Recreating Virginity in Iran

This article was published in Guardian, May 12th, 2009.

Many women in Iran opt for hymen repair to satisfy a culture that insists on bridal virginity. Now they have a cleric’s backing. Hymenoplasty, the operation through which a woman’s virginity is restored, is a surprisingly hot topic on Iranian weblogs. Vaginal reconstruction is a popular operation throughout the Middle East and among expatriate Middle Easterners of all religious backgrounds.

The operation itself has been performed for centuries in a culture where girls are expected to be virgin on the wedding night. Traditionally, a groom’s avowal that the young bride was not a virgin could cause great scandal. In 1865 the Jewish Austrian physician Jacob Polak, who worked for the royal court in Iran, reported that some grooms used this tactic to extort a larger dowry from the bride’s family. Resourceful families planned ahead. They took the girl to a midwife before the wedding who testified to her virginity. If the girl had indeed lost her virginity before marriage it was usually due to rape or incest since girls were married at or before puberty and had little chance of socialising with unrelated males. According to Polak, in such situations the girl’s family might “stitch [her hymen] with the help of one of several Iranian surgeons who are experts in such matters”.

A century later, in the 1970s, anthropologist Janet Bauer reported that hymen repair operations remained “one of the most sought-after procedures” among the urban middle classes of Tehran. Now it was no longer just victims of rape or incest who opted for the procedure. Many were disillusioned women abandoned by secret boyfriends or newly employed professional women – secretaries and nurses – who had had affairs with their bosses but realised there was no hope of marrying them. Dr C Pirnazar, a male anesthesiologist who also observed such procedures in Tehran hospitals, reported that when a serious suitor appeared on the horizon, these modern urban women arranged for hymen repair in a private clinic or hospital. They paid for the procedure out of their personal savings or asked the ex-boyfriend to help.

By 1978, opposition from traditional sectors of society (bazaar merchants, clerics, rural and urban poor) to such supposed immoralities helped fuel the Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power with a mandate of purifying society from such sinful behaviours. But 30 years later the operation is more popular than ever.
Hymen repair is now sought by sexually active women in many major cities, women who feel they have a right to sex but are too afraid to openly defy the norms. Many are from the more conservative religious classes. Young women from the religious city of Qom agonise on the internet over what to do. Some hope to marry their current boyfriend or an enlightened suitor who would overlook their non-virginity. But a majority of young men maintain a double standard: They want to date and have intercourse with a woman from their own social class (rather than a prostitute), but they also want to marry a virgin. Others say they are more worried about what family and friends might say. Because of this double standard women wonder if they should tell their fiance about their previous sexual experience and risk having the engagement broken off, or get the operation. Many opt for the latter.

Hymenoplasty today is more sophisticated than the hymen-repair procedure Polak described. The modern operation includes the use of gelatin capsules containing red dye that will rupture during nuptial intercourse, simulating the physical markers of virginal sexual experience.

Iranian feminists are divided on the merits of hymen repair. Some believe it reinforces existing power relations and affirms the patriarchal order. Others, such as Fataneh Farahani, suggest that widespread recourse to hymenoplasty is gradually making it impossible to tell the difference between “real virgins” and “fake virgins”, in the end making virginity meaningless. Men are indeed aware of these tricks, often joking that there are no real virgins left in Tehran and the big cities.

Advocates of the operation have recently received support from an unexpected source. In a society where women can be imprisoned or executed for premarital sex, a high-ranking cleric has come to the defence of hymen repair. Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani (Qom), has issued a fatwa permitting the operation. He has also recognised a woman’s subsequent marriage as legitimate. This means that among followers of Rouhani a man can no longer claim divorce on the grounds that he was duped about his wife’s virginity. It remains to be seen if young Iranian men and their families will gradually give up this sexual hypocrisy now that women have at least one religious leader on their side.

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