BEIRUT: “A woman’s honor is like a match, it can only be lit once.”This long-worn Arab idiom is evidence the cultural pressure that many women feel to remain virgins until marriage, or, in the case of Mohammad Saad’s ex-girlfriend, to seek out a doctor who would “make her a virgin again.”
“A long time after we broke up she called me and asked me to arrange it because I knew the doctor and she was getting married,” said Saad, not his real name, a Syrian who now resides in Lebanon.
“She did the operation in the morning and got married the next night,” Saad said.
Saad was referring to hymen reconstruction surgery, or hymenoplasty, an operation that restores the hymen, the membrane that carries so much baggage as a symbol of virginity.
There are two main types of the surgery. One restores the hymen for a brief period immediately before marriage, and the other is a long-term procedure. Saad’s girlfriend opted for the former.
Saad went with her on the day of the operation, adding she was scared of the anesthesia.
“After she woke up, she was so happy, that now ‘I can do it,’” he said, referring to her upcoming marriage.
Doctors said the procedure may be on the rise, as increasingly liberal attitudes toward sex collide with rigid societal expectations. The prevailing double standard toward male and female sexuality leaves many women vulnerable to domestic abuse and damaged reputations.
Wissam Ghandour, a doctor who runs a private clinic in Mar Elias that offers the surgery, became animated when discussing this double standard.
“You are not a devout Muslim, and you had sex many times before marriage, and you drink alcohol, and you don’t fast or pray, but you ask if she is a virgin?” he said. “I understand if you have a large beard, pray five times a day, don’t drink alcohol and you fast all of Ramadan and want a virgin.”
Ghandour said he does the surgery two or three times per year, but declined to say how much he charges for it. He believes it is a worthy cause, because the alternative for the woman could be disrepute, or even violence.
“Sometimes the circumstances dictate what you must do,” he said.
He went on to say that he feels pride because the surgery helps secure the future of his patients, some of whom go on to have happy marriages and children, “and all the old stories are forgotten.”
Ghandour rejected the notion that the surgery is a form of cheating or deceit, saying it is borne out of a double standard in society that deems it alright for men to be sexually active before marriage, but not women.
“I would definitely say that in a country like ours, in a mentality like ours, if the lady had premarital sexual relationships ... what’s the problem if we did a hymenoplasty?” he said. “Some people say it’s cheating. But a question then, who gave men the authority to have premarital sex?”
He said his patients span the socio-economic spectrum.
A new study by scientists at the American University of Beirut, published this summer in the Springer online journal, paints a detailed picture of attitudes toward hymenoplasty and sexuality in general, claiming that demand for virginity restoration is on the rise in the region.
The study surveyed a sample of 600 Lebanese university students. The students were from the five main universities in Lebanon and were split by gender.
Just a quarter of the men approved of the procedure, compared to 19 percent of women. Most saw the practice as a “form of deceiving and cheating.”
Those who approved cited a belief in women’s rights, autonomy and freedom, as well as the possibility of a woman being harmed or killed as a result of not being a virgin when she got married.
“When they get to the point where they need to get married, they are faced with this ambiguity, when the man himself has done whatever he wishes,” said Johnny Awwad, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and head of the division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at AUB Medical Center, and the study’s lead author.
According to the findings, a majority of 61 percent of males were likely to approve of premarital sex, compared to just 27 percent of women.
The results of the study showed that Muslims were more likely to reject marrying a nonvirgin than Christians. Males were also more likely to insist on marrying a virgin than the females.
There are no statistics available regarding the number of hymenoplasty surgeries.
Awwad said that most women who opted for the surgery usually either feared domestic violence or being rejected for marriage. Anecdotally, doctors get numerous requests from young women asking if they can help, he added.
“We don’t interfere,” he added. “We simply tell them we don’t offer it here and they go to private doctors who do it in their own private clinics.”
To reach some sort of estimate, the study’s authors sought out the opinion of local gynecologists, inquiring about the number of surgeries they performed. Out of 60 who received the questionnaires, 90 percent refused to respond, and some doctors responded angrily to the very idea that a study was being carried out.
Lebanese law does not prohibit hymen reconstruction. In fact, it does not mention it at all.
The study’s authors argued that Parliament ought to draft laws that enforced gender equality, in an environment where a woman’s future “can literally hang by a membrane.”
But Awwad said it was unlikely that a law regulating hymen surgery could be passed because of religious opposition.
“In Lebanon, anything that’s controversial can’t be passed as a law,” he said. “I think if the government, [were] to face the religious trends and say we want to discuss hymenoplasty, for them virginity is a taboo, and you’re not supposed to lose your virginity.”
To demonstrate this point, students were asked what they would do if they found out after marriage that their spouse had her hymen reconstructed. Nearly half said they would divorce her while the other half would forgive her. Muslims were less likely to forgive such an act than Christians.
But nearly 10 percent admitted they would physically assault their wife, with 5.3 percent saying they “would hurt her” and 4 percent that they “would kill her.”
Students who said they were more likely to commit violence in response were often poorer and less privileged, but Awwad said the numbers were alarming because those polled were university students.
“These are the educated, the people who should be aware that there is law and order,” he said.
Female participants in the study tended to be more accepting of sexual activity that did not include vaginal penetration, including “sexual flirting” and anal sex.
This led the study’s authors to conclude that many who want to marry virgins care more about the physical manifestation of “virginity” as opposed to the virtue of “chastity.”
“This is the transition you see between what’s really conviction, and what’s really fear,” Awwad said. “I would assume that culture and religion would really be strong in favor of chastity rather than simple virginity.”
“The whole idea is a psychological reassurance of the man,” he said, that his wife is untouched.
Ghandour disputed the suggestion that the hymen surgeries are on the rise, saying the poor economic situation means marriage is less likely, which, he asserted, corresponds with higher sexual promiscuity.
With a new patient, Ghandour said he starts by examining her, measuring the width of her vaginal canal, checking for infections or pelvic or ovarian problems, and then sets a date for the operation and advises the patient on postoperation recovery.
He doesn’t keep records of the operations, since he believes most of the patients give a fake name and phone number out of caution. But he doesn’t shy away from admitting to doing the procedure. “For me it’s not under the table,” he said.