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What Will People Say: Society’s Obsession with Female Virginity

Movie-watching has always been an assured escape from ennui for me — a couple of hours break from the everlasting mundaneness of most days to saunter into the daydreams of worlds saturated with multifariously gratifying fictionality. Most of the time the watch proves to be a fun ‘out of sight, out of mind’ experience. However, seldom I come across a cinematic venture which not only allows me to step into its imagination but is also able to seep into the confines of my mind and strike them with such a formidable force of reality that it is impossible to emerge from the encounter without pondering over what I had seen. The most recent addition to my list of such films is What Will People Say, a movie that invigorated within me the detestation for the prevalent culture of virginity.

What Will People Say is a 2017 drama starring Maria Mozhdah and Adil Hussain, in which Nisha, a Pakistani-Norwegian teenage girls life changes forever after getting caught by her father whilst she shares an intimate moment with her boyfriend. This incident mars her reputation amongst her family irreversibly, which consequently leads to her being subjected to verbal, physical, and emotional abuse by them so as to ‘rectify’ her. Throughout the entirety of this Netflix pick, I was overwhelmed by eerie anxiety. The fact that Nisha’s life seemed so similar to mine before everything turned upside down for her scared me. The comments she heard about covering up and her surreptitious attempts at texting boys is something that almost every girl has gone through at some point in her life in attempts of maintaining a ‘good girl’ image in front of others. We are not free to act the way we want to; there are certain norms of behavior that women have to follow. A deeply ingrained culture of virgin praising leads to the vilification of Nisha. The movie, thus, engulfed me with loathing over this practice of coercion of girls to fit into the constrictive mold of ‘purity’ that has been perpetuated for generations by society.

Nisha’s misfortune doesn’t just befall her because she is caught with her boyfriend, but because of her father’s assumption that she has already slept with him (despite her denying the claim several times). He later tries to force her into marrying Daniel since that is what he considers to be right. When she refuses, Nisha, who has hitherto lived a fairly westernized life, is brutally ripped away from the comfort she had built for herself for years in Norway and tossed away to the comparatively repressive traditions of her family in her homeland, all because she indulges in the exploration and enjoyment that is the essence of youth for many. She just gives into the naive desires of her romantic curiosities, like many of us wish to do. But in her father’s eyes as well as the society’s, this is unacceptable: a woman’s virginity is seen as her ‘purity,’ and her purity is the marker of her value. What’s more is that this prudeness is not only tied to her honor, but also to her family’s. Therefore, your loved ones’ take it as their responsibility to preserve this righteousness that resides in a woman’s privates. It’s depressing to watch that the one place from where one should receive reassurance, Nisha gets degradation. Her family wants to protect their social standing at any cost: her mother wonders why she didn’t die as soon as she came to the world, while at one point, her father angrily pressurizes her to jump off a cliff to relieve him of his troubles, a moment that left me mortified. It is to be noted that such burdens aren’t put on men; instead, they get to be the rowdy ones. When Nisha is involved in another romantic scandal with a local boy Amir in Pakistan, her father again proposes marriage only for the other to refuse (it is heavily implied that the reason was her character). Women always have to act like property of the men.

It’s saddening that even though appalling, the movie doesn’t narrate fantastical events that are too rare to happen; people go to cruel lengths to repress their women’s sexuality in real life like honor killings. Another shocking way is the virginity tests present in different forms in different places. The Kanjarbhat tribe of Maharashtra is known for the virginity tests it imposes on its new brides. A white sheet would be used on the wedding night by the newlyweds to confirm the girl’s virginity; if it’s not proven, she would be termed ‘broken’ and subjected to beatings or a monetary penalty. Investigations are also conducted about who she lost her virginity to. The Sansi tribe of Rajasthan also practices similar tests, which are called Kukari ki Rasam. Other such tests include Pani ki Deej and Agnipariksha. The two-finger test, even though banned in India, is still practiced here; this is used even on female military recruits of Indonesia. These tests have been found in Western countries like Spain, Canada, and Sweden as well. Preventive measures like breast ironing as well as Female Genital Mutilation of adolescent girls are also prevalent traditions found in Africa; the former mainly in the country of Cameroon and the latter in many countries of Asia and Latin America too. In addition to being painful violations of human rights, these practices are highly damaging to women’s health. They can cause short-term as well as long-term psychological and physical adversities, and when conducted on rape victims, can imitate the trauma of their sexual exploitation. Nonetheless, these tests are still very much in use. Reassuring the communities of their superficial honor is more vital than the well-being of their women.

Society’s flagrant obsession with sustaining the chastity of women by costing them their basic human rights is a subject that needs serious discussion. Movies like What Will People Say are necessary to highlight the damage that can be caused by the rigidity of traditions. Right now, deep beneath the facade of modernity lies the archaic treatment of the female population. For the real progress of the world this certain hurdle needs to be crossed, and the time is now.

Tanya Khantwal

Delhi South '22

Tanya is currently studying BA (History) Honors from Gargi College. She enjoys r&b music, action anime, conspiracy theories and daydreaming about finally learning how to play the guitar.
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