Syrian Women Learn to Mask Loss of Virginity

Cheap artificial hymen resolves social stigma in society that frowns on premarital sex.

By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 81, 04-Nov-09)

Ever since she lost her virginity to a classmate from college, 27-year-old Roula has been anxious about her family finding out. Her worries grew when she got engaged to another man two years ago.

She put off fixing a date for the wedding for fear that her husband-to-be would discover she had been with other men before him.

But recently, Roula, who only wished to be identified by her first name because of the sensitivity of the subject, found a solution to her problem. She got hold of a Chinese-made product that promises to replace the hymen easily.

“Finally I can lead a normal life or at least think positively,” said Roula, adding that she had told her parents recently that she was ready to fix a date for her wedding ceremony.

In a conservative society that considers premarital sex an immoral act, many Syrian women like Roula seek different methods to restore their virginity before marriage to avoid a family scandal that could provoke dramatic consequences like divorce, isolation or sometimes even death.

Websites regularly report crimes against women who are suspected of having had extra or pre-marital sex. These crimes, which are common in tribal Syrian society, are committed by their relatives in the name of protecting the honour of the family.

While some girls seek the help of gynaecologists to have their hymen surgically reconstructed, this practice remains prohibitively expensive and is undergone secretly because it is illegal.

So when the “artificial hymen” recently came on to the Syrian black market at an average cost of 15 US dollars, it quickly emerged as a more practical solution than surgery.

A relative liberalisation of Syrian women in recent years has led to an increase in sex before marriage, observers say. But for most parents, it is still completely unacceptable, however.

The new product sparked a wave of criticism across the Arab world in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where it also became popular. A prominent religious leader in Cairo called for severe punishment to be inflicted on any person who facilitates the sale of the artificial hymen, considering it a source of corruption.

In Syria, the reaction was more muted. Dr Mohamad Habash, a prominent cleric known for his moderate positions, said in a statement published by websites that there was no punishment in Islam against hymen reconstruction.

Roula doesn’t seem to care much about the opinion of clerics. She said that she was happily preparing for her wedding.

“If what I did is prohibited by God, I will be punished on the day of judgement. For now, just let me get married and get on with my life,” she said.

Before finding out about the artificial hymen, Roula was advised by friends and psychologists to undergo surgical reconstruction. But all the gynaecologists she found asked for hundreds of dollars, which she could hardly afford.

“I didn’t feel that they treated me as a human being in need of an operation,” said Roula, who said that none of the doctors she found inspired confidence.

For many doctors, carrying out the operation is a professional risk that is only worth it if it is well remunerated.

Mohamad, a gynaecologist who practices hymen reconstruction in his clinic, said that the procedure has become more and more popular in recent years. Agreeing to give his first name only, he said that many women from more conservative countries in the Gulf region come to Syria to undergo the operation, which could cost between 500 and 2,000 dollars.

Mohamad said that most women who ask for the operation say that their lives are in danger.

He did not comment, however, on the artificial hymen, saying that he had not been able to examine it. But some medical experts said on Arab satellite TV channels that the product needed to be clinically tested because it might have some adverse effects. Others said that the product could also lead to infectious diseases.

Roula had to search for the artificial hymen before she finally ordered one through a foreign website with the help of a friend who bought it for her with a credit card.

Then she collected it in a package from a Damascus bureau of a shipping company.

Roula said that she bought two packages just to be on the safe side and would use the artificial hymen on her wedding night.

Some civil rights activists say that women should attempt to confront society about their right to lead a free sexual life instead of resorting to methods that hide the loss of their virginity.

For Bassam al-Kadi, the director of the Syrian women’s observatory, a non-governmental organisation that advocates women rights, women should try to discuss the subject openly with their husbands or look for an open-minded, understanding man instead of going through the trouble of surgery or other practices.

He acknowledged, however, that in some cases, a woman’s life could be in danger if the loss of her virginity becomes known.

He added that a woman’s integrity is always called into question no matter how she lost her virginity, even if her hymen was accidentally ruptured or she was a victim of rape.

Kadi said that in some cases, his organisation helps women, without specifying how, to get their hymen restored, especially when their future and position in society are at stake.

Roula believes that those around her are not ready to accept her as she is.

“I don’t think he would accept that there was ever another man in my life,” she said talking about her future husband. “The spectre of my old love would haunt us forever.”