. No one asked the future bride or groom.
In a relatively big city (which Baku was) things were slightly different. Marriages were arranged for either political or financial reasons, or both. Parents wanted to combine wealth. They didn't want their son or daughter to marry a "peasant" or a "pauper".
Girls were groomed for marriage from an early age. Even education had a sole purpose of "bettering the value" of the bride. Those Uni diplomas the girls got were often framed and hanged on the wall, just for show, much like a prized cow certificates. Most of the girls never worked in the fields they were educated in: they stayed at home: cooking,cleaning and raising children.
Parents looked for  suitable candidates among their friends and associates and then introduced future bride and groom. Sometimes there was a genuine spark between the two, sometimes there was none: either way, if parents "shook on it", their kids destine to marry.
No one really questioned it, it was the way of life.
There were some traditions that went along with that.
First of all, a big engagement party was an absolute must. It was all about "the show of wealth".
It was usually held at bride's parents house.
As most people lived in flats in high-rises back then, it was a big show, most of it for the benefit of the neighbours.
Groom and his extended family would arrive in cars (or taxis),accompanied by a live band,playing loud music. They would have trays full of "gifts". That was mandatory: the more trays, the wealthier the groom, the more envious the neighbours. Gifts would include all the things that were hard to get in Soviet Russia (or too expensive for an average person): gold jewellery,french perfume, cuts of expensive fabrics,Italian shoes,brand name handbags,etc.
Great show would be put on by carrying the trays slowly inside, to give neighbours the chance to see the goodies.
Inside, bride's parents would have a table set up (everything back then was a "sit down" dinner:there was no such thing as "buffet") laden with food and wines. Quality of the food was carefully noted by groom's parents. For instance, one couldn't just fill the space with potatoes and breads. Sturgeon, black and red caviar, various meats were in abundance.
Party would go on until the wee hours of the morning.

Every girl was expected to have a "dowry". From very early age, parents would buy and put things away for that purpose. Dowry items would include finest Egyptian cotton sheets (available ONLY on the "black market" in Soviet Russia back then), duvets,china services,silver cutlery sets, even furniture and possibly a car in extremely wealthy families cases. Dowry would be carefully inspected and appraised by in-laws upon new bride's arrival into her new home after the marriage.

The marriage itself carried a lot of traditions. One of them was that bride was presumed to be a virgin. There was no any other option.
To signify the purity of the bride, a red satin ribbon was worn around her waist (over the white wedding gown).
After the wedding reception, groom would take his new wife into the bedroom in his family home. Entire family would be eagerly awaiting just outside the door. Once the groom broke the hymen, he would produce the blood-stained sheet and it would be proudly paraded in front of the family, neighbours and all the guests.
Yes,barbaric and hard to believe that it was happening not so long ago in otherwise civilised country, but it was what it was.
You can only imagine all the stuff that went along with that particular tradition.
Stories were floating around about star-crossed lovers who couldn't contain their passion before the wedding,thus robbing the bride of her virginity. The groom, who was much in love, but didn't want to "bring shame" on his and bride's family, would cut his finger in the bedroom on the night of the wedding to produce the blood necessary "for show"...
More often than not it was far less romantic. Although promiscuity wasn't a common occurrence, girls (or women) did make "mistakes": they went to bed with someone other than their "intended" husband before  marriage or simply fell in love with someone only to be told by the family that he is "not worthy" and ordered to marry someone else.
Hymenorrhaphy (or hymenoplasty) was extremely popular procedure.
Everything was owned by the State back then, so all medical services were free. Hymenoplasty wasn't supported by the State and wasn't offered/done in the clinics.
Besides, not being a virgin while unmarried was a great shame and a big secret.
Female gynecologists (skilled and enterprising ones) were making a fortune performing those procedures in their own homes or in the clinics where they worked (after hours, of course).
To give you an idea, average skilled worker (engineer, for instance) was making about $110 roubles a month. Hymenoplasty cost about $200 roubles or more.
It was all very hush-hush, through the word of the mouth (naturally, no one actually advertised those services).
It wasn't hymenoplasty of the modern day,either. Hymen wasn't replaced by an artificial membrane. Instead, flap of the vaginal lining,with it's own blood supply,was sutured.
As you can imagine, first-time intercourse was extremely painful under those circumstances, but it also seemed more "authentic",as the girl would scream in pain, REAL pain.
Girls didn't gossip about their sexual escapades back then, not really. Sleeping around, or even having sex with one's fiancee before marriage was considered taboo and bad behaviour. Girl would be labeled a "slut" and loose all hope of finding a husband, which was the sole purpose of her existence in that culture.
Yes, of course girls had sex out of marriage. But it was rarely talked about, even with one's best friends (best friend could turn into rival and bitter enemy at some point and use those secrets as their ammunition).
Blatantly ignoring "the rules" had severe repercussions.
One of the girls at my Uni was well-known as "easy". She dated a number of guys, all the while being engaged to a dentist her parents "promised" her to. She thought she could get away with it.
In all fairness, that dentist was much older and quite unattractive. He was also clearly after the girl's family money and her dowry that included a brand new expensive car (meant for him, of course). He himself was sleeping around. But we all know about those double standards: if a guy sleeps around, he is a "stud", if a girl does the same, she is a "slut".
Still, Nargis (that was the girl's name) didn't think there would be a problem,as wedding preparations were going ahead. She didn't bother with hymenoplasty: she figured all the guy wanted was money and a "token" wife..
Finally, the big day came. There were many guests, lavish ceremony. Nargis wore a red ribbon around her waist, captured in many,many photographs (I've seen most of them).
I don't know what went on in the bedroom that night-Nargis never wanted to talk about it. All we knew is that the groom drugged her  through the streets by her hair the next morning to her parents house and "returned" her, as "damaged goods". Apparently, he expected a virgin and would take nothing less.
To Nargis' credit, she actually returned to school, albeit after a month's break. Baku was a small town and that kind of gossip traveled fast: by the time she was back in class, the whole Uni knew what has happened.
Although people weren't pointing fingers, there were whispers and sidelong glances. Nargis had to endure those for the next 2 years, until she graduated. Her only hope of ever finding a husband was to move away. Far,far away. I don't know if she ever did.

Nationality was of great importance as well. Although "mixed" marriages existed, they were not the norm.
Mostly, people tended to marry "their own": Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Russians,etc.
A couple of my friends run into serious trouble falling in love with someone of a different nationality.
My friend Svetalana, who was part Russian, part Armenian was in the same class with me. Her father was dead and her mother was struggling trying to make the ends meet.
Svetlana met and fell in love with Azerbaijani guy. His family was wealthy. The two of them truly believed that his parents would ultimately want their son to be happy (idealism of youth-they thought love would triumph, no matter what). Nothing could be further from the truth. His family warned him in no uncertain terms to break off the relationship and when he refused, they disowned him. For real and completely. Young couple was left penniless and with no place to live ( see my other posts about a funny system of housing assignment in Russia back then). Svetlana and her boyfriend got married anyway: they had a civil ceremony, no reception. Even her getting pregnant did not melt in-laws hearts: they refused to help or see the baby. I don't know if that marriage made it long-term:I left the country shortly after graduating.
My other friend, who happened to be a talented hair stylist and made quite a good living, found herself in a similar situation. Would you believe that mother of the guy she was dating actually came to her salon to "have a look" and "appraise" her-much like a merchandise, to consider whether or not they should "bend the rules" and allow "other blood" in the family.

Yes, things were different back then. I don't know if they got better or,in fact, deteriorated now-I haven't been back in my hometown in over two decades.
Now, that I am older and,hopefully, wiser, I look back and appreciate those experiences. They taught me the value of acceptance, of freedom, of being able to be who you are without fear.

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