This is the second article in a new series we launched last week on the site called Today’s Wonder Women – designed to celebrate the inspiring, impactful, empowering and extraordinary things ordinary women are doing every day. Over the coming months we will be sharing interviews, essays, articles and guest posts about women who are creating change. If you have a story to share and want to add your voice to the Today’s Wonder Women conversation, get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Farida D.
I was at a dinner with a bunch of girl friends. “The first time I had sex” one of them (let’s call her Maryam) started to say, “I almost fainted as soon as my husband wanted to –“ “Please please stop!” another one of my friends interrupted “it’s haram [sinful] to talk about one’s sex life…” The topic was changed. Dammit. Am I the only one who thinks this is a vital conversation?
Later on, I pulled Maryam aside, and she told me her story. Many Arab women might be going through the same pain but are afraid to speak out, because we aren’t allowed to talk about the intimate parts of our sex lives. That is why I am dedicating my Today’s Wonder Women submission to tell you Maryam’s story.
“Sex hurts”, Maryam told her ob-gyn, three months after being married. The first time she had sex, she thought she was going to be orgasmic all night long. She was so wrong. It was very painful.
“That’s okay, it’s because you’re new…just keep practicing and it will get easier” her doctor said. “Come back after three months if it still hurts”. She couldn’t get it out of her head- she was “new”. Like a new leather jacket or a new pair of suede loafers that’s just a bit too tight, and the salesman would convince you to buy it- “it’s tight because it’s brand new, wear it a few times and it’ll stretch”. She was exactly that.
Growing up in a virginity culture Maryam was scared, no actually terrified, of her vagina. She was always scared of the pain it will cause when it bleeds on her wedding night, scared of accidentally breaking her hymen through sports or activity and then no man would trust she was actually a virgin. She was scared of the idea that she can experience pleasure from sex- is she allowed to feel good? Anything that has to do with her vagina scared her. She looked at it, and hated the way she felt about it. As if it’s there between her legs only to taunt her- to punish her for being a female.
“Sex still hurts” Maryam told her ob-gyn three months later.
“I’m sorry but I need to explain this” the doctor said to Maryam and her husband, before proceeding to hold up three of her fingers, transforming them into a pseudo vulva, complete with outer and inner labia. “This is how you do it”, she explains, as she brings her pen and slides it down her middle finger, telling them “you insert right here, this is how you have sex…Do you know that?”
They looked at her embarrassed. They knew where to put his penis into her vagina – they didn’t need Google maps. Yes this is the most sex education they ever got in their entire lives. Yes they were both virgins at marriage. But they aren’t stupid. They know what sex is- heck they even did an extensive online search at some point just to be sure. They were sexually active- they tried every possible sex position and millions of ways of pleasing one another.
They had an amazing time having all kinds of sex. It’s just vaginal penetration was painful for her. No matter how much foreplay was involved or how badly she really wanted it. At some point, Maryam became anxious because she didn’t know whether she was a virgin or not. Our definition of virginity is very rigid and restricted to penis-in-vagina sex. And any penetrative attempt would last a few seconds before they stop because she was in pain. When was she no longer a virgin? When they first kissed? When they touched each other naked? When she had her first orgasm? Or when she made her husband orgasm?
Maryam kept seeing her ob-gyn every few months; desperate that she would give her a solution other than she was “new” and the odd sexual demonstrations with her fingers. But every time, she would just tell Maryam that she was “new” and it will get easier. At one of those visits, the ob-gyn finally decided to examine Maryam’s vagina to rule out any physical abnormalities.
She asked Maryam’s husband to leave the room as Maryam got onto the exam table and pulled down her underwear. That was her first ever pelvic exam; Arab women do not get pelvic exams unless they were married because of the fear that such exams may break an intact hymen. If they never get married, they never get pelvic exams. So Maryam didn’t really know what to expect as she sat there exposing her most intimate body part.
Suddenly, the doctor jabbed a cold large speculum inside Maryam without warning. Maryam jumped off the table and screamed instinctively. But the nurse held her down as the doctor forced her device further inside. She cried. “There there” the doctor said, “that was just like sex what we just did… you are fine”. Maryam looked at her ob-gyn in shock. The doctor then casually added, “by the way, your hymen is broken…you are not a virgin, you are just a bit too tight”.
“What about surgery?” Maryam asked, panicked “I heard that women can have surgery to loosen up?” But the doctor dismissed the idea. “Being loose won’t be pleasurable for your husband” she said, “Just keep practicing having sex, with time it will start to feel good for you”.
Every few months Maryam would go for a check up and to report that she was still in pain. And each time, her ob-gyn would force the speculum inside Maryam while she cried. The nurses holding my friends’ legs down by force as the doctor jabs the invasive device into her. And then the ob-gyn would say the same thing every time “there, there…that was intercourse…so tell me again why do think you aren’t having sex properly?”
Maryam would then thank her, and apologize for screaming and crying. The doctor would then ask to see Maryam again three months later, repeating the same procedure. This went on for an entire year or so. My friend would go home and ask her husband to jab his penis inside her by force, because “that was intercourse”. He would refuse saying he feels extremely uncomfortable having sex with her in that manner. So she would get frustrated.
It took my friend a couple of years, (and transferring to a new doctor), to realize that her ob-gyn was raping her. She thought it was her fault the pelvic exams were painful; she thought it hurt because her vagina was too tight, not because the doctor was forcing them on her. “You do know you could say no, right?” her husband looked at her, concerned, after she once casually told him how her ob-gyn would examine her vagina. She never even thought there was anything wrong with the way her pelvic exams were conducted.
“Just because she is a doctor, doesn’t mean you have no right to consent” he continued. And then it hit her. All the times she thought she had no choice. When she was a kid and her mom took her for injections, she would object, so the doctor would lie and say he will not do it. He would then give her candy, and while she was busy eating it, he would jab her when she least expected. She never knew she can actually say no to a doctor. She never knew she can say no to a figure of authority. Never thought that was an option. But she is not a kid anymore. It is her body after all, and when anything involves her body, she always has the right to consent no matter what.
Dr. Google diagnosed Maryam, in 5 seconds, with a condition called vaginismus. But whenever she told her rapist/ ob-gyn that she thought she had that condition, she dismissed her and proceeded to force pelvic exams on her. Perhaps she dismissed her so that she can continue coming in for checkups- to be raped instead of offered treatment. It took her ob-gyn two years to finally agree with my friend. Vaginismus is basically a condition where the vagina literally just shuts down at any attempt of penetration (whether it’s a penis, a speculum, or even a tampon).
It is not always impossible to penetrate, but it’s just very painful for the woman. The vaginal muscles would tighten up so hard, building a protective wall, so that penetration would be difficult. It is a physical consequence to a largely psychological problem- it is “in your mind” as my friends’ doctor says, while she jabs her with the cold stainless steel penis. Why is it in your mind? Because it is largely a mental dysfunction- your vaginal anatomy is normal and can physically receive penetration, but your mind tells your vagina that it cannot or that penetration is painful, so then your vagina starts to tighten up as a defence mechanism which causes you pain.
You can have sexual pleasure in other ways- it just so happens that when penetration is about to happen, no matter how turned on you are, your vagina is afraid to comply. Your lips aren’t afraid of sex, your breasts aren’t afraid, your buttocks, legs, thighs, even your clitoris isn’t afraid of sex. It is just your vagina that is scared.
Cultures that sex shame women; that teach them that sex is bad and painful, end up having women with vaginas that are too scared of sex. Thus, vaginismus is a very common condition in Arab countries, largely due to the horror narratives of honor, hymens, and blood that we are taught in Arab culture. Sometimes, the condition can occur after some kind of vaginal trauma such as being raped or going through vaginal child birth- but Maryam was never raped, she was just afraid of sex because of everything she was taught about it before getting married.
Put respectively, vaginismus to women is what erectile dysfunction is to men. And yet when it comes to erectile dysfunction, we are very well versed about it. We see it in the movies, we read about it in magazines, and they even have a magic pill- Viagra- invented especially to fix it. Actresses would reassure actors who couldn’t get it up in sex scenes of movies and TV series, that erectile dysfunction is normal and happens to every guy. Try to bring up vaginismus to other people; chances are they won’t know what the hell you are talking about. Vaginas are just thought of as holes to be penetrated.
“How common is this condition?” Maryam asked her rapist/ ob-gyn. She felt alone- sexual conversations are a taboo here, and she has never heard of anyone who is suffering from vaginismus.
“Very common”, her doctor replied. Maryam felt relieved, but also sad. Knowing she is not alone is good, yet she was devastated that many women go through this and no one ever talks about it.
“What’s the treatment?” she asked, hoping there is a magic pill like Viagra or something. But apparently not. Treatment for vaginismus includes a combination of therapy to remove the “sexual fears” from the mind and practicing with vaginal dilators that come in different sizes. Unfortunately, her doctor told her that none of the treatment options are readily available in our country- there wasn’t any therapist that she could specifically recommend for treatment and dilators were also unavailable for sale.
When Maryam asked why dilators aren’t available, her doctor said “Because authorities at import regulations regard the dilators as instruments of pleasure…sex toys…so they are banned”. Allah forbid- a woman uses her treatment dilators to experience pleasure. “I can give you a brand new speculum and you can practice with that” her doctor offered, grinning. “No thanks”, my friend said- she has suffered enough with those devices.
As an alternative solution, Maryam’s ob-gyn also recommended to go to a religious leader to read some verses from the Koran over her, because she believes my friend’s vagina has been cast with an evil spell. Mind you, that ob-gyn has a medical degree from a reputable school in Dublin, not from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Needless to say, the spell-breaking potion was the only readily available treatment for vaginismus. But Maryam didn’t go for it.
Let’s break it down for a second. A common condition in Arab countries, caused by society’s sex shaming of women, yet no treatment is accessible for women apart from some Koran verses to break the evil spell? What are women supposed to do? Men can find solutions to their sexual problems- Viagra is sold in all pharmacies like it was candy (I wouldn’t be surprised if Starbucks starts selling it too). Men can enjoy a sex life, but women cannot.
No one cares for making the vaginismus therapy and dilator treatments available because women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex anyway. Instead, dilators are seen as potential sex toys and it is a sin for women to use such “instruments of pleasure” -because sex is something for men to enjoy, and women “are” the “instruments of pleasure”.
Maryam ordered a dilator kit from a US website, knowing that it may never reach her but it was worth trying. The dilators look quite different from what dildos looks like; they aren’t obviously penis shaped, so she thought that the immigration officers might mistake them for candlesticks or something. Otherwise, her next plan was to buy a kit on her next trip abroad, and then smuggle them back into the country in her hand luggage. But she was right- authorities were naïve about what the kit was- and a few weeks later, her dilators arrived.
She also tried to go for therapy with a health counselor. The therapist took a look at her and said “having vaginismus is a good thing for you”. Maryam looked at her confused. And she continues “…it proves to your husband that you were a virgin before you married him, because you sure look like the type of gal who would try everything”. A health therapist that sex shames was the last thing you would expect. The therapist then proceeded to get on all fours on her chaise lounge, and explained that doggy style is the best position for pain-free sex.
She just remained in doggy style for the rest of the session, and Maryam paid a lot of money for that. My friend decided there and then that she doesn’t need therapy- she will do it on her own. Just her, the dilators, and a patient husband. After 16 years of suffering, and a year or so of treatment, her story has a happy ending- she cured her vagina’s fear of sex.
My vaginismus-warrior friend has turned her life around. She now sees a new ob-gyn who marvels at her triumphant sexual history. She also made it her mission to share her story with other women struggling through painful sex- even though it is a taboo to talk about our intimate lives, she shares with whoever is willing to listen. Once, her ob-gyn asked Maryam to talk to a patient with severe vaginismus.
That woman had been married for six months, and wouldn’t even let anything come close to her vagina- refusing treatment and not believing it would work. Maryam agreed that she would be happy to talk to this patient and encourage her to go for treatment. The doctor shared Maryam’s number with the patient, and my friend waited and waited but the patient never called.
The thing with vaginismus is that it is a disorder, and like most disorders, it is embedded with a sense of shame. We are women. We are sexualized and objectified; the one thing we are certainly expected to do is to live up to that categorization. Like Maryam would sarcastically say “If you can’t even have sex, if you can’t even open your legs and take a penis up your hole, what is your worth as a woman? The one thing you are supposed to do, the one thing that is seen as your sole purpose of existence- and you fuck that up? (pun intended)”.
Our world is confusing. If you are a woman and you “want” to have sex, you are slut shamed. If you are a woman and you “cannot” have sex, you are worthless. You have to be somewhere in the middle. You have to not actively crave sex, but also willingly accept it done to you. The ideal Arab woman is sexualized but not sexual; accepting of being penetrated but not actively asking for it. This is because we are seen as sex objects- just a hole for sex that is void of any feelings. But we are not objects, and we are certainly much more than sex.
Farida D. is a gender researcher, and has been studying Arab women’s everyday oppressions for over a decade. Through the process, she broke up with the hijab and set all of her high heels on fire. Her memoir, “Rants of a Rebel Arab Feminist”, is now on sale on all Amazon websites.