Muslim women's virginity fix still causing controversy
Young Danish women with immigrant backgrounds – most of them Muslim – continue to flock to private clinics across the country to have their ‘virginity’ restored for a few thousand kroner.
Several years after the little-known procedure became a topic of political debate, doctors are reporting that demand for hymenoplasty operations has not decreased.
Doctors who perform these operations have come under sharp criticism for legitimising the procedure and thereby protecting what critics say is the chauvinism and oppression that underlies the demand that new brides must be verified virgins.
“I don’t have any scruples about helping. The important thing is that these girls have good lives moving forward. You could call it my form of foreign aid,” Dr Christine Felding, who performs 30 to 40 hymenoplasty procedures each year, told Berlingske newspaper.
The procedure involves reconstructing the hymen – the membrane that partially covers the opening to the vagina, and which is presumed to tear and bleed the first time a woman has sexual intercourse. The doctor literally sews bits of the vaginal lining together to narrow the opening. It takes a little over an hour and is done under local anaesthesia. Felding charges 5,000 kroner. Other doctors charge as much as 12,000 kroner.
Felding estimates that three or four women with immigrant backgrounds call her each week asking about the procedure. Most of them, she said, are frightened about what will happen if their fiancés or their families find out that they are not virgins.
Women have been known to suffer rejection, public shaming and even violent retribution at the hands of men in their own families if there is a lack of ‘proof’, in the form of a bloody bed sheet, on the wedding night.
“It is more cultural than religious. If the bride is not a virgin and does not bleed on the wedding night, it is a big shame on the family. There have been honour killings in extreme cases,” Dr Magdy Hend, a UK surgeon who performs several hymenoplasties a week, told the UK tabloid Daily Mail.
Doctors in the UK, France, Germany and Belgium also report that the procedure is highly sought after in Muslim communities. The irony, as Time magazine’s Bruce Crumley writes, is that “the increase in the procedure reflects the growing emancipation of women from tradition-rooted communities, but also the ongoing male oppression signified by the obsession with female virginity.”
Even though the focus on virginity remains strong among conservative families living in Western countries like Denmark and the UK, Felding believes it will wane – eventually.
“It’s something that this generation of young immigrant women still have to live with. But I don’t think that their daughters will still suffer under it. Times change,” she told Berlingske.
Change, however, is exactly what Felding and doctors like her are preventing, according to nurse and social counsellor Kristina Aamand.
Aamand believes that by providing hymenoplasties, doctors are sheltering ignorance and helping a backwards tradition to persist in modern society.
The daughter of a Danish mother and Pakistani father, Aamand knows well the confusing messages and conflicting pressures young Muslim women growing up in Denmark experience. That’s why she started NyMødom.dk, an advice website which aims to dispel myths about female virginity and the hymen.
On NyMødom.dk, young women are encouraged to confront their families and fiancés about these myths, instead of opting for a secret surgery to create the illusion of virginity.
“The young women see [a hymenoplasty] as a little thing next to the anxiety they feel. They see it as something they just have to get through. But the fear of being discovered remains, and ten little stitches in the vagina won’t change that,” Aamand told Berlingske.
In 2009, Socialdemokraterne and Socialistisk Folkeparti, then in the opposition, challenged the old Venstre-Konservative government to outlaw hymenoplasties, along with other “religious- or culturally related surgical procedures”. Then-health minister Jakob Axel Nielsen (Konservative) refused, noting that they were medically approved by the national board of health, Sundhedsstyrelsen.
Jonas Dahl, the health issues spokesperson for the Socialistisk Folkeparti, remarked last week that it was “worrying” that they were still sanctioned by Sundhedsstyrelsen, that private doctors were still earning money peddling them to frightened young women, and that demand for the procedures from young immigrant women was still strong.
“I hoped and expected that they would decrease. That’s something we need to work at,” he said.