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Bleeding to live: Hymen restoration practices in Pakistan and the moral panic around women’s virginity

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A Pakistani advertisement for an herbal medicine that claims it can restore virginity.

“If you don’t bleed on your wedding day, you will be sent back home the next day — or worse, your husband and in-laws will cut you into pieces.”

Like many girls around her, Safeena* grew up hearing sentiments like this from the elderly women of her household; the fear of not bleeding on her wedding day had been deeply ingrained in her mind. Bleeding in this way, she was taught, is evidence that a girl’s hymen has been broken by her husband and that she had not, therefore, been penetrated before the wedding night. If a woman fails to bleed on this night, it is taken as an indication of immoral conduct and it is assumed that the woman has had a premarital sexual relationship — something that is extremely frowned upon in Pakistani society.

Pakistan is a country governed by moral values and strict cultural codes, and perhaps no Pakistani citizens are as strictly policed in terms of these values than woman. This rigid mold of what constitutes an “ideal” Pakistani woman has long been an integral part of the nation’s patriarchal society, and women’s bodies and conduct alike are strictly policed, socially and legally, in terms of everything from what she wears to the way she walks. This so-called “perfect” woman is “almost always the one who abstains from something as natural as sex,” Minerwa Tahir, a journalist and student of gender and sexuality at the University of London, told the FBomb, adding that women who deviate from this purity are often punished. Take, for example, Qandeel Baloch — a Pakistani social media star who was infamous for posting “sexually provocative” videos on Facebook and was murdered by her brother in 2016. “The woman is seen as a custodian of the familial honor,” Tahir says. “Her slightest regression does not remain personal – it is an act committed against the entire family in that that it brings shame to each and every member of the family.”

One such criterion to appraise whether a woman is living up to this understood code of morality is the aforementioned value of virginity. Many Pakistani women are asked by their elders to prove their virginity on their wedding night, a test that is a tradition prevalent especially in rural settings of Pakistan,” journalist and activist Sana Ejaz told the FBomb. To carry out this test, Ejaz continues, “new brides are provided with a white piece of cloth which is to be used to wipe off the blood after a sexual intercourse has occurred and the woman’s hymen has been ruptured. This cloth is then presented to the elderly women of the family, who proudly show it off to others and receive congratulatory remarks from them.”

If a woman does not bleed, she is either divorced right after her wedding day or, worse, killed in the name of family honor as a result of the “immoral conduct” she is assumed to have participated in. Pakistani women have been killed in the name of their family’s “honor” throughout the country for various reasons related to their inability to meet a criterion of what is expected for a woman’s character; not bleeding on the night of their wedding is just one of them. But this practice in particular demonstrates not only how mothers, suffering from internalized misogyny, are complicit in continuing to disseminate patriarchal conditioning to their daughters’ generations, but also how a woman’s morality is a matter of life and death for families in Pakistan.

Hymen is the indicator of a woman’s character in our society,” 23-year-old Safeena told the FBomb. Safeena has considered various methods to ensure that she will bleed on her wedding night. “In our country, a dead woman’s fate is better than the one without a bleeding vagina on her wedding night.” Safeena fell in love with her professor while studying computer sciences in Faisalabad and  ended up losing her virginity to him at the age of 17. Her professor, however, is a married man with children. Although he initially promised to marry her, he ultimately refused to do soand ended all ties to her after they had sex. “I should have known better,” says Safeena. “I grew up in an environment where I was constantly reminded to safeguard my ‘purity,’ yet I gave it away in the heat of the moment and without much thought. My story of love, betrayal, and regret is as typical as that.”

Safeena’s real ordeal began when her parents decided to marry her off to her maternal cousin in 2016. Out of fear that she would not bleed on her wedding night, Safeena decided to try different methods to “restore” her lost virginity. She contacted people she found while reading different forums and advertisements online and was advised not only by these people online, but also by her close friends, to try various herbal medicines as well as imported capsules from Thailand in order to bleed during intercourse. “I was desperate for help,” Safeena says. “I still am. And I will stay anxious until the night of my wedding when I’ll finally find out if these methods work or not.”

26-year-old Laiba* has a similar story. After she lost her virginity, a confidante suggested that she visit a popular clinic in Lahore that performs hymen restoration as well as vaginal tightening services. After reading about it online, she decided to visit the clinic to learn more about the procedure and its cost. While there, however, she “was badly ridiculed by the doctor and her staff who made comments about my character and also expressed great disgust over my ‘impurity,’” Laiba said. “I walked out of the clinic because of the treatment I received and also due to the expenses of the procedure — it was not affordable for me.” Though she is facing immense pressure from her family and society, she is delaying her wedding, she added, because she is petrified of the consequences she could face if she doesn’t bleed during intercourse and the shame she might bring to her family’s name.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of this standard is that the rupturing or absence of hymen can result for many different reasons other than the occurrence of a sexual encounter, including accidents, involvement in different sports activities, heavily pressured menstruation, or simply the absence of hymen tissue at birth. According to gynecologist Dr. Sumera Shakeel, hymen restoration is not even entirely possible, and the insertion of foreign elements, like herbal medicines and capsules, in the vagina can cause internal injuries that may result in severe infections that can lead to conditions like dyspareunia.

Strict, patriarchal norms in Pakistan have resulted in generations-long suppression of women in the name of honor and chastity. Perhaps it is now time for women in the country to realize that purity is a socially constructed phenomenon — to take charge of their own bodies and sexualities and to put an end to the mind-set that contributes to the growth of such fickle concepts and honor-based violence in Pakistan.

*Name has been changed

Ariana is one of the four fellows who were selected as part of the Young Feminist Media Fellowship between FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund and The Fbomb. A pilot project launched this year, the fellowship is an attempt to counter dominant narratives that provide little to no space to achievements and accomplishments of young feminist organizers, giving an opportunity to young feminist storytellers to tell the story themselves of young feminist trends around them.



More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, Violence against women
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