Thursday, June 12, 2008

The illusion of virginity

Here is an unusual example of science and religion interaction (if you side-step sexism for a moment): New York Times has a story about Muslim women in Europe opting for hymenoplasty, a surgery for the restoration of hymen to give them an illusion of virginity. Ok..so this is about science coming to rescue women from a religious/cultural tradition (or at least to help them beat the system).
The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a discounted fee of $2,900.

But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.

Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

As Europe’s Muslim population grows, many young Muslim women are caught between the freedoms that European society affords and the deep-rooted traditions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive.

While the subject is serious (and for some, it also has serious consequences), it is now the theme of a new Italian comedy:

But hymen repair is talked about so much that it is the subject of a film comedy that opens in Italy this week. “Women’s Hearts,” as the film’s title is translated in English, tells the story of a Moroccan-born woman living in Italy who goes to Casablanca for the operation.

One character jokes that she wants to bring her odometer count back down to “zero.”

Ok..this line is funny - but then the director of the film goes on to say this:

“We realized that what we thought was a sporadic practice was actually pretty common,” said Davide Sordella, the film’s director. “These women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don’t always have the strength to go against their culture.”

But this is complicated. First of all, he should stop using "our" here. Cultural interactions are complex, especially when one is referring to second generation immigrants (or even for first generation - I've been in the US now for some bazillion years, with 1 bazillion=19 years). I'm not defending this sexist custom, but there can be many different reasons (individual circumstances, one's own nature, the particular peculiarities of the culture one is coming from, etc) why one may choose not to challenge one's own culture of origin. And of course, vice versa - you also have your rebels without a cause. So then the opposition to the procedure can potentially cause more problems:

The French College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians opposes the procedure on moral, cultural and health grounds.

“We had a revolution in France to win equality; we had a sexual revolution in 1968 when women fought for contraception and abortion,” said Dr. Jacques Lansac, the group’s leader. “Attaching so much importance to the hymen is regression, submission to the intolerance of the past.”

Yes, true. But don't penalize women, who for whatever reason, want to keep the illusion of this tradition. And here are two complex situations:

But the stories of the women who have had the surgery convey the complexity and raw emotion behind their decisions.

One Muslim born in Macedonia said she opted for the operation to avoid being punished by her father after an eight-year relationship with her boyfriend.

“I was afraid that my father would take me to a doctor and see whether I was still a virgin,” said the woman, 32, who owns a small business and lives on her own in Frankfurt. “He told me, ‘I will forgive everything but not if you have thrown dirt on my honor.’ I wasn’t afraid he would kill me, but I was sure he would have beaten me.”

In other cases, the woman and her partner decide for her to have the operation. A 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man she now plans to marry. But she and her fiancé decided to share the cost of her $3,400 operation in Paris.

She said his conservative extended family in Morocco was requiring that a gynecologist — and family friend — there examine her for proof of virginity before the wedding.

“It doesn’t matter for my fiancé that I am not a virgin — but it would pose a huge problem for his family,” she said. “They know that you can pour blood on the sheets on the wedding night, so I have to have better proof.”

Again, of course, it's terrible the way these women are being treated - and of course this is really sexist, as only women have to prove their chastity. Lets oppose the custom. But is it a good idea to deny women the opportunity for hymenoplasty? On the flip side, you can also argue that its great that they will be able to fool the people who cling to this sexist custom. In any case, in all likelihood, their kids will not have to face the same issues.

Read the full story here.