Nadia Muhanna's blog | مدونة ناديا مهنا

Virgin Territory (Hymen restoration surgeries in Syria)

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News of artificial hymens hitting the regional market led to huge debate in Egypt and resulted in an official ban on the product. The reaction in Syria, by contrast, was surprisingly mild.

When rumours of artificial hymens being imported into Syria first began to circulate last summer, few believed they could be true. Yet when Syrian journalist Souror Nasraldeen began researching the product, she soon discovered that the Gigimo Artificial Virginity Hymen kit was indeed no hoax – for just USD 15 Syrian women could now win back their virginity in the space of 20 minutes. Made in Japan and distributed by a Chinese company called Gigimo, the kit, which can be bought online, consists of a pouch which is to be inserted 20 minutes before sexual intercourse and leaks a blood-like substance when broken.

“No more worry about losing your virginity,” the Gigimo website says in broken English. “With this product, you can have your first night back anytime.”

Outraged by the concept, Nasraldeen published one of the first articles in the region about the device in Day Press, a Syrian daily news website, last August. “The artificial hymen is the product of an old mentality which links honour to a woman’s virginity, that’s why I’m completely against it,” she told Syria Today. “This product creates unbalanced families which are built on lies right from the wedding night. I wanted my article to be a wake-up call.”

Muted public reaction

While Syria’s state-run media paid little attention to the story, internet users did and the article racked up a huge number of hits on the Day Press website. Yet while most Syrian internet users seemed relatively accepting of the product, finding it intriguing at worst, controversy in the Egyptian blogosphere began to mount.

“There were many angry men making comments who feared that this product would encourage women to lie about their virginity,” Nasraldeen said. “Some even accused Day Press of promoting the product.”

When BBC Arabic, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Egypt’s press latched on to the article – and the device – the storm grew. In Egypt, conservative politicians and religious figures instigated a debate which grew so intense that the Ministry of Health officially banned the import of the product into the country.

By contrast, the Syrian authorities did not even comment. And what little public reaction there was in the country took a much milder tone, focusing on the issue of virginity and virtue. “Many people said the problem was not with the product itself, but with the promotion of the idea that a woman’s virginity is a good measure of her morality,” Nasraleen said.

One month after the article was published Sham FM dedicated an hour and a half of its talk show Hiwar al-Yawm (Today’s Dialogue) to the importance of virginity before marriage, a topic rarely discussed openly in Syrian society or the media.

“Most of the phone calls to the show were by men, some of whom felt angry and deceived by the idea that a woman might fake her virginity,” Qusay ‘Amama, producer and presenter of the radio show, said. One such caller was Ammar, a young man from Jobar, who discovered after nine years of marriage that his wife used to sleep with men from the Gulf for money and had pretended to be a virgin on their wedding night.

“I can’t divorce her because we already have three children but I can’t bear living with her anymore,” he said “I feel so betrayed.”

Other callers expressed more liberal views. “I don’t care whether the woman I marry is a virgin or not.” Ahmad Hamada said. “It’s superficial to measure honour by a piece of skin.”

The argument for legalisation

For many Syrians, the concept behind the Gigimo Artificial Hymen kit is nothing new. Hymen restoration surgery, while rarely spoken about, has long been carried out in the country.

“Syrian doctors have been mending hymens for ages, this artificial hymen is only the latest trend in the world of virginity reconstruction in Syria,” Da’ed Mousa, a Syrian lawyer specialising in family law and women’s issues, said. “I don’t know why people would make such a big fuss about it now.”

Doctors point out, however, that unlike hymen restoration surgery, the risks of using an artificial hymen are still unknown. According to its advertising, the Gigimo Artificial Hymen kit is made of natural albumen glue and methylcellulose. Apart from this, however, there is a complete absence of medical information about the product.

“This product has been manufactured for commercial purposes and I don’t know what it’s made of,” Jury el-Tali, a Syrian gynaecologist, said. “I certainly don’t recommend using it.”

With this in mind, Mohammad Habash, Syrian MP and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, told Day Press that if the artificial hymen is being brought into the country anyway, it would be better for Syria’s Ministry of Health to legally import it. This way, he claims, the ministry could test the product to see if it meets the country’s health standards. Furthermore, it could also restrict the distribution of the product to women who lost their virginity as a result of rape, accident or because of health issues.

Like Habash, Mahmoud ‘Akkam, a mufti from Aleppo, defends a woman’s right to reconstructive surgery.

“Reconstructing your virginity is a personal issue and women are free to do whatever they want with their bodies as long as it doesn’t put their health at risk,” ‘Akkam said.

“Unfortunately we live in a society which stigmatises women who lose their virginity before marriage; therefore they should have the right to surgery or to use such products. If a woman has had premarital sex, however, she shouldn’t lie to her husband and deceive him by using a fake hymen, especially if virginity is an issue for him.”

This moderate response by religious figures, coupled with the local press’s indifference towards the issue, is why little controversy has mounted over the device in Syria, according to ‘Amama.

“The Egyptian press and religious figures provoked Egyptians by launching a fierce campaign against smuggling the artificial hymen into the Syrian and Egyptian markets,” ‘Amama said. “It was a kind of propaganda against the artificial hymen that didn’t take hold in Syria.”

Ahmad Barkawi, professor of philosophy and social sciences at the University of Damascus, says the issue stirred up little controversy because of the lack of a dominant conservative trend in society.

He believes that had the artificial hymen appeared on the Syrian market 10 years ago, however, the reaction would have been different.

“While I wouldn’t say that Syrian society is growing more liberal, the growing demand for different methods of virginity reconstruction during the last 10 years does signal a change in young Syrians’ attitude to sex,” he said.

“They want to have premarital sex without confronting Syria’s largely traditional society. Now they can say: ‘You want an intact hymen? Here, have a Chinese one’.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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