02/22/2011 02:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Inner Virgin Comes Out In Revolution

I look at the face of Tawakkol Karman wrapped in what we in the Spanish-speaking tropics would call a rebozo, and I see a riff on the face of the Virgin of Guadalupe, she who adorned the banners of the Mexican Revolution 200 years ago. That Virgin image has a tendency to crop up where repressed people begin publicly expressing the innate longing to be something more. It happened in El Salvador and in Poland. It happened in my personal experience. It's not a religious thing, though the iconography can be confusing. It is definitely a matter of human conscience. There is an inborn virgin in every one of us.

The original meaning of the Greek word translated "virgin," had nothing to do with a physiological condition. A virgin was someone who was defined by no other relationship other than the direct one with the Creator. Perhaps the mantle of "virgin" was more easily assumed by women, because the human relationships a woman experienced usually had her in the subordinate role. "Sacrificing" the role of wife, mother, sister or lover to a direct relationship with the divine, the woman would not be relinquishing authority but gaining it. It was because of this authority that in myth and history, virgins were given charge over sacred places.

It's evident that Tawakkol Karman, wife and mother of three, member of a large upper-middle class family, and daughter of a prominent father with a history of political opposition does not literally meet the criteria of this kind of virgin. But through her revolutionary activities, Karman is not defining herself in those terms. She is re-defining herself through social media, as many of us are. In this process she is responding to something higher: the consciousness of a divine order superior to the messy and oppressive human scene. As Vaclev Havel noted in his address to the U.S. Congress in 1990, "Consciousness precedes Being." In the midst of the upheaval that swept Eastern Europe in the late 80s and 90s, he explained what motivated him to accept the presidency of the fledgling Czech Republic.

We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions if they are to be moral is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged. The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience. If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, I can't go far wrong. If on the contrary I were not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with 2,000 of the best political scientists in the world could help me.

Perhaps the Virgin image present in the Czech revolution was Havel himself. Drawing on the inspiration of Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson he defined the ideal that brought Eastern Europe through a revolution every bit as world changing as what we are presently witnessing throughout the Mideast. Like them, he stepped away from the comfort of intellectual pursuits and said, "yes" to a higher calling. That surrender of self-interest to a pure transcendent principle brings a whole new meaning to the term "immaculate conception" -- one that's not gender-specific. The individual and collective yearning to be self-governed, intact, whole, un-invaded and unbroken indicates the innate virginity in everyone, male or female.

It is coincidental, perhaps, that Tawakkol Karman looks the part of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The hajib, after all, is a precursor to the rebozo, carried from a Moorish-influenced Spain to the shores of the "new" world. It is surmised that the very name Guadalupe has its origins in the Arabic wadi lupe, that is, an arroyo of dark sand. But in whatever hemisphere, when the Virgin spirit stirs, either in the heart of an individual or of a national community, change is inevitable. The process may be painful and inspiring at the same time. That's the nature of giving birth. And like any birth, "virgin" or otherwise, there is no going back.