The BBC recently did a program on young Arab women who undergo hymen reconstruction surgery to ensure they bleed (and therefore appear to be virgins) on their wedding nights. The clinic in this report is in Paris, but the surgery is done all over the world including the US. And it is by no means a purely Muslim practice although the Islamic world does an excellent job of drawing the world's attention to its special brand of misogyny. I've written about hymen reconstruction before, and every time another story comes up, I get upset all over again. Here's what one young Lebanese women quoted in the story says about the fallout of her first sexual relationship:
"I was scared my family would find out especially since they didn't approve of my relationship," she says. "I was terrified they might kill me." After seven years in the relationship, her lover's family wanted him to marry someone else. Nada attempted suicide. "I got a bottle of Panadol and a bottle of household chemicals," she says. "I drank them and said, 'That's it'." Nada is now 40, and found out about surgical hymen restoration just six years ago. She married and had two children. Her wedding night was a stressful ordeal. "I didn't sleep that night. I was crying," she says. "I was very scared but he didn't suspect anything."
I guess that counts as a happy ending in this messed-up world, if you have access to a doctor who will perform the surgery and a couple of thousand dollars to spare.
The doctors have sometimes come under fire, accused of profiting off this sexism, but as I've written before, they're also the ones dealing with all those people dragging their daughters or future wives into their offices demanding virginity tests. These doctors know there's no such thing, and usually pronounce in favor of the women anyway, as they've been doing for centuries.
Hymens come in different shapes and sizes, and not every woman bleeds the first time she had intercourse, so the whole bloody sheet ritual says absolutely nothing about whether a woman is a virgin, has previously been penetrated by a penis, or any other fact about her, except how sensitive her vaginal tissue happens to be on that day.
Henia Dakkak, a gynecologist and technical advisor to the UNFPA told me that when she had her own practice, women would often come to see her for 'the stitch' as she called it. Whether they had been sexually active or not, they wanted her to put a stitch in their vaginal opening to guarantee they would bleed when it was torn open by penile penetration.
The RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education) distributes a great booklet designed to dispel myths surrounding the hymen and virginity. They take issue with the whole concept of hymen reconstruction (they refer to the hymen as the corona, a term gaining in popularity among sex educators):
Surgery on the vaginal corona rarely solves any problems, firstly because outcomes vary, and secondly because it helps to maintain patriarchal structures and a prejudiced view of women and their sexuality...it is not possible to sew a membrane in place, to recreate something that never existed. Doctors say it’s like “stitching butter” because the tissue is soft and elastic.
In an NPR report, Egyptian author Amy Mowafi talks astutely about her own issues with re-virginization. She's referring to an artificial virginity device, but it can easily apply to surgery as well:
"The problem with a device like this is it makes it too easy for the woman to play by the rules of society instead of standing up and saying, 'No, you need to understand that I am a good person. And it should not all come down to this issue of a hymen...'
"As an Arab — an independent Arab woman — you can break as many glass ceilings as you like. But you can never break your hymen."
Arab writer and social commentator, Sana Al Khayat tells the BBC it's about control:
"If she's a virgin, she doesn't have any way of comparing [her husband to other men]. If she's been with other men, then she has experience. Having experience makes women stronger."
Like I said up top, this is not about Muslims or Arabs. You don't have to go halfway around the world, to another culture and religion, to see that dynamic in action.