Terrified to be Penetrated: Deconstructing Virginity
“In Islam, sex is forbidden for both women and men before marriage. But the male does not have a [physical] virginity to lose,” reflects Henda Afaiedh, a specialist obstetrician gynecologist who performs hymen reconstruction surgery.
Sitting behind her large wooden consultation desk, Afaiedh wore a headscarf. She has been working as a gynecologist for nearly eighteen years, and owns a medical practice in downtown Tunis.
Afaiedh explained that some Tunisian doctors refuse to perform hymen reconstruction surgery.
“Many people say it is allowed [in Islam], and some say it is not. I think it is. I perform it [the operation], and I am a practicing Muslim. There is no reason for the girl alone to take responsibility for the loss of her virginity.”
According to Afaiedh, girls coming to check if they are still virgins represent thirty percent of her consultations. Out of this number, about ten percent are not, and these unconditionally ask for hymen repair. The others, on the other hand, all ask for virginity certificates, according to Afaiedh.
Tunisia is a medical tourism destination for several types of surgery and medical work, and hymen reconstruction is one of them.
Linda Briggs, an independent cosmetic surgery adviser based in Great Britain, has been working with Tunisian doctors since 2005. Briggs explained that the medical standards in Tunisia are very good, resembling those of the French system. Briggs works as an intermediary between patients seeking affordable surgery, and doctors who can provide it to them.
“Hymen reconstruction has come about as a necessity for Arab women,” Briggs explained. She said about five percent of her clients are looking for gynecology, and that women most commonly seek vagina tightening, labiaplasty, and then hymen repair. Over a one-year period, Briggs organizes approximately twenty to twenty-five hymen repair surgeries.
Briggs explained that her clients were usually Arab women living in the United Kingdom or outside of the Arab world, as well as women from countries like the Emirates, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon- where the operation is not always easily accessible, or is more expensive than in Tunisia, for instance. She said the “rich Arab women” simply go to Harley Street in London, renowned for its many private clinics, to get the surgery done. However, going to Tunisia is a more affordable alternative for many.
According to Briggs, it is usually Arab women who want hymen reconstruction, while Europeans seek out vaginoplasty or labiaplasty. When it comes to hymen repair, Briggs’ services don’t appeal exclusively to Arab women. In fact, she cited one case of a Chinese woman who had the surgery done about three times. Briggs eventually found out that the woman in question had been selling her virginity on eBay. Gynecologist Afaeidh said her patients are predominantly Tunisian, and that she has an average of three to four foreigners – usually Algerian and Libyan – for dozens of Tunisians.
In Tunisian tradition, methods other than hymen repair exist to fake virginity.
Sociologist, feminist writer, and former Tunisian minister of women’s affairs Lilia Laabidi explains how in some places, women used to insert a mixture made of camel hair, powdered “dem lakhwa,” alum, and pomegranate rind into their vaginas. The mixture tightens the labia, triggering a flow of reddish liquid upon intercourse.
Religious Origins, Social and Cultural Taboos
In Tunisia, there is a societal and cultural taboo surrounding virginity. There is a huge social pressure for women, regardless of their level of religiosity, to be virgins when they get married. “The Arab man, the Muslim man, regardless of his intellectual level, his life, he can allow himself to have sex, and girlfriends, but when he decides to get married, he prefers that the girl be a virgin,” said gynecologist Afaiedh.
Nora Ahmed, (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), a Tunisian who grew up in the Gulf, echoed this thought, saying that, “there is definitely this idea of a woman you would marry and one you would date…if a guy is dating a girl, he will most probably not marry her.” She further explained that, as opposed to donning the veil, which is a decision made out of faith, women don’t even have the choice to decide whether or not they are going to have pre-marital sex.
In Tunisian and other Arab cultures, a woman’s virginity is intricately linked to her worth and morality. Laabidi describes the woman’s sex as a “taboo object,” that carries names such as “nefsuha” and “ruhuha” – in English, “her soul,” “her spirit.”
In her book “Çabra Hachma: Sexuality and Tradition,” Laabidi explains that virginity is a “seal of family honor.” “The hymen, a symbol of the body’s integrity, is also the witness of the girl’s morality. Virginity is for the family, a seal of honor,” she says. If broken, it exposes the girl to shame and dishonor, according to Laabidi.
Afaiedh explained that social pressure to be a virgin at marriage was a central reason for women coming to her.
“I also perform it [hymen reconstruction surgery] because virginity has never been a criterion to say if a girl is ‘good’ or not. I know some girls have done things other than vaginal intercourse, when sometimes it takes just one time, and a girl is no longer a virgin…I tell myself that anyone can make a mistake.”
Ahmed expressed concern in this same matter. “It is dangerous for other people – men, family, friends – not to judge you, but to give you moral value based on whether or not you’re a virgin…It oversimplifies it.” Reflecting on this, Ahmed said ironically,
“For men, losing that extra piece of skin [circumcision] makes you more pure, but for women, it is keeping it.”
Speaking of older traditions, Laabidi describes the nuptial night as a “challenge for masculine virility … an intimate event and a public sacrifice where old and young witnessed and evaluated the man’s sexual performance, his virility and the virginity of the girl, recognizing the couple’s access to the community.” Ahmed explained how in times past, the white sheets were hung as a flag above the house of the newly-wedded woman’s father, stained with her blood.
Briggs agreed that the taboo is cultural, and the pressure on girls is largely social. “I come to Tunisia five to six times a year. It is a bit taboo… It is not so much religious as a cultural thing. It is expected of them that they [women] need to be virgins when then marry. It has all sorts of implications for their married life, and how they will be treated when they get found out,” said Briggs. A woman’s virginity status also affects who she is able to marry, according to Briggs. “Arab girls are always doing it because it gives them social standing with their husbands, otherwise they would have to marry downwards,” she said.
We repair virginity
Afaiedh underlined the very same reasons when she explained why she, as a practicing Muslim, chose to perform hymen reconstruction surgery.
“We repair virginity so that this girl can forget this accident, this experience that she has lived, and can begin a marital life with confidence. Because she cannot find her place in marital life [if she is not a virgin.] Even if certain men accept it, I think it is something that can come out later in her life that can create problems. I do it out of respect for this person who wants to begin marital life like any girl who is a virgin.”
Afaiedh usually charges between 200 and 300 dinars but sometimes performs the surgery for free, when she sees that a girl is in a desperate situation and does not have the means to pay for it. On the other hand, she said she also occasionally charges more when she knows, for example, that a woman has already had the operation done before. Because the price of hymen reconstruction is not codified by the Conseil de l’Ordre or the Ministry of Health, the prices can fluctuate for this operation.
“This idea of being a virgin manifests itself in many different ways. Where I come from in Tunisia, you’re not allowed to remove any hair from your body until you get married. You are not supposed to do your eyebrows. Because you’re still a virgin, you’re supposed to be untouched,” explained Ahmed. According to Ahmed, virginity is not a taboo- it’s losing it that is. “It’s not a taboo, it is accepted that everyone should be a virgin. Actually, it should be a taboo. No one should assume. But it’s not, it’s like a given.”
“Being obsessed with someone’s virginity, and linking everything to making sure a girl doesn’t lose her virginity, means you are very sexual,” said Ahmed. “It’s an obsession. It makes girls say stupid things. For example, some girls refuse to be on bicycles, or to stretch, or are scared of water pressure [on showerheads].”
What do you think of tampons?
Ahmed said that it was in the United States that she first saw tampons. “My roommate had them. I was like, that makes perfect sense, that’s genius. I had an American-Tunisian friend, I remember asking her…I messaged her asking, “what do you think of tampons?” She messaged me: “‘This conversation is making me really uncomfortable.’ It’s ridiculous, it’s totally cultural.”
In downtown Tunis, it is difficult to find tampons. At the Monoprix near the French embassy on avenue Bourguiba, you will dismissively be told that “those are not sold here” (sometimes with an added look of disgust), or alternatively, that they do not know what it is you’re asking for. Women must go to the Magasin Général near Bab B’har, only to find a limited display of no-applicator OB tampons. It is common for foreign women traveling in the Middle East to switch to menstrual cups because of the stigma and difficulty attached to buying tampons.
The taboo surrounding sex and losing your virginity also plays out inside the bedroom. “I definitely know girls who have had anal sex not to lose their virginity – both are sex. And in fact, anal sex is not allowed in Islam. If you are willing to do something you are not allowed to do, just to keep your virginity … I have a problem with that, with valuing things that are just physical [the hymen],” said Ahmed. In this vein, Laabidi explained in her book that many Tunisian women experience their first sexual contact as a “perforation.” Likewise, some have reported that men in Tunisia have “straight” anal sex [self-described] with other men before they get married because they cannot sleep with women.
I am a thread and he is a wall
In Tunisia, traditions and rituals have developed around preserving virginity. One of these is called the “Tasfih” – which literally means “binding,” and symbolically protects the virginity of a young girl.
A 34-year-old woman from Zarzis who preferred to remain anonymous described the process.
“I was five or six, and my sister was probably three or four. My mother took us to a lady, from Tataouine originally. I barely remember what happened exactly, I still have some words in my head, the words you repeat. You have to go through the carpet-maker, and say, “I am a wall and he is a thread.” It is supposed to be a protection.”
Before walking through the carpet-maker, she remembered that the woman had made a small incision in the inside of her knee with a razor blade. The woman then collected some blood on a piece of sugar, which the girl had to eat. She explained that before she gets married, she must return to the same woman, who has to undo her “Tasfih” just a few hours before her wedding night. Then, she will say, “I am a thread and he is a wall.” The woman said it was common in the South and in rural areas such as the Sahel and the Northwest, but that it might be less practiced today.
Najet Araari, a student of sociology at Université du 9 Avril specialized in sexual harassment, put it simply: “Virginity is something sacred.”
According to sociologist Lilia Laabidi, there has been a shift in mentalities, whereby defloration and sexuality have little-by-little become a part of the private sphere, moving away from the days of draping newly-wedded brides’ blood-stained sheets above their fathers’ homes.
But still, Laabidi says that Tunisian women remain “terrified to be penetrated.”