The Dilemma of 'Virginity' Restoration

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Ed Alcock / The New York Times

Dr. Marc Abecassis, who does two to four hymen restorations a week, speaks with a patient in Paris, France.

Once lost, virginity can never be replaced — but modern medicine now offers women a near-perfect physical simulation of their lost innocence. Hymenoplasty, the surgical reconstruction of the hymen broken during a women's first experience of intercourse, or, increasingly, during demanding exercise or as a result of a collision or fall by women who've never had sex, has prompted a growing number of young betrothed women in France to make a last-ditch attempt to avoid the humiliation, repudiation, and possibly violence that could result from husbands and families discovering from blood-free bridal sheets that their wedding night had not been their first sexual experience.

Hymenoplasty has generated renewed attention here in the wake of a court ruling last month in the northern city of Lille, which annulled a marriage on the basis of a husband's complaint that his wife had falsely promised that she was a virgin — a confession he obtained after furiously waving the new couple's spotless bedclothes before still-celebrating wedding guests. Though the decision made no mention of religion, the fact that the couple were Muslim sparked complaints that France's strictly secular state is being undermined by traditional Arab cultural strictures. The court ruling also infuriated feminists, who saw its acceptance of prior sexual experience as grounds for annulment as tantamount to treating marriage as the equivalent of a commercial transaction in which the buyer had discovered a hidden flaw in his purchase. Many Muslim leaders were also outraged, insisting that Islam does not demand virginity as a precondition for marriage, and claimed that the ruling belied the judge's archaic misunderstanding of the faith and its tenets.

Though an appeal by France's Justice Ministry resulted in the Lille ruling being overturned, the storm it provoked has focused media attention on young Muslim women who turn to hymenoplasty to avoid the fate of the repudiated Lille bride. News reports have featured traumatized patients discussing the reaction they'd have faced on their wedding night or following virginity examinations frequently required prior to traditional marriages. Some admit they've paid as much as $5,250 to have their hymens reconstituted in private French clinics; others go to cities in Tunisia, Algeria, or Morocco, where the procedure is even more common, and costs as little as $300. Though the number of Muslim women in the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and France undergoing the procedure is unknown, there's a consensus among doctors that hymenoplasty is increasingly common. Ironically, as some commentators note, the increase in the procedure reflects the growing emancipation of women from tradition-rooted communities, but also the ongoing male oppression signified by the obsession with female virginity.

"French Muslim women are increasingly defying the restrictions and repression men try to enforce, and leading full, modern lives — including sexually," says Dounia Bouzar, whose recent book Allah, My Boss, and Me explores Islam in the French workplace. "The one time they feel obliged to make a concession to outdated attitudes is with the marital requirement of virginity — a purely macho tradition that has no basis in Islam, and is certainly nothing courts should be respecting. This surgery is unfortunate, though it is a way for women who have insisted on living their own lives to avoid punishment under a backward custom."

Even then, there's plenty of anguish and surrender involved. Doctor Stephane Saint-Leger, head of the Children and Women's Ward at the Robert Ballanger Hospital in the ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, agrees the social and sexual differences between young Muslim and non-Muslim women in France are shrinking — including a trend of marrying later in life. That trend has generally reduced the likelihood of women of any faith marrying as virgins. But Saint-Leger says the pressure and intimidation evoked by the Muslim women who come to him for help as their traditional weddings loom frequently threaten their physical and psychological well-being. For that reason, he says, he often agrees to perform hymenoplasties, even though it's the kind of indirectly coerced act he considers ethically objectionable.

"They represent young Muslim women surrendering to unnecessary medical intervention due to unacceptable pressure," Saint-Leger says. "With this, its pressure from the traditional people. But elsewhere, women also surrender to unnecessary medical intervention to change their breasts, noses, lips, or entire face due to unacceptable pressure of the beautiful people."

Though the overturning of the Lille verdict removes the risk non-virgin Muslim brides could find themselves dragged to court on fraud charges by infuriated husbands, the cultural pressures some face remain sufficiently great that many will continue turning to hymenoplasty to restore the semblance of chastity. Many times, however, the ruse may all be for naught: Saint-Leger notes notes that 30% to 40% of both original and reconstructed hymens fail to produce the virginity-confirming bleeding when ruptured by penetration, anyway.