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Photography Rim Battal (with G. Belvèze)

Like a virgin? The pain and politics of restitching your hymen


TextGünseli Yalcinkaya

Whether they’ve had sex or not, women from certain backgrounds are still undergoing ‘revirginisation’ surgery to restore their ‘purity’ for their wedding night – despite the violation of their human rights

It’s hard to believe that the hymen, a thin piece of mucosal tissue that partially covers the vaginal opening, has been getting so much airtime recently. It was only a few months ago that rapper T.I. made (unlikely) headlines when he revealed that he takes his 18-year-old daughter to the gynecologist every year to check if her hymen is intact. Earlier this year, the UK health secretary began an investigation into the “dreadful practice” of “virginity repair” surgery, following a report by the Sunday Times, which revealed that there’s at least 22 private clinics across the UK offering hymenoplasty procedures. In short: it’s 2020 and, somehow, men are still trying to control our bodies.

Despite years of research that disproves the myth surrounding the hymen – that it breaks after the first time you’ve had sex – it’s connotations of purity pertain. You can break your hymen horse-riding, or riding a bike, but the social constructs surrounding virginity seem dependent on it staying intact. 

“In Muslim communities, women should be virgins when marrying their husbands. If it’s found that a woman has lost her virginity before marriage, the consequences can be dire,” says Halaleh Taheri, who heads the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation, which supports women refugees or asylum seekers who have experienced gender discrimination and honour-related violence. “Even if a woman is not directly pressured by her family to undergo it, the beliefs that she has been indoctrinated with since childhood, the shame and dishonour that she will bring to her family if they find out she’s no longer a virgin is enough pressure to force herself to resort to this practice, whether she wants to or not.”

Hence “revirginisation” procedures, where women, predominantly from Muslim or Jewish backgrounds, pay upwards of £4000 to restore their hymen to prove they are “pure” on their wedding night. Some of these clinics lure patients with advertisements that promise to “restore your innocence” and “become a virgin again!” While another, which claims to have been practising hymenoplasty since the 90s, says on its website: “We understand that a woman losing her virginity before marriage can cause complications in some cultures and societies hence the desire from some women for hymen repair surgery.” 

What’s problematic, however, is these private clinics capitalising on something immoral – virginity tests have been called “a violation of the human rights of girls and women” by the World Health Organisation. Keen to find out more, I call a clinic for a speculative appointment. The nurse on the phone tells me that the procedure, costing between £3000 and £4000, consists of a 45-minute appointment under local anaesthetic, where the surgeon ‘pulls’ the layers of skin together, before restitching them. Skin-coloured thread is used, which dissolves and falls out within six weeks, and just like that, your hymen is ready to be broken again. “There’s a bit of stinging when the local anaesthetic goes in, but once it’s finished, you can jump off the table and go home,” they explain.

While it’s impossible to know how many hymenoplasties take place a year – most hymen repair operations are done privately in clinics that aren’t required by law to keep a count on numbers – about 9,000 people searched Google for hymenoplasty and related terms in the UK last year. Clinics have seen soaring demand, with one reporting a fourfold increase in inquiries in the past five years, according to the Sunday Times.

“The procedure, costing between £3000 and £4000, consists of a 45-minute appointment under local anaesthetic, where the surgeon ‘pulls’ the layers of skin together, before restitching them. Skin-coloured thread is used, which dissolves and falls out within six weeks, and just like that, your hymen is ready to be broken again”

“Loads of people come from overseas,” says one surgery, “not weekly, but every other month”, while another tells me: “We mainly do a lot of our operations at the weekend on a Saturday and they’ll come in the morning, have the procedure done, and they fly back home in the evening. It’s so common this procedure, very common.” Although many surgeries offer aftercare, “to make sure it’s all done and healing as it should be”, it’s not compulsory, and there are no explicit precautions taken to monitor the patient’s mental health. 

For those on a budget, however, the internet is increasingly, and concerningly, awash with hundreds of “artificial hymen kits” containing fake blood and vaginal tightening pills that can be inserted before sex. UK-based company Zarimon, which has since deleted its website, charged £299 for a kit to “get your virginity back”, according to the BBC, posing itself as a ‘safe’ alternative to hymen repair. “If you have lost your virginity for any reason, such as exercising or due to sexual activities, there is a chance to renew (it),” the website said. Similar kits are sold on Amazon, which has not answered my attempts for comment, and sit around the £50 mark.

But these (many) ‘solutions’ don’t actually address the root of the problem – namely, that women are still regarded as ‘pure’ objects to be desired, rather than as complex, autonomous individuals. “The only reason these practices are in business is because of this backward mentality concerning virginity,” agrees Taheri. Banning these procedures, without educating those most vulnerable, will only push them underground, putting more women at risk.

“Just because a law or ban is in place does not mean that its effects will reach the people who need to hear it most,” she explains. “The problem is that if our government creates a law, smaller communities in this country who are not familiar with the law, only listen to their community leaders who usually only share practises relating to their own faith. The government should recognise this and communicate with these communities, to treat them as equally as they treat English communities, and help them integrate better into this country.”

A more pressing issue, Tahari argues, is banning the practice of virginity tests, which is still legal in the UK and America. “Women are being forced by their families and their fiancé’s families to provide a certificate of virginity from their doctors before their wedding day,” she says. “If we were to help educate our communities and to reverse this belief, then there would be no need for hymen reconstruction. It would go out of business on its own.”

The header image for this piece is taken from Hymen Redefinitions, an independent initiative urging French dictionaries to change their definition of ‘hymen’ so as to not equate it with virginity. You can find out more here.

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