The eyes of Nawal, a 25-year-old veiled woman, shined with joy once she stepped out of the gynecological clinic. “I am a virgin,” Nawal whispered in her mother’s ear, letting out sighs of relief while thanking God.

Before she saw the doctor, Nawal was watching the clock as if she had had a date with fate. She said nothing and looked all around as if she had been concealing something.

The eyes of Nawal, a 25-year-old veiled woman, shined with joy once she stepped out of the gynecological clinic. “I am a virgin,” Nawal whispered in her mother’s ear, letting out sighs of relief while thanking God.

Before she saw the doctor, Nawal was watching the clock as if she had had a date with fate. She said nothing and looked all around as if she had been concealing something.

“I was so scared after I fell down from a ladder and noticed some blood. I could not sleep and I only had the guts to tell my mother. But now I have discovered that I am still a virgin,” said Nawal with great relief after she saw the doctor.

Family Pride

Most Tunisian families traditionally stipulate that their daughters remain virgins until they get married and that their sons only marry virgins. This mentality has made a large number of girls of different convictions undergo surgery to reconstruct a virginity they have lost for one reason or another.

Virginity in Muslim countries represents one feature of women’s chastity. And great problems arise if a bride is found not to be a virgin, even in case of “accidents.”

“Should I had discovered the opposite, no one would have believed that I lost my virginity when I fell down from a ladder,” Nawal said.

In 2012, Ceres Publishing House issued a book entitled ‘Virgins? Tunisian Women’s New Sexual Life’ by Tunisian psychologist Nadra Ben Ismael, in which Ben Ismael says the actual rate of real virgins in post-revolutionary Tunisia is estimated at only 20% while 75% of women are virgins with medical assistance.

She explains that doctors say 50% of women undergoing hymenorrhaphy—or hymen repair surgery— are veiled.

Chastity fraud

Muhammad, a 55-year-old café owner believes that the only reason for losing virginity is through sexual intercourse.  “I do not accept flimsy excuses which claim that virginity can be lost as a result of accidents.”

Ameen, a 28-year-old, says a girl’s chastity should not be measured by a few drops of blood. He believes that raped women pay the price of another’s sin and says he finds it strange that some men refuse to marry raped women even if they have great morals but accept to marry girls who have undergone hymenorrhaphy behind their backs.

“Insulting test”

In the crowded waiting room of a gynecological clinic, the virginity issue was cautiously tackled by patients. After a while, they narrated their various stories. “My wedding was an unforgettable night that. One hour after consummating the marriage, my first husband started questioning my chastity because he did not see any drops of blood,” said Thurayya in agony.

She says her husband defamed her in the rural area she and her parents lived and beat her in front of her parents, who stood still due to the shock. “At dawn, I, my husband and members of my family, who would serve as witnesses, went to the doctor,” cried Thurayya before she continued: “It was as if I was waiting for a sentence, even though I knew I was innocent. But it was a tough situation.”

The diagnosis confirmed Thurayya’s virginity. The reason was the elasticity of her hymen, which would only be torn when she delivered a child. “I could not live with a man who questioned my chastity. So, I got a divorce,” she explained.

“Both couples should enjoy the wedding night. But in our country, it is unfortunately an insulting test to women when her soul is raped to prove her chastity,” said Leila, a 33-year-old woman, who expressed disgust at some behaviors she noticed during weddings.

She stressed that some wedding rituals, which were about to be extinct are re-emerging once again, especially during recent years. She says during a wedding in Tunis, both families of the couple would wait until the end of the ‘mission’ when the husband presented a shirt with blood on it, proving the purity of his wife.

Causes may vary but the result is the same

Gynecologist Jameela Rabaa explains that there are two main reasons for losing virginity: sexual intercourse and an incident that leads to injuries at the vulva area, including the hymen. These incidents include falling on an embossed object, violent jumps and some sports.

She says some types of hymen prevent blood from getting out during sexual intercourse, including elastic hymens. She says in rare cases, a woman might not have a hymen at all.

“Measure of chastity”

Rabaa stresses that many husbands come with their wives to her to make sure they are virgins when no blood comes out during the wedding night, only to discover that the reasons are natural. However, she says, “Some wives have indeed had hymenorrhaphy that is found to be unsuccessful.”

She claims that sexual affairs before marriage are on the rise, which is evidenced through the increased number of girls seeking to have hymenorrhaphy, since this issue is still sacred in Arab societies. “Sometimes, a fiancé might accompany his fiancée and ask me to do the surgery to avoid any collision with the family, since virginity is the only measure of chastity for the majority of Tunisians,” she added.

A 2009 study conducted by the National Board for Family and Population (ONFP) – a government organization –says sexual relations before marriage are estimated at 89% — the first sexual experience taking place at the age of 17 for men and 16 for women.

Artificial hymen is the solution

Aida is a woman who has undergone hymenorrhaphy. She confesses she is too liberal in Tunisian society. “I am going to get married two weeks from now. In order to have a stable marriage, I decided to undergo this surgery through which I am going to end a playful period,” she said adding that “In a patriarchal society, hymenorrhaphy is the best solution to erase a woman’s sexual past.”

Plastic surgeon Shadi Bali confirms the fact that the number of women undergoing hymenorrhaphy, which costs 600-1000 Tunisian Dinars (US $360 – $600) is on the rise.

Bali says the term may cover three significantly different types of procedures: the first is suturing of a tear in the hymen, which might be caused by sexual assault, soon after the assault, to facilitate healing. The second is a purely cosmetic procedure in which a membrane without blood supply is created, sometimes including a gelatin capsule of an artificial bloodlike substance. This operation is intended to be performed within a few days before an intended marriage. The third is the use of a flap of the vaginal lining, complete with its blood supply, to create a new hymen. Patients are advised to refrain from penetrative sex for up to three months following this procedure. He says all the three procedures take only one hour.

Bali underlines that most of the patients are from Tunis and southern Tunisia. ” Medical intervention has not been created for such purposes but for treating bleeding or sclerosis (tissue hardening) of the hymen. However, it is now performed due to the peculiarity of the Arab society that deems virginity sacred,” he explained.

Euro-Arab society

ONFP social worker Hadi Alawi underlines the sanctity of virginity in patriarchal societies, attributing sexual affairs before marriage to delayed age of marriage, which is now almost 30.

He believes the matter should be looked at from the perspective of women themselves. Although they challenge prevalent customs in Arab societies by responding to their sexual needs, he says, they eventually succumb to the dominant mentality and they ultimately resort to these surgeries.

“Despite the fact that the Tunisian society is open to the European culture, it still holds an oriental aspect that grants men, but not women, the right to have sexual adventures,” he added.

Generally speaking, a large percentage of Tunisians refuses to marry any woman they have slept with because they believe such women have the greatest potential to become unfaithful wives.

In a study conducted in 2003, Dr. Fakhr Eddine Haffani, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Tunis, says: “The weight of traditions is still tangible in the Tunisian society. The proof is that 83.7% of men believe that women must maintain their virginity until marriage.”