Saturday, June 02, 2007

postheadericon Born -Again Virgins

Hymenoplasty: I first heard of this procedure when I lived in the Middle East, but since it was always spoken of in whispers, I thought it was an urban legend. Fast forward to now...several leading newspapers last week reported that hymenoplasty, or restoring a woman's virginity by surgically reattaching the hymen, is fast becoming a phenomenon of sorts among women of Muslim origin in Europe, especially France, Germany, Sweden and indeed other parts of the world, too.

But now the chair of the French College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians is calling for an end to this practice in France. Dr. Jacques Lansac believes there is no place for this kind of surgery in secular French society...he believes that giving in to a procedure like this goes against all that France stands for...equality of women, human rights, religious extremism etc.

But how do we turn our backs on these women who in all likelihood could be killed by their fathers, brothers or husbands (Honor killings) if it is found out that they are not virgins? Aren't doctors morally bound to help these women who could face certain death if they are discovered to be non-virgins?

But I could also make the argument that if we give in to the fundamentalists in this matter, what's to stop them from making more demands as the years go by? What if they want to stop sending their girl children to school, are we to stand by and watch that happen as well?

Apparently, this (having to be a virgin when you get married) has given rise to a very creative alternative...many immigrant Muslim women in Europe are now very keen to marry non-Muslim men who do not care if they are virgins or not. Is fundamentalism pushing young women away from Islam?

Hymenoplasty is not uncommon in the North America, however here women do it for the thrill of appearing virginal again or as a treat for that special someone in their lives. Is that just plain weird? Ok, I do understand vaginal rejuvenation (surgery to tighten one's vagina) because that has certain benefits for the woman as well...but hymenoplasty or even labiaplasty (which surgically reshapes or reduces the external appearance of the vagina, but in doing so one gets rid of skin rich in nerve endings) for that matter escapes my understanding.

Anyway, if you want to weigh in on any of this I'd be pleased to see your comment.


Sanjay said...

Lotus.. Thank you firstly for a very thought provoking post. I am always sure that I learn something new and interesting here. Also you make us, your readers think, which is why we keep coming back to your amazing blog.

Like you so elegantly point out,I am inclined to agree and support the good French doctor, when he says that hymenoplasty goes against the notions of equality.

But like you say ...not turning your back on women who use this surgery for fear of not being virgins is also a valid point.

Personally speaking and this thought may not sit well with some people. I have always believed that virginity is an overrated notion for both men and women. Adults are free and should be empowered to make their own choices.
For those who choose to think otherwise,I certainly respect that, however society should not be involved in something that is deeply personal, and should be a individual choice, esp for the woman to make and more importantly free of religious/fundamentalist pressure.

Also if I am not mistaken, women who may be active in sports have a non intact hymen?

As for Muslim women opting for it in parts of Europe. I guess it is a commentary on the hold a certain flavor of religion has on them? That they cannot step out of its shadow?

If they are marrying non Muslim men for the reason you mention, then I say more power to them. A religion that treats them as second class is then not a religion worth living with is it?

Also because you concede once to a fundamentalist demand does not mean they ever stop, their world view comes from an absolute allegiance to their world view and nothing less. Standing up to them is the only way to do it.

As for women undergoing hymenoplasty for non religious reasons in North America. Maybe I am too jaded so I might say whatever? :) But the cult of self..rules so to say. I am not sure what to think, yes sort of weird but if ppl can afford it they do it?
I can find better use for those dollars though. :)
Labiaplasty.. surprises me too, having it done for medical reasons is valid. But for cosmetic reasons? Maybe ppl have too much money to spend?
But the larger issue is, isn't this
further enforcing more stereotypes about women and their bodies?
I wonder how much role the porn industry and men have in this?
While putting aside the larger issue about the role of porn, I would certainly say one thing this industry has done is it has created stereotypes, especially of women. And maybe this is behind some of the rush for labiaplasty?
I just wish we were accepting of our bodies and took more care of them by eating right , rather than resorting to cosmetic enhancements such as these.
Sort of like those ads that promise you a fair complexion but don't do much? These are something similar but more insidious?
Again a very thought provoking post , one that I enjoyed reading it.

Lisa Francisco aka AVIANA said...


I would write a long post but today I simply can't. I see what you are saying. Fundametalism is pushing the women away from the muslim life. It is simply not adjustint to today's society. Imagine have the life standards of the 1800s put in place in this time point or even the 1950s-60s American in 2007 America. It wouldn't fly.

Anyhow, time will tell if the religion will evolve. I strongly believe that religion should be a choice. Even though you have a child, I don't believe you should enforce you religion on them. I think you should make them aware of all religions. Maybe you can tell that what you prefer because it is inevitable that your own religion will have an effect on the child. But once they reach of age, they should make a choice as to which religion to follow or to not follow any religion.

I think it is simply unfair. They did not ask for this way of life.

Oh well...

thanks for stopping by...

Anonymous said...

i've heard of female circumcision, but really, this is too bizarre. i agree completely with Sanjay in that virginity for both men and women is very over-rated. the only consolation may be there are far, far more non-virgins than there are hymenoplasties in the Muslim community. personally, i won't scoff at a dental overhaul - at least teeth last forever! :D

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Sanjay!

You are welcome and thank you for your words of appreciation!!! This (hymenoplasty) has been in the papers a lot recently that I felt compelled to write about it.

I am sure it is difficult for the medical profession to be absolutely certain what the ethical approach should be in this case. There are doctors like the good French doctor who believe that when a woman comes in for a surgery like this under duress (usually brought in by her father, brother, mother) the red flag must go up and doctors must beware, but then there are those that believe it's either hymenoplasty or her life.

I so agree with you and Nocturne...virginity is overrated. You're absolutely right about sportswomen...and also, why is it OK for men not to be virgins...this darned inequality makes me sick!

And don't even get me started on the porn industry and what it is doing to women's perceptions of their bodies. WOmen rush headlong into these surgeries little realizing the longterm effect some of them can have on their bodies, nor do they realize that the models and porn stars that they admire so much have been airbrushed to look the way they do. When I see the way the cosmetic surgery industry is headed I feel despair. I think it's time men stepped in and reassured their women that they love them as they are.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Lisa!

Interesting you should say this:

"..Imagine have the life standards of the 1800s put in place in this time point or even the 1950s-60s American in 2007 America. It wouldn't fly"

What surveyors are finding is that surgeries like hymenoplasty etc. are on the increase among Muslim women in Europe, so it does appear that although the rest of the world is marching towards the future, some parts of the Muslim world are actually turning back to the dark ages. Frightening, isn't it?

Hi, Nocturne!

Lovely to see you! I want to see more women take a stand against these bizarre practices. What scares me about the French doctor's refusal to do these surgeries is that they might move underground and cause real problems for the women then.

Sanjay said...

@Lotus. Thank you for your response. The ethical/moral dilemma in the case of hymenoplasty is like you say very difficult to resolve.
I suspect someone in the med profession may support it on the grounds of the safety of the women involved, and coupled with reform within the religion (not sure how long this will take) maybe the middle ground to take.

But I completely agree the souble standards here for men v/s women just sucks.

The adult movie industry does create a fantasy world with almost impossible looking men/women, but mostly women. Those lines b/t fantasy and reality often blur for men and that leads to much discord.
Your make a great point, that more men need to assure their women that they are fine the way they are.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again, Sanjay! Wouldn't you love to know what stand Atul Gawande would take on this issue? I love his writings in the NewYorker (thank you to you and *A* for introducing me to them) and I find he is not afraid to speak out against issues when and if he finds them morally and ethically repugnant. I am dying to get my hands on his latest book, "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance", it looks sooo good!

Sanjay said...

Hey there again Lotus!. Your are most welcome! Yes indeed Atul Gawande's opinion would surely be worth hearing about. BTW *A* also wants to get Gawande's "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance". It should be a great read me thinks. :)

Olivia said...

I fail to understand how practices born of ignorance/oppression continue to catch on in the Western world.

And as has been said here, girls can lose the hymen through sports or even vigorous cleaning! And then, some are born without one! Pity the one who is...

You know what? It is all false modesty. Why are these restrictions placed on women when the men are allowed to do as they please? Not fair, not fair at all. Modesty killings, especially in the western world, where a muslim husband can go and mess around with a western woman.

And let me tell you, I have seen it in personals ads - married muslim men looking for a bit of excitement. But if his wife merely smiles at another man she is liable to be punished.

It is as Lisa Francesco says about 19th century standards, and I can think of an example that has never left me since I first read it: in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles when Clare married Tess, they had that confessional talk on their wedding night. He had lived with an older woman when he was in university, and they were lovers. BUT the minute he found out that Tess had been raped - raped, not even consensual - by her employer, he shunned her badly, very badly.

The age old issue: he can, she can't...

Nuff said.

Olivia said...

Correction: I meant honour killings, not modesty killings

Me when i am riled up!

neha vish said...

Thanks for this post. I just think that the dilemma - if there is one - has to be resolved by the woman - and not the doctor. A woman has every right to get a hymen - as much as she has to lose it. The minute the doctors decide in which cases it is "ethical" - you have the same issue of control over women's bodies.

The problem one appears to have of course is that why must a woman be a virgin at all, and why virginity is a virtue or a positive value. But if a woman places a certain value on her hymen - that is her choice. (Empty words though - what about all the pressure on her from her family or other people to BE a virgin.)

In a way - I think it is positive - because it makes a hymen so much less valued. Because if you can buy it in a clinic, it no longer has that sanctity to it. Eventually, we'll be unable to tell the difference between a hymen and a "re-hymen". Hopefully. :)

Barb said...

There is little choice for those women living under Sharia Law. The Islamic clergy contolled governments of those countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia) do not count women as "second class." They do not count them as any class at all; for the most part, they are less valuable than livestock. It is no wonder that they are terrified to be found less than "pure.

It is infuriating that some of these governments are also some of our govenrment's best allies.

Maryam in Marrakesh said...

So depressing. What lengths women must go to for a tiny piece of skin. ~sigh.

Chimera said...

i tend to agree with Neha that a woman has to have complete control on her body so the decision that way entirely depends on the women.
having said that I am also trying to think as to why do these women want to do it?
The very fact that they are going in for this type of surgery suggests that they might end up with someone who 'tests' and they want to give him the assurance that it is indeed intact - common they need to wake up and put their foot down.History has shown that wars were fought whenever people were oppressed, so it is high time they fight against this kind of ultra-chavunistic society.

hellomelissa said...

what a great post, lotus.

my hymen was broken by a particularly nasty fall on a mean piece of jungle-gym equipment when i was 6. where would this have left me as an adult female in certain parts of the world?

it's scary, isn't it? an accident could have ruined my entire life, and i'd be like these women... desperate for this procedure.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ Let me know if you do get the book and what you think of it. He (Gawande) was on Radio Australia the other day (I think the program is called "Background Briefing") I could send you the link if you like!

Lotus Reads said...

@Olivia ~ Yes, it is bizarre how these primal traditions raise their ugly heads in the 21st century. I guess this is, in a way, a cause of globalisation to some extent. What was strictly an Arabic tribal custom has now found its way into mainstream society because of the migrants from those areas that practice these customs and traditions.

Yes, and this inequality towards women is so frustrating, but do you know that very often mothers will bring their daughters in for a hymenoplasty? Are women enablers of these bizarre customs (I'm also thinking of female circumcision here), ofcourse!!! We've got to stop enabling the process, only then things can change.

Lotus Reads said...

@Neha ~ I quite agree with you...this should be a woman's decision, after all, it is her body and she should, as you say, have control over it, but, in the case of hymenoplasty's, especially amongst women of Arab origin in the Europe, they (the women) are not coming there voluntarily, but under,the big question, does the doctor enable this bizarre tradition (and the Fundamentalists) by performing the hymenoplasty or does he refuse to do it...which choice is going to cause the woman less pain???

Ofcourse, if he refuses to do it, this will probably go underground causing still more suffering to the woman.

And yes, there is the question of whether re-attaching the hymen is starting the marriage off on a deceptive note?

Lotus Reads said...

@Barb ~ Thank you for the visit, you said it so well with the last line! Sharia law sends a shiver through me, I'm sure it has some good points,but I don't know how any woman can agree to be tried by a law that is obviously so biased towards men, arrggggh!

@Maryam ~ What happened to those days when women (non-virgins) would cheat, by stuffing a goat's liver or some other bloody organ into their vaginas? Surely, with the world having gone high tech we can do better than that today? If I could think of a tiny little gadget that would enable a woman to bleed on her wedding night so that the mother-in-law can hold up the bedsheet for all and sundry to note her daughter-in-law is a virgin, I would!!! SUrely there must be an easier way than hymenoplasty?

ML said...

I have never heard of this procedure/practice until today. Wow, it never ceases to amaze me how people focus on things that are, in my opinion, so damn unimportant. Really, there are other more serious things out there to worry about - disease, starvation, poverty...

ML said...

By the way, Lotus, thanks for posting about this subject. Brilliant.

Sanjay said...

@Lotus.. I will tell you about the book when we get it. And I would love it if you could please send me the link to the Gawande interview on Radio Australia! Thank you. :)

Sai said...

First of all an intact hymen does not necessarily translate as having had sex. Women in active sports or even those bicycling can lose their "virginity."

Removing parts of labia or even clitoris (female circumcision) is a practice in certain parts of the middle-east like Saudi Arabia and certain parts of Africa like Egypt, Sudan and others. It is such a heinous practice.

I don't necessarily agree with the French doctor as their stand of secularism is not necessarily universal like India....where it interprets as everyone has a right to practice their own faith. Yet I do not condone this practice of "reattaching" the hymen. I don't even want to touch on the topic of these so called "honor" killings and think they are so barbaric.

Adults should have the freedom to choose but unfortunately they have to resort to such practices in order to conform. It takes a lot to stand up to forces that are so regressive and violent.

I think I better stop now as I have ranted enough!

Beenzzz said...

This whole concept disturbs me to now end. Why are women so scrutinized? The hymen can break at anytime in a woman's life, not just through sex. This is awful!

Lotus Reads said...

@Melissa ~ 'Tis true, this custom seems to make no provision for hymens broken due to sport injuries!

@ml ~ True, their priorities do seem so warped!

@Sanjay ~ Have mailed you the Gawande link...enjoy! :)

@Sai ~ Nice to have you back, have missed you! Female circumcision is barbaric, but who are the biggest proponents of the practice? Women!
Honestly, I don't know what the solution to hymenoplasty is...unless we can change the mindset of both, the men and the women who believe in this antiquated. tribal custom, I'm afraid people will continue to have them.

beenzzz~ Women are considered the second sex in many societies...I am sure even here, in North America, women are not always paid as highly as men doing the same job. In some highly repressive cultures, women are little more than a "thing" to be pushed around at will. It's sad!

Sanjay said...

@Lotus.. Thank you so much for the Gawande link :)

Rauf said...

Been traveling a lot Lotus, please forgive me for not visiting earlier.

i am frustrated Lotus. Been fighting a lot, not with men but with women. i hold them responsible for being submissive. They want it. None of the men i know insist on their wives and daughters wearing the hijaab. My cousin nearly squeezed my throat for my views on religion and freedom of women. They don't want it. My niece stopped talking to me when i objected to her wearing the hijaab for three days ... then there were hugs and tears. Her brother and dad were against it too, but she insisted. Sense prevailed when she got a big job in a bank. now she is back to normal. My cousin is gorgeous, her husband wants to show off, wants to take her out. But No she wouldn't take it, it nearly came to divorce. She preferred to stick to her Hijaab than to her husband.

J at said...

I've never heard of this surgery. The idea behind it, that women need to be virgins in order to have honor, is so disturbing to me, I don't even know what to say. Because there is no test for men, because who cares if a man is a virgin...ugh. At some level it is about control, but I think it's also rooted in the fact that women get pregnant, and men don't. So if a woman isn't a virgin, how would a man know 100% for sure that the children she bears are his? Of course, no man can ever know that 100%, because after they're married, she might have an affair, etc. But I suspect that way back, that's where the idea comes from. Ugh.

iamyuva said...

Iam pro-choice.. any action for self (with no harm for others) then no worries.. atleast for me.

i remember when Reuters first reported story about women in france regain virginity-- interviewed many women & common explanation were:

* wanted to reconstruct part of my life, to reconstruct myself so that I could feel better about myself and now my choice of marriage is wide

* i was too young when first had sex experience and I didn’t even realize what had happened. so want to revert if i can.

* I don’t want to disappoint my fiance. I wouldn’t have had the surgery if I hadn’t met him.

thatz sounds fair enough for me.. since its self-driven. (/and its is truely pro-choice bez no muslim man would suggest this to a women))

Amit said...

Aha. So that's how they promise 72 virgins in paradise!!

Kristie said...

Hi Lotus!
I am an aspiring anthropologist as well! I'm only finishing my second year in college, but my very first course was taken during my 11th grade year in high school and it was Cultural Anthropology. One of the topics we studied back then was similar to the story you have found. Except what we read was FGM/FGC, or Female Genital Mutilation/Female Genital Cutting. These young girls in areas of the world with high Muslim populations are subjected to painful initiation rituals at anytime between three years old and at the onset of puberty (depending on the region) which remove any sensational tissue of the genitals, in order to preserve purity and, after marriage, fidelity. The Sunna Circumcision (taught by the prophet Muhammad), Clitoridectomy, and the drastic Infibulation/Pharaonic Circumcision are all types of FGM and are practiced all over Africa parallel to the equator: Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, Nigeria, Djibouti, and also in Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The conditions under which these surgeries are performed are almost never sanitary. They are done by midwives, who often use tools such as scissors or shards of glass and rarely sanitize them between girls. It is almost unheard of to use antiseptics or anesthesia. Results of these procedures are physiological, and psychological. For one thing, it rapidly spreads AIDS. Many times, the girls can die from shock, hemorrhage or septicemia. Other times they experience frequent urinary infections, genital malformation, and become sexually frigid to say the least.

It disgusts me that they are subjected to such a procedure all in the name of sexual cleanliness and family purity. These women and girls are obviously treated as no more than property, and little has been done to end the practices. Some places like Ghana and Kenya have done away with the rituals, and instead they go through the other rites of passage without any type of bodily harm. And the only way to really eradicate the practice is through Anthropologists and other grassroots efforts, since most countries who do FGM do not report it as it is socially acceptable.

I would encourage you to read about it more as I can only explain using the notes I have kept and the knowlege I have retained, whereas the internet is full of resources.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Kristie and welcome!

Thank you so much for your insights and information on this topic! It's wonderful to meet a "real" anthropologist, I'm just a wannabe ( I actually majored in the Life Sciences with Immuno-genetics as a major).

You're right, I haven't been blogging on here for a long time now...I hadn't realized that July would make a year. I'd love to get back to it at some point but things are incredibly hectic at the moment and I don't always find the time to read nice,cultural articles,leave alone blog about them.

But it's so great to have a visit from you. I tried returning the visit but I guess you're not blogging yet?

Let me know if you are, would love to read what you have say.

Always On Watch said...

The West has spent centuries getting beyond the barbaric practice of displaying bloody sheets after wedding night. And now the practice is being reintroduced into the West because of Moslem immigration? Steps backwards, to say the least.

Lana said...

Speaking from an insider who lives this everyday of her life i must say it is very very difficult to say the least. I am annoyed that this thread does not have comments from women who live this as i do. it creates an element of frustration and anger to have women who dont have any idea about the true complexity of this issue, who have read 2 or 3 google articles or a book or too make deeply personal comments about this issue, how girls should react and proceed.

Yes, this issue is BARBARIC, SICK, DISGUSTING, HORRID, HEARTBREAKING. all of these effects are already know and proven. However the question is why this issue has not taken greater prominance in the socilogy/anthropology domain. Why isnt there as big an outcry over the horrors imposed on girls because of virginity. its easy to express outrage and anger on behalf of these girls, and yet entirely different to live it every single misrable day of their lives.

I come from the middle east and live in an 'enlightend' , HIGHLY educated family in the west, yet sex is totally and utterly forbidon and under no circumstance allowed. Even though i live in the west i still know VERY well what the consequences will be if i was to actually have pre-marital sex. Maybe i am a coward but the physical, psychological and emotional abuse that occurs on so many levels leads me to take the course of least resistance to simply survive; and this is me, and educated young women in the west, i can only imagine what the memebers of my sex in the Middle East experince everyday.

Women do endorse and continue this process but in the majority of the cases it is because they, just like thier daughters are under threat, scrutiny and pressure to ensure thier daughters remain 'pure'. Otherwise it is pure ignorance, lack of education and blind adherance to tradition. But the consequences of punishment also stretches to the mothers as well, who are often left out of such discussions. they can in my openion and personal experince be just as controlling of thier daughters bodies out of deep and genuine love and concern because the consequences are evident and clear to everyone.

I think this is really an area that is little explored and esp. its emotional and psychological effect on girls. To live and grow up in the west and still live like this is so much more, in some ways, difficult then to live in the M.E.

I think that Drs need to continue this process because often this is a case of life and death. Some women will never have sex and some do so, but should they be punished for being brave and taking control of thier bodies and deciding when and with whom such a deeply personal experience occurs? the reality is they do take chances but at the end of the day they must return home to thier fathers homes and eventually be married off to somone within their culture with the same views as thier fathers, brothers etc. This seems to be the only way that they can take some control then LET them!

Also somone stated that these women need to challage thier culture etc. i find that very very arrogant and ignorant. This issue isnt somthing that is just generally floating around in muslim families. In the majority of the cases the need for a daughter to remain pure is reiterated and emphesised EVERYDAY! i know mothers who 'check' thier daughters regularly to ensure they are still virgins. How can a young girl ever begin to understand or even to know where to begin to challange such practices and customs. But then again it is not your life (western womens) who is in danger. Remember also, for every open minded male in the family there are plenty of brothers, uncles or male cousins who are willing to enforce the family honor. This is a very very complex issue and will not and cannot be solved in a thread or for decades to come. It will just as it has in the west, take centuries to eradicate, which is sad for me and many other generations of women to come.

I dont think any of you could possibly understand what it is like to have your body severly controlled, degraded, abused in this way. esp when you see the relatively massive freedom that the males in the family enjoy or other women.

I dont mean to sound condecending but you need to live it to trully be able to speak about it but i hope to god non on you is ever misfortunate enough.

Lotus Reads said...

Lana, I do appreciate your comment and thank you for giving us a glimpse into what it is like for someone who lives the kind of life most of us only read about in the newspapers or listen to on the radio.

Having lived in the Middle East for many years and also hailing from a South-Asian family has made me very aware of the emphasis that certain families put on family honor and it does seem to me that the whole responsibility for family honor rests on the chastity of the females in the family. Unfair or not, it is the way it is and I think more help, in the form of counseling, aid, protection etc. need to be made available to young women that have to escape such a controlled environment.

I have just one question for you Lana...when you have your own kids and if you happen to have to girls, would you enforce these strict rules on them as well?

Thank you for writing in...when I see comments like yours it makes me want to update my blog, something I haven't done in quite a while.

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jamesreegan said...

Correction: I meant honour killings, not modesty killings

smita sharma said...

Hymenoplasty , also called revirgination, hymen repair or hymenorrhaphy, is a cosmetic surgery conducted to repair or rebuilt a hymen. The two most common types of procedure used in Hymenoplasty is simple Hymenoplasty or Alloplant.