||by - S. AZAM
behind retro virginity?
a Pakistani woman who was raped needs a stitch to put her life
back together, should I turn her away?''
Toronto plastic surgeon Robert Stubbs is talking about
hymen-plasty, surgery that can make a woman appear to be a virgin
again by sewing together the mucous membranes in her vagina.
Stubbs is among a handful of doctors in Toronto who offer this
Hymen reconstruction is requested most by
Middle Eastern Muslim women, Stubbs says.
``They come here to study and adapt to our ways, but after
university their family has arranged a marriage for them back
home and the groom's parents insist on a gynecological exam (to
ensure the woman is a virgin),'' Stubbs says.
Although there are no definite numbers as to how many women
in Toronto are having the procedure done, in Canada plastic surgeons
have been performing this type of surgery for more than 10 years.
Reconstructing a hymen takes about 30 minutes and costs about
$2,000. Since most of the women requesting the surgery have the
procedure done in order to appear to be virgins before marriage,
Stubbs recommends undergoing surgery weeks prior to the wedding,
to ensure that there is a greater chance of tearing and bleeding.
Hymen-plasty may not have the desired effect if the surgery is
done months or years in advance of the wedding night because
of the thinning and elasticity of the membranes.
The pressure to be a virgin bride is not felt by women from
traditional Muslim families alone. In New York City, the majority
of clients who visit the Plastic Surgery Centre, which offers
``plastic surgery and reconstructive gynecology,'' are Latin
In an article in a recent issue of Marie Claire magazine,
``Sandra'' talks about having her hymen reconstructed. She says
she knows her fiancé would never have proposed if he had
known the truth and that he was too good a catch - successful,
handsome and also from Latin America - to risk losing.
``It's a lie out of love,'' says Esmeralda Vanegas, owner
of the three New York centres. ``Unfortunately, the men in our
culture make us do these things. They are machistas. They do
whatever they want out on the streets and then they want a virgin
at the altar.''
In The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton's novel about old New
York society's traditions and expectations, Newland Archer is
engaged to marry one of society's favourite daughters. He feels
oppressed by the creation of his betrothed's ``factitious purity,
so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts
and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed
to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he
might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image
made of snow.''
Archer questions why his soon-to-be wife must be seen as coming
to the marriage as a blank page, and why women cannot be allowed
the same freedom of experience as men.
For a novel written in the 1920s, Archer's views are progressive
compared to the views some men and women express today. ``Once
a Syrian girl enters puberty she is a real potential menace to
men who are perceived as weak and incapable of resisting `finta'
(seductiveness),'' Zahra Rim, a teacher in Damascus, writes in
WIN, an online newsletter geared to women's issues. ``Childhood
relationships with neighbourhood boys and male friends are usually
terminated. Riding bicycles, playing outside, dancing, and even
going to co-ed pools are prohibited for they are considered forms
of sexual expression.''
That virginity, honour and purity continue to be inextricably
bound in many cultures is troubling because it requires an ignorance
about sex that can be detrimental to a girl's health.
Some cultures fear the more a young woman knows about her
body or her sexual feelings, the more likely she is to act on
her desires. Unfortunately, it also means that girls and women
have limited access to information that could protect them from
sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
It also means myths abound about the type of woman who is
marriageable material and those who are best kept as mistresses.
The desire to pretend that you have never had sex seems almost
more peculiar than the in-laws or grooms who insist on it and
require proof. The price of snagging a husband is terribly high
if you have to disown your history to do it.
Reducing a woman to the intactness of her hymen also suggests
that the men who insist on marrying virgins want to be with women
who can never show them up sexually, make them feel less experienced,
or inadequate in any way.
The irony behind hymen reconstructive surgery is that bleeding
when you lose your virginity is a myth. Not all women bleed and
not all hymens break. Some just stretch and others do tear a
little, but that can happen during any kind of physical activity
including bike riding. There is also a thinning of membranes
that occurs as women age.
Becoming a ``virgin'' again to fulfill the expectations of
tradition or culture seems like the beginning of a life built
on lies and denial. The consequence of having to deny your past
must also have some kind of impact on your self-worth.
And, if a woman is willing to conceal parts of her history
from the outset, to what lengths will she be driven to maintain
the appearance of a trouble-free marriage?
In cultures that demand women remain virgins until marriage,
women and girls must always be thinking about other people's
perceptions of their behaviour and image - when they could be
preoccupied with more satisfying endeavours.
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