04.30.133:30 PM ET

Fake Hymens and Prized Virginity

In Egypt, women must go to great lengths to prove chastity.

"The woman who trusts a man is like a woman who stores water in a sieve." Does this warning resonate with you? Hopefully not. But it certainly does for Shereen El Feki, whose grandmother repeated those words to her as a child and whose book, Sex and the Citadel, is now excerpted in Women’s eNews. In fact, it does for young women all across the Arab world. Ever since the 2009 debate in Egyptian Parliament over simulated hymen imported from China, Arab countries have struggled with the question of surgically manipulated female virginity. Although the Quran doesn’t specifically mandate premarital virginity, such a condition is strongly advocated and encouraged by the community, and it is feared that brides could deceive their husbands with such devices and surgeries.

Because of the value placed on virginity, young women with “deflowered” pasts—resulting from rape, accident, or previous relationships—are flocking to doctors for “hymen repair” surgeries, at the cost of a family’s monthly income and, sometimes, their own safety (vulnerability to generally male doctors). The stigma, though, is cyclical, because the surgery is considered shameful or even, as El Feki notes, “haram.” Fun fact: haram can mean either “forbidden” or “holy site” in the Arabic language. These surgeries manipulate a holy site, and the rhetoric must change to reflect that sanctity.