Meryam is 24, more than old enough to get married. But the prospect of sexual intercourse scares her. As a child, she was forced to undergo a "virginity test": a "barbaric" procedure that was "painful and robbed me of my human and female dignity."
Such examinations, which occur all over the world, remain common in rural Morocco, where they are frequently administered by midwives who lack medical qualifications. All that matters is that families trust the person doing the checking.
Meryam has joined My Vulva Belongs to Me, an initiative to highlight the psychological and sexual violence of such examinations. "The worst kind of rape is that which robs young women of their right to sexual self-determination," Meryam said.
'Matter of honor'
Near the city of Meknes, in close proximity to the Atlas Mountains, an elderly woman whom neighbors call "the blessed one" conducts such examinations.
"I carry great responsibility because I know the secrets of many families," she said. "But I keep them to myself, of course, because virginity is a matter of honor."
The woman said many families had their daughters tested as a way of policing their sexuality — and discouraging encounters. She said her virginity tests were neither unsophisticated nor painful; she prefers "natural materials," which she believes cause no injuries. She cracks eggs over women's genitals to determine vaginal tightness. And, often, she uses her hand to check hymens.
Form of rape
Activists have sought to put a stop to such practices, saying they are invasive, undignified, a form of rape. Sarah al-Awni, who works with the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties, which advocates for feminist and LGBTQ+ causes, said activists sought to help women become more aware of their choices in such matters.
Part of the campaign, she said, is to help do away with the idea that virginity should be a precondition for marriage.
Such examinations are particularly detrimental to women's psychological health and sexual well-being when crude instruments are used to conduct them and basic standards of hygiene are ignored, al-Awni said. Sometimes, the same women perform illegal abortions, again without the proper implements or hygienic procedures.
A changing society
The journalist Fatima Khalidi, who opposes such examinations, rejects the idea that familial honor can be determined by invasive exploration of women's bodies.
Khalidi said enforced virginity was a way of controlling women.
The rights activist Abdelkarim al-Qamsh said the initiative showed that young Moroccan women are refusing to accept a morality dictated by previous generations. He said fewer and fewer Moroccans were connecting virginity with matters of honor. That's all part of the country's broader societal transformation, al-Qamsh said.