Karmir khndzor (Armenia)

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Karmir khndzor 🇦🇲
Location: Armenia
Armenia map.png
Definition: The ritual of inspecting bedsheets to verify the bride’s virginity on the wedding night and rewarding her parents with a gift
Keywords:
ArmeniaFSUvirginitygiftparental controlintimacymarriageweddingsexualitygenderkinship
Author: Anna Temkina; Lilit Zakaryan
Affiliation: European University at St.Petersburg, Russia; National Academy of Sciences, Armenia

By Anna Temkina, European University at St.Petersburg and Lilit Zakaryan, National Academy of Sciences, Armenia

Karmir khndzor (Կարմիր խնձոր, lit. ‘red apple’, Russian krasnoe yabloko) is a ritual practice in Armenia involving verifying the bride’s virginity on the wedding night and rewarding her parents with a gift. The practice involves an inspection of bedsheets by the bride’s or groom’s parents for signs of blood. This is believed to confirm that the bride has not had sexual contact before the wedding. Upon thus proven virginity the bride’s mother is gifted apples or cakes. According to tradition, when no blood is found, the bride is stigmatised, publicly shamed and banished from the household. The practice is meant to affirm the dignity of the bride and her parents for bringing up their daughter in an honourable way. This traditional gift-giving complements other practices of Armenian parental control over marriage, subordination and rigid division of labour ascribed to age and gender, and control over young women and their sexuality.

Testing the woman’s purity – by way of testing her virginity – to affirm honour and status of her family is present in a range of ‘sheet ceremonies’ in patriarchal societies from the Mediterranean cultures to Latin American peasantry and Indian castes, since the Middle Ages (Kandiyoti 1988, Carpenter 2005, Ortner 1978: 19). Parallels exist with the practice of blaga rakija in Macedonia. Female virginity is associated with social prestige since a woman’s position in the social structure is defined by how ‘pure’ or ‘polluting’ she is (Ortner 1978: 24-26). This belief has been ‘enforced by systematic and often quite severe control of women's social and especially sexual behaviour’ (Ortner 1978: 19). Feminist critics interpret the proof of virginity rituals as evidence of the patriarchy’s double standards and control over female sexuality. According to Simone de Beauvoir, virginity is a patriarchal construct which objectifies women as the Other (1949 [1997]).

‘We invite you to the funeral of the Red Apple on 8 of March at 15 pm.’ An invitation to a feminist NGO performace. Source: Anna Temkina. © Anna Temkina.

Karmir khndzor is rarely mentioned in the Armenian ethnography from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because Armenian culture was mostly silent on the issues of sexuality. Predominantly male ethnographers did not investigate the wedding night ceremonies in sufficient detail with their female informants. If the bride was very young, the ritual was not performed on the wedding night at all and was postponed for several years (Shagoyan 2011: 497). Red apples used to play a different role in the local rituals accompanying the loss of the bride’s virginity (Shagoyan 2011). As a symbol of fertility and with an erotic connotation, apple was used as a gift box for silver jewellery, gifted to the bride. The spherical shape of the fruit symbolized integrity and perfection and the virginity of the bride was likewise interpreted as her ‘integrity’ (tselostnost, compare with tselka, ‘virgin’).

The current version of karmir khndzor that is in use throughout Armenia and in several diasporic communities became popular during Soviet period with the increase of urban migration in the 1970s. The ritual has the following rules: On the morning after the wedding, a small group of women (the couple’s godmother or groom’s mother, maternal aunt or married sister), usually two or three, bring the mother of bride a tray of apples, sweets and cognac. The groom’s mother invites her neighbours or close relatives, again two or three women, over for coffee, tea, sweets and fruits. The godmother cuts the apples into four parts and shares them with the guests. Cakes in the shape of an apple are also an appropriate gift. The practice includes three steps: examination, sanctioning and validation. After the groom’s mother or other women check for traces of blood on the bedsheet of the bridal couple (examination), the bride receives a gift in case of her confirmed virginity or a conviction and censure in case of failure (sanctioning). In the third step, a red apple or a tray with apples is sent as validation to the bride’s mother, who awaits this sign accompanied by relatives or neighbours at her home (Shagoyan 2011, Pogosyan 2010).

Field research conducted in the mid-2000s revealed that karmir khndzor was performed most rigorously and diligently in rural areas where gender norms were more traditional and hierarchical. In the cities, the practice took a more moderate form – the ritual was performed but the virginity testing was more lenient (Temkina 2008, 2010). Several changes have helped redefine the practice since the 2000s (Temkina 2008, 2010, Pogosyan 2011). First, the ritual has been articulated in the public discourse by the media, NGOs and the women’s movement, and in academic discourse, educational programmes and university courses on gender, sociology, psychology and similar disciplines. Virginity has become politicised after several NGOs (Wo-men’s Resource Center of Armenia, UTOPIANA, WOW) organized performances aimed at deconstructing the ritual with titles such as ‘Red Apple is only for eating’ and ‘We invite you to the funeral of the Red Apple on 8 of March at 15 pm.’ This has influenced the perception of karmir khndzor by the younger generations who became more likely to see it as an old-fashioned practice of intimacy control. Second, it became possible to fabricate virginity. Women who had premarital relationships could imitate their virginity for their husbands and/or mothers-in law by undergoing a medical hymenoplastic procedure to reconstruct the hymen and demonstrate their cultural purity and honourable femininity. By medicalising the karmir khndzor practice, gynecologists may help women to construct a normal biography and to improve their life chances for a normal marriage (Shakhnarazyan 2015). Third, it became much more common for couples to refuse to take part in the ritual or to ‘save’ the women’s virginity. As sexual relationships became more liberal and regarded as belonging to an autonomous sphere of private life, karmir khndzor was relegated to a ceremonial and cultural symbol in the national wedding and has lost the connection to virginity, as for example is the case of a wedding veil in Russia.

Karmir khndzor is caught up in the tensions between national identity and modernity. Since the ritual represents Armenian culture and traditional gender roles, those who refute the ritual risk being regarded as less than proper Armenian citizens and women. Yet those who rigidly follow the ritual will be seen as backward and conservative by its opponents. However, pro- and con- attitudes to karmir khndzor are better thought of as being located on a spectrum. Both young men and women may object to the virginity test acting as a mechanism of control over their intimacy and private life. In other cases, women may prefer to keep their virginity before marriage and to consider it an important cultural tradition that fosters kinship solidarity. Some may agree to preserve their virginity, but dislike its public confirmation after the wedding. Many young people view non-marital sex as acceptable for both men and women and consider karmir khndzor wholly archaic. As the patriarchal gender system lost its rigidness, the range of positions about the practice indicate a lack of any societal consensus about the practice (see detailed scenarios for performing the ritual in Pogosyan 2010).

References

Carpenter, L. 2005. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York: New York University Press

de Beauvoir, S. 1949. Le Deuxième Sexe. Paris: Gallimard

Kandiyoti, D. 1988. ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, Gender and Society, 2(3): 274–290

Ortner, S. 1978. ‘The Virgin and the State’, Feminist Studies, 4(3): 19-35

Poghosyan, A. 2010. Some of the features of the conversion of the tradition “Red apple”: Tradition and Modernity in Armenian Culture, Yerevan: Gitutyuan, 359-367

Poghosyan, A. 2011. Red apple tradition: Contemporary interpretations and observance. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica

Shahnazaryan, N. 2015. ‘O krasnom yabloke, gimenoplastike i ohote na ved'm: bukva nashej tradicii versus seksual'naya revolyuciya?’, Analitikon, http://theanalyticon.com/?p=7137&lang=ru

Shagoyan, G. 2011. ‘” Seven days, seven nights”: Panorama of the Armenian wedding, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of National Academy of Sciences, RA, 496-509

Shahnazaryan, N. 2015. ‘O krasnom yabloke, gimenoplastike i ohote na ved'm: bukva nashej tradicii versus seksual'naya revolyuciya?’, Analitikon, http://theanalyticon.com/?p=7137&lang=ru

Temkina A. 2010. ‘Dobrachnaya devstvennost': kul'turnyj kod gendernogo poryadka v sovremennoj Armenii (na primere Erevana)’, Laboratorium, 1. 129–159