Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Recreating virginity in Iran

Janet Afary

Janet Afary’s latest article in The Guardian finds an intriguing trend that adds another dimension to her suspicion that a “sexual revolution” may be on the way for Iran. Hymenoplasty, an operation to restore “virginity” has been permitted by Grand Allatoyah Sadeq Rouhani.

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Sexual Politics in Modern IranHymenoplasty, the operation through which a woman’s virginity is restored, is a surprisingly hot topic on Iranian weblogs. Vaginal reconstruction is a popular operation throughout the Middle East and among expatriate Middle Easterners of all religious backgrounds.

The operation itself has been performed for centuries in a culture where girls are expected to be virgin on the wedding night. Traditionally, a groom’s avowal that the young bride was not a virgin could cause great scandal. In 1865 the Jewish Austrian physician Jacob Polak, who worked for the royal court in Iran, reported that some grooms used this tactic to extort a larger dowry from the bride’s family. Resourceful families planned ahead. They took the girl to a midwife before the wedding who testified to her virginity. If the girl had indeed lost her virginity before marriage it was usually due to rape or incest since girls were married at or before puberty and had little chance of socialising with unrelated males. According to Polak, in such situations the girl’s family might “stitch [her hymen] with the help of one of several Iranian surgeons who are experts in such matters”.

A century later, in the 1970s, anthropologist Janet Bauer reported that hymen repair operations remained “one of the most sought-after procedures” among the urban middle classes of Tehran. Now it was no longer just victims of rape or incest who opted for the procedure. Many were disillusioned women abandoned by secret boyfriends or newly employed professional women – secretaries and nurses – who had had affairs with their bosses but realised there was no hope of marrying them. Dr C Pirnazar, a male anesthesiologist who also observed such procedures in Tehran hospitals, reported that when a serious suitor appeared on the horizon, these modern urban women arranged for hymen repair in a private clinic or hospital. They paid for the procedure out of their personal savings or asked the ex-boyfriend to help.

By 1978, opposition from traditional sectors of society (bazaar merchants, clerics, rural and urban poor) to such supposed immoralities helped fuel the Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power with a mandate of purifying society from such sinful behaviours. But 30 years later the operation is more popular than ever.

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About The Author

Janet Afary

Janet Afary is a professor of religious studies and feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009)....

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