Like a Virgin

Soniah Kamal

I was standing before my full-length mirror holding bloodstained cotton balls to my ears when my mother barged into my room and gazed at me in despair. Getting your ear lobes pierced is a traditional rite of passage for Pakistani girls, but I was seventeen years old and I had just plunged a sewing needle into my cartilage six times in each ear. It hurt, but I felt good.

“Do you think you are Madonna?” my mother yelled.

I stood before her in blue-lace fingerless gloves, black rubber goomie bracelets, purple leggings, and a white t-shirt over a black bra. My mother eyed me with sorrow and worry. Good Pakistani girls did not dress this way, not if they wanted to fulfill their parents’ dreams of a decent, respectable marriage. My mother yelled again, “Do you think you are Madonna?” It’s not that I didn’t feel her pain, only where did my mother’s will end and mine begin?

Madonna came into my life when I was around thirteen years old in the mid 1980s. At the time, we lived in Jeddah, a hot, dusty port city with a brilliant blue cornice alongside the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. I attended an international school that apparently provided the best education, its small library crammed with books from all over the world later became seminal for me. But because the school was co-educational, my parents were constantly reminding me that good Muslim girls did not speak to boys under any circumstances and that, as long as I was a good girl, they would allow me to study here.

One afternoon I was visiting a school friend, Shannon. I was permitted to go to Shannon’s house because she had no brothers and she was Irish Catholic. My mother believed Irish Catholics were just like Muslims: appropriately strict with their daughters. She would have been appalled if she’d seen Shannon prancing around her house in skimpy shorts and a skimpier tank top. The only Western clothes I was permitted to wear were loose shirts that covered my derriere and baggy jeans, or dresses and skirts paired with knee-high socks. How very miserable I felt in those never-ending white cotton socks. But I dared not slip them off at school since I was not allowed to shave my desperately-in-need-of-a-shave legs, and my hairy arms already garnered enough Yeti jokes. Neither was I allowed to grow my nails long or wear any makeup. Though, I couldn’t figure out what being a good Muslim or Pakistani had to do with hairy limbs, short nails and no lipstick.

On this particular afternoon, we lounged in Shannon’s bedroom, sipping cans of Vimto, the grape soda staining our lips and tongues a jewel purple, and listening to music. Shannon had bought a new audio cassette. The girl on the cover reminded me of Pakistani singer Nur Jehan. They shared a plump, sultry, triumphant mien, as if they’d just eaten the creamiest pastry in the world.

“Tell me what you think?” Shannon said as she pressed play.

You may be my lucky star, but I’m the luckiest by far…

The tune: catchy. The beat: bubbly. The rhythm: cheery. Before we knew it we were jumping on the bed through “Holiday” and “Everybody,” screeching bits of the choruses we’d picked up.

I passed my verdict: Madonna sounded like a squeaky mouse. Shannon laughed and agreed.

“Do you want to hear a really sexy song?”

“Okay,” I said with false bravado—in my home, “sexy” was a taboo word.

“Like a Virgin” throbbed through the speakers. If Shannon hadn’t been sitting there, my mouth would have fallen open at hearing the word “virgin” out loud, but Shannon was belting it out as if it were no big deal. Perhaps it wasn’t. Shannon’s Catholic parents expected her to be a virgin until marriage, but crushes, dating, boyfriends, and first kisses were dinner-table fodder at her house. At my home, these things might as well have been four letter words, and not only was I expected to be a virgin at marriage but woe betide I had anything to do with crushes, dating, boyfriends, or kisses before my wedding night.

When the song was over, I said, “My parents think virgin is a bad word,” even as I asked Allah to forgive me for saying “virgin” and for questioning my parents.

Shannon popped her gum. “Even my Dad would die if he heard this song.”

“My Dad,” I said, “would kill me if he heard me listening to this song.”

A few weeks later, my mother allowed me to attend Shannon’s birthday party because she thought it was girls-only. Because I was the only Pakistani/Muslim at the party, I relaxed. No one knew my parents and would report back. Streamers and balloons decorated the walls of the festivity room. Girls and boys stood at opposite ends, finding refuge in Pepsi bottles and plain potato chips until Shannon’s mother shepherded us into the center and warned us to start having fun. “Material Girl” blasted through the room and everyone started to gyrate as best as they could.

“Who is this?” I asked Shannon.

“Madonna,” she said.

“The Mouse?” I said.

“The Mouse,” she said. “I like her.”

“You know what?” I said, falling in step to the upbeat music, “I do like her.”

Our movements intensified through “Borderline” and by the time “Into the Groove” came on, we were jiggling our butts off and Madonna had stopped sounding like a mouse. Then a slow song came on: “Crazy for You.” Amidst giggles equally shy and coy, everyone paired up—I’m not sure how, but they did—and began to slow dance. I found myself dancing with B, my arms around his neck, his around my waist. My parents would be mortified. I had never been in such close proximity to a boy. Not that B, with his black spectacles and knobby knees, qualified in my mind as a “boy”; he was simply a classmate who happened to not be a girl, but this entwining left me guilty even as I consoled myself that if Shannon could dance like this with her mother in the room then, surely, it couldn’t be such a crime. Still, waves of letting down my parents and Allah drowned me. But if the Christian God and Muslim God were one and the same, then how could one religion deem slow dancing all right and the other deem it bad? I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed for an answer. When things moved to spin the bottle and one minute in the closet, I begged off: “I’m Muslim. I can’t kiss or even for a minute disappear into the dark with a boy.” No one laughed, not really. We were in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country. I was put in charge of resetting the bottle in the middle of the kissing circle and timing the minute in the closet; in the background Madonna’s “Pretender” played.

The next day, I begged my father to drive me to the Al Mokhtar supermarket’s music department so I could purchase every Madonna cassette available. When we got there, I winced as my father glanced at the cassette covers. Madonna’s cleavage was showing, curls unruly, eyebrows brash, mouth bold, but most of all, I loved her defiant gaze: she resembled a tigress that had spotted a favorite meal.

My parents were connoisseurs of ghazals, a form of Urdu poetry that could be put to music and sung, as well as black and white Indian film songs. Their small collection of English music consisted of mostly ABBA, Boney M., and the Bee Gees. My father, inspecting Madonna, asked me who she was. “A new singer I heard at Shannon’s house.” He pursed his lips. For a moment I feared he would screen the songs and I could imagine his heart attack over like a virgin touched for the very first time or crazy for you, touch me once and you’ll know it’s true.

As it was, my father presumed that all entertainers hailed from questionable stock. Whether this belief was unique to him or part of our culture, I had yet to discover since I could not read Urdu literature and had not come across translations. Either way his disdain did not deter his own pleasure in listening to music or watching classical dances in Indian films. This dichotomy left me baffled and annoyed. Thankfully we did buy the cassette. At home, I whisked my mother’s tape player into my room. Door shut, volume low, I crooned along with Madonna for the rest of the evening. Even though I still felt guilty for having slow-danced, I kept playing “Crazy for You.”

At one point during the evening, my mother popped in to inquire if I’d prayed that day. I whipped out my prayer mat and the mandatory head covering during prayers and rushed through so I could return to the songs. I liked “Live to Tell,” despite not gleaning the secret that was burning inside of her, and “Like a Virgin” thrilled me. It really was the sexiest.

Madonna, everyone at school proclaimed, was the Queen of Sexiness. I agreed, even though I wasn’t altogether sure what exactly “sexy” meant. Clearly something to do with sex which had something to do with doing it which was a bad thing for good girls. One day, B, the boy I’d danced with at Shannon’s party, passed me a note in class: “U R Sexy.” My face burned. I thought I was going to pass out. “Sexy” scared me. “Sexy” was in the same category as “shame-shame,” a euphemism for genitals. I felt ashamed and dirty, as if I had done something sinful.

And I had: I had slow-danced with B and so surely I inadvertently invited him to say such a thing about me. Guilt gnawed at me. I loved my parents and didn’t want to let them down, no matter how unreasonable their rules could be. Red-faced, I crumpled B’s note and did not even tell Shannon.

I decided to take my mother up on her constant assurances that I could ask her anything. I ambushed her in the kitchen just as she was pouring chickpeas into sautéed onions.

“What exactly does sexy mean?”

My mother turned off the stove, led me to the kitchen table, held my gaze.

“Why exactly do you want to know?” she asked.

I told her I’d overheard a boy at school say it to a girl. My mother sighed, muttering that this was what came of sending girls to co-ed schools. “Sexy,” she proceeded to inform me, was a very, very bad thing—it was a girl who wanted boys to want her in a shameful way, that not only should I never say the word but I should also distance myself from those who did. She ended with a kiss to my forehead and an order to pray to Allah to instill in me the sense to know right from wrong.

So I got down on my prayer rug and prayed. Afterward, I continued to sit and talk to Allah, as was my habit.

“Allah-mian,” I said, “if sexy is so bad and I am sexy then how is it my fault, since I have purposefully done nothing to be this way?”

Allah did not answer, but rising from the prayer mat, I decided to take a break from listening to the Queen of Sexy.

Perhaps Madonna would have disappeared from my life had another friend, Anya, not returned from her summer vacation in the United States with a VHS tape in tow: Madonna’s Virgin Tour. One afternoon, while my father was at work and my anesthesiologist mother recuperated in their bedroom after being on-call for the night, Anya, Shannon, and I congregated in my living room to watch the video. We were three excited girls perched on the edge of a green velvet sofa, waiting for a cassette to rewind, not knowing that when the world changes, this is how it happens, in ordinary living rooms on ordinary afternoons.

When the concert began, Madonna’s silhouette appeared on the dark stage and she began to sing “Dress You Up.” The visual quality may have been grainy and the audio not perfectly clear, but strobe lights pulsed, smoke billowed, the crowd cheered, and there was Madonna—gliding, pirouetting, gyrating across the stage like lightning come to life. I was mesmerized; a strange energy enveloped me, my shoulders were sprouting wings, my stomach birthing butterflies, my feet growing light. I felt I was ready for flight.

Madonna was hypnotic—her voice, her body, her daring moves and attire: high-heel ankle boots, leggings that ended mid-calf, black bracelets circling her wrists in lieu of the glass bangles favored by Pakistanis, and her dangling Christian cross earrings and sparkling cross brooches attached to her rainbow jacket, crosses seemingly hanging off all parts of her body and nestled in her cleavage as easily as an Allah pendant could (“Madonna is Catholic,” Shannon explained and added, gleefully, “just like me!”). As the concert went on, each time Madonna lifted her arms—and she lifted her arms plenty—her transparent top rode up to expose her midriff and bits of her bra. I was embarrassed for her but, because she wasn’t embarrassed for herself, I felt stupid for my shame.

I watched, riveted, as she went from costume to costume until she was dressed in wedding-style white lace with white leggings, white boots, a huge silver cross printed on her tight white t-shirt, to sing “Like a Virgin.” “Will you marry me?” she asked the audience and the audience roared back its consent. Madonna was immorality and morality entwined like stripes on a candy cane. Madonna was magic. Madonna was madness. The concert ended with a man—Madonna’s real-life father—barreling on stage to drag her away as if she were a naughty girl. He was a stand in for my own father, in a sense, for situations in my own life. Like telling him I wanted to be an actress, and his forbidding it. At that moment I felt akin to Madonna. She understood my life, so I gave her my soul. No matter that it had been an act, and that she returned to the stage to curtsy.

When the concert was over, Anya, Shannon, and I peered bashfully at each other.

“That was great.”

“Greater than great.”

“It was so sexy.”

Breaking into giddy shrieks, we rewound the tape and watched it all over again. The third time around, we rose to copy Madonna’s moves, and that was when my mother walked in the living room and found us flailing about. We instantly stopped and sat down.

“It’s a Madonna concert,” I blurted out. As if sensing my nervousness, Shannon and Anya began to bombard my mother with assurances.

“It’s the latest thing in the States.”

“She’s huge there. Like Michael Jackson.”

“Everyone’s watching this video.”

“And copying her dancing.”

“She’s Catholic,” I added sheepishly.

To my surprise, my mother sat down with us and watched for a while before announcing that Madonna’s moves were more gymnastics than dance. But she didn’t tell me to turn it off. Instead my mother smiled and told me to move the glass coffee table to one side if we were going to dance. Then she left. I wonder if Madonna had mesmerized her too or if the crosses had mollified her.

Before Anya left, I made a copy of the video. Each day, as soon as I returned from school, I’d switch it on for my daily dose. It was not long before the word “virgin” became routine and Madonna’s tight garments ceased to embarrass. They had metamorphosed into a symbol of conventional morality and tradition turned on its head. Her use of religious jewelry was particularly alluring to me. In wearing her religion, she included God in her sexiness. Either that, or God itself was sanctioning her.

Madonna’s name fascinated me, too. Madonna, Mother Mary: a good virtuous woman. For Madonna, there seemed to be no schism between religion and sexiness, and I was a student eager to learn the same. To break the schism between my religion and my body and the bizarre moral codes of my parents, I shaved my legs clandestinely and, once I’d arrive at school, take off my long socks and apply whatever shade of lipstick friends shared.

I finally understood what it meant to be sexy—it was only a four letter word if you allowed it to be. Sexy was neither good nor bad; it just was. Sexy did not mean sleazy or slutty or of questionable stock. Sexy just meant that people found you sexually desirable. The fact that I was growing more comfortable with this idea and my ability to say “sexy,” “virgin,” “crushes,” or “kisses,” no longer filled me with dread.

Madonna made my young heart flutter with endless possibility. I would listen to her on my newly acquired Walkman—a reward for my stellar grades—on my family’s frequent weekend drives from Jeddah to Mecca or Medina, holy cities for Muslims. When we’d arrive there, I would switch off my Walkman, don a hair covering, and joyously worship Allah; then, on our way back, I’d remove the hair covering, put my earphones back in, and return joyously to Madonna. I would happily lip sync to “Papa Don’t Preach,” not at all shocked by the song in which a young unwed woman is telling her father that she’s pregnant and planning to keep the baby. Mothers loved their kids, I concluded, whether unwed in the West, or like Hajra/Hagar in Islamic lore, desperately running in the barren desert in search of water for her thirsty infant Ismail/Ishmael. Incorporating Madonna into my Muslim self was beginning to feel as effortless as my being able to understand multiple languages. I could balance revolving around Madonna one minute and circling the Kaaba the next. The two didn’t seem at all contradictory. I had entered a dual universe, one I still live in, and Madonna was instrumental in my learning to create a symbiotic existence.

It was in Mecca, during ablutions before prayers, that my mother discovered my shaved legs. I had rolled up the long pant-leg of my shalwar and was merrily pouring water over my ankles and feet, when she yelped, “Did you shave your legs?”

I stilled.

“Who gave you permission?”

“I did,” I managed to say, but she’d stopped talking to me.

On our return drive home, my mother continued to remain silent. I figured it was to spare my father news of my fall. Once we arrived home, she cornered me in my bedroom, enraged and even more upset when she learned I’d used a razor from her own stash.

“You did it to attract boys, didn’t you? You did it to attract boys.”

I was shocked and angry that she refused to believe I’d shaved my legs only to avoid being a joke. The forbidden shaving caused great friction between us, but my mother found my expanding style of dressing even more abhorrent. As the Jeddah stores began to stock Madonna-wear, we girls were fast transforming into mini-Madonnas, eager to rule the world in short, tight skirts worn over lace leggings and black bras (I had to fight to be allowed to wear a bra) worn under net shirts or shirts with wide necklines so bra straps were visible.

My mother was lost as to how to discipline me. She kept saying I should pray for forgiveness. And pray I did, but only to complain to Allah about how my parents were ruining my life and why wasn’t Shannon or Fiona or Nancy or Kathy or Vicky getting into trouble for their clothes. Whenever I’d ask my mother this, she’d say “If everyone wants to jump over a cliff, will you want to jump too?” Her answer, as usual, made no sense. She began to blame Madonna for my every transgression, as if Madonna was directly instructing me to turn into an unmarriageable girl, rather than my own choice that had me questioning and discarding my mother’s—and my culture’s—values of docile girls who did not talk back to their parents, who wore loose clothes and no makeup, had hairy legs, and never, ever talked to boys.

My mother would cry.

I would cry.

Ours tears watering the well in which lived both Mecca and Madonna.

In the end, it was my father who brought things to a head. One afternoon he arrived home early from work to find me glued to the concert—of course he would walk in just as Madonna’s male backup dancers were thrusting their hips at her and she was moaning. He was livid. For the first time, I found myself defending an entertainer from his damning evaluation. She is not a prostitute. Shame colored me red, but I stood my ground.

My father asked me through clenched teeth if my mother was aware of what I was watching.

“Yes,” I said, “and anyway, there’s nothing wrong with this; she’s sexy and that’s not bad.”

My father immediately telephoned my mother at work and raged at her. I could hear my mother agree that I was no longer allowed to watch the tape and that I was grounded and that I couldn’t use the phone and that my pocket money was gone and my Walkman, etc. But I defied them both—I made it a point to keep watching the video, which I kept getting friends to rerecord for me, especially when my father was at home. This went on until the day they told me we were returning to Pakistan.

I do not know how much of a role the Madonna tape played in our return to Pakistan, but when we got there we learned she had conquered that country too. Posters of Madonna festooned video and music stores, bedroom walls, and even pencil cases. Her music and videos played everywhere, including at my maternal aunt’s house, where I first saw the video for “Like a Virgin” with my more progressive aunt, who, much to my mother’s chagrin, teased her for being old-fashioned. If my parents brought me to Pakistan to take me away from Madonna, they’d miscalculated. The difference here was that while in my co-ed school, crushes, dating, boyfriends, and kisses were done openly; here, in Pakistan’s segregated environment, these were secret activities that no one owned up to. This was no place for a girl like me who refused to play the social game and who continued to be her loud, opinionated, purple-leggings, black-bra-under-white-clothes, out-swear-a-sailor self. In a time before the internet, I believed that I was the worst bad girl in this so very good world and that I was terribly alone. It would not be easy and I would eventually survive my years in Pakistan by cutting.

But first I self-pierced my ears.

And so it was that one day my mother barged into my bedroom and asked me if I thought I was Madonna.

“No,” I said quietly. “But apparently you do.”

In the long run, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone did not inspire me to do any of the things my parents feared: become a prostitute or birth a child out of wedlock, become a drug addict or even an actress. To their relief, I got married and had children. Yet Madonna’s physical bravado was an early spiritual mother and, in having to repeatedly defend everything she symbolized, I gradually became a person able to see nuance, as well as a person who knew her own mind and spoke it no matter what.

Over the years, Madonna’s presence in my daily life has waned. Her pure, unadulterated, raw sexual liberation served as a guide through my teenage wilderness. She was a soul mate that gave me the first taste of what it means to be a sexually confident woman. But beyond being sexy, Madonna was Hope. Hope that sexy girls don’t necessarily die bad deaths. Hope that sexy girls live to tell their tales. Hope that sexy girls are smart girls. Hope that sexy girls can rule the world—and do.

Soniah Kamal headshotSoniah Kamal most recent novel, Unmarriageable, is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee, is shortlisted for the 2020 Townsend Prize for Fiction, a NPR Code Switch and New York Public Library 2019 Summer Reads pick and a People Magazine pick. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the KLF French Fiction Prize and the Townsend Prize for Fiction.Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and ‘We are the Ink’, her keynote address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about the real American Dreams.  Her work is in the New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Georgia Review, Catapult, Normal School, The Bitter Southerner, and more.  twitter & instagram: @soniahkamal