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Breaking Up with the Cultural Baggage of the Hymen

Breaking Up with the Cultural Baggage of the Hymen

By Hafsa Lodi

“In some cultures, what makes a woman a desirable bride is not her exceptional talents, good looks, intelligence, family connections or pleasant personality; instead, it is an intact hymen,” writes Iranian author Faegheh Shirazi in her book, Velvet Jihad: Muslim Women’s Quiet Resistance to Islamic Fundamentalism.

For a thin, hidden membrane in a woman’s body, the hymen carries quite a bit of cultural baggage. It’s often mistakenly used as the marker of a woman’s virginity, even though our hymens can break from physical activities besides sex – like biking, swimming and horseback riding. Some women are even born without hymens. Nonetheless, patriarchal cultures in the East often place undue emphasis on the intact hymen of a new bride – so much that women may feel compelled to resort to surgery to “reconstruct” their hymens, perhaps to hide the fact that they were sexually active before marriage, or were secretly married before. 

The Obsession with Female Virginity

As a patriarchal custom that has been inherited over generations, bleeding on the wedding night is expected of chaste brides. Oftentimes, those who don’t bleed are looked at with skepticism by their husbands and new in-laws – even though research shows that between 40 and 50 percent of women don’t bleed upon losing their virginity. 

Eager to avoid this scrutiny, which in severe cases can result in punishment or abandonment, some women who have been previously sexually active, opt to become “artificial virgins” – a term used by Shirazi for those brides who opt for hymenoplasty or reconstructive hymen surgery. In this procedure, a doctor will stitch a gelatin capsule filled with a substance that mimics blood, into the patient’s vagina. During intercourse, it will burst, making it look like a loss of virginity. “With this surgery, women can overcome social taboos and the obsession with female virginity. It makes them marriageable and allows them to avoid shame, dishonor and gossip,” writes Shirazi. 

A Daily Mail report from 2010 revealed that clinics in the UK were witnessing a significant increase in hymenoplasty surgeries, with “a huge surge in demand for the procedure from Muslim women paying up to £4,000.” And, a 2013 study by the American University of Beirut revealed that the demand for “virginity restoration” is on the rise in the Middle East, too. According to Shirazi, who interviewed numerous doctors in the United States, most patients of this procedure are of Middle Eastern descent, and many are Muslim. 

A Socially-Constructed (Not A Muslim) Standard

The cultural pressures that might drive women to resorting to hymenoplasties however, are socially-constructed, and have no basis in Islam – the religion that many of these cultural groups identify with. “We need to be super clear that there’s nothing ‘Islamic’ about the hymen,” explains Muslim sexual health educator, Sameera Qureshi. “Our virginity and ‘honor’ are not concepts spoken about in this way,” she says, adding that Muslim communities aren’t the only ones that adopt these patriarchal attitudes, but that they’re present in conservative Christian communities too.

Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a gynecologist and past president of the Muslim Women’s League based in LA, previously stated to Women eNews: “While Islam requires that both men and women be chaste before marriage, it doesn’t require women to prove it. The need for surgery is because of the culture in some countries. Those same cultures do not require a man to prove his chasteness.” 

Sadly, women are all too accustomed to experiencing these sorts of double standards in patriarchal communities, where the onus of modesty and honor are placed squarely on them, while males are free to do as they please without any repercussions. 

The "Why" Behind Hymen Reconstruction Surgery

The cultural hysteria surrounding the hymen has been blown out of proportion if women are resorting to invasive procedures out of fear that they may face retaliation from husbands or in-laws. While some women may opt for similar surgeries out of their own choices – for example, to improve their sex lives after giving birth – those who turn to them because they fear the safety and security of lives are stripped of their agency while succumbing to archaic societal pressures.

In January 2022, the UK government introduced a law that would criminalize hymen reconstruction surgeries and virginity testing, making any such procedures illegal. Ironically, banning these procedures or making them less accessible won’t help the situation. In some cases, the doctors performing hymenoplasties are saving their patients’ lives, marriages or reputations. The underlying assumptions about hymens, virginity and purity are what need to be deconstructed in order for us to start seeing changes in social attitudes. Numerous scientific studies and initiatives have deemed the link between the hymen and virginity to be a “myth” – now it’s time to tackle these culturally-engrained prejudices by generating awareness from the ground-up, within our own families and cultural communities. 

We can start by de-prioritizing the notion of virginity, emphasizing a woman’s right to her past and privacy, and educating the males in our communities to value the character and compassion of their brides, over an invisible, somewhat-mythical membrane that carries inordinate importance. 

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