"Virginity is more important to me than life"

The disturbing increase in hymenoplasty surgery among European Muslim women.

Published June 11, 2008 6:54PM (EDT)

"In my culture, not to be a virgin is dirt," says a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent quoted in today's New York Times. "Right now, virginity is more important to me than life." The article, written by Elaine Sciolino and Souad Mekhennet, discusses the increasing popularity among European Muslim women of "hymenoplasty," a surgical procedure that restores a broken hymen, supposedly providing proof of a woman's virginity.

The authors suggest that the procedure's growing prevalence in France is due, in part, to a high-profile case, decided two weeks ago, in which a court granted an annulment of a marriage between two French Muslims after the bride failed to provide proof of her virginity on the marriage bed. Sciolino and Mekhennet highlight the potential women's rights disaster that could follow courts upholding the right of a man to marry a virgin, even if that right is couched in the secular language of a "breach of contract." But they only briefly touch on the reality that a torn or intact hymen has little to do with whether a woman is a virgin. The student quoted above claims that she's undergoing the surgery because she broke her hymen while riding a horse at the age of 10.

As has been well documented, everything from sports to tampons can destroy the fragile hymen. Some women are born without one. It's even possible for a woman to have sex without affecting her hymen. What all this adds up to, as Hanne Blank points out in her book "Virgin: The Untouched History" (to which I contributed some research), is that there's no definitive way to prove a woman's virginity.

This fact seems lost on the men, and their families, who still demand a doctor's note or bloodstained sheet to verify a bride's virginity. Of course, it's still more outrageous that marriages should be contingent on a woman's sexual purity. Unfortunately, this is just another horrible damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. As reprehensible as the procedure itself is, the consequences for a woman who chooses not to submit to it may be even worse -- a 32-year-old small-business owner quoted in the article feared her father would beat her if he found out that she'd had premarital sex.

It's also useless to blame doctors who offer the procedure. "Who am I to judge?" Dr. Marc Abecassis, who performed the hymenoplasty on the student, told the Times. And in case you were starting to indulge feelings of moral superiority, he continues with the chilling revelation, "I have colleagues in the United States whose patients do this as a Valentine’s present to their husbands. What I do is different. This is not for amusement. My patients don't have a choice if they want to find serenity -- and husbands."

UPDATE: Earlier today, I contacted Hanne Blank, author of "Virgin: The Untouched History," to get her take on the Times' hymenoplasty story. Though Blank could not respond by the time this post published, she eventually did, and I thought her reply deserved to be read. Here it is: "Were the real-life stakes not so murderously high, hymenoplasty would very nearly qualify as a sort of bizarre body-mod performance art: the surgical construction of a body part designed to behave in a particular way, entirely for the benefit of an audience. But there are millions of women who can't afford to consider either hymens or hymenoplasty on any terms but those of survival. As a woman, a feminist, and a virginity scholar I condemn the commodification of the hymen and of virginity utterly. But I also acknowledge the virginity Catch-22 faced by so many women in, for example, majority-Muslim cultures, and for women who cannot escape from a culture that would punish or kill them for not being virgins at marriage, I think that hymenoplasty is a literal lifesaver, much in the way that safe accessible medical abortion can be, and for this reason I completely support women in making the medical decisions that are best for them."

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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