11. Hymenoplasty in Contemporary Iran: Liminality and the Embodiment of Contested Discourses
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145 11 Hymenoplasty in Contemporary Iran Liminality and the Embodiment of Contested Discourses Azal Ahmadi While the Iranian government, in public, is trying to compel the country’s girls to show their adherence to a series of traditional and religious Islamic principles, with actions such as campaigning against improper dress, privately, these girls are employing other mechanisms so as to appear compliant. —Anonymous, 2008 Raised in a conservative milieu that places a high premium on female premarital virginity, yet embracing a relatively modern gender ideology in their intimate lives, sexually active young women in Iran seeking marriage encounter a dilemma in body politics (Lock and Kaufert 1998; Cindoglu 1997). Upon nomination of a suitable khastegar, or marriage suitor, long-standing traditional norms often take precedence. Some Iranian women then furtively resort to an understudied, controversial, and ethically charged intervention known as hymenoplasty to achieve medical “re-virginization,” which renders them “marriageable.” This chapter draws from original ethnographic research conducted on hymenoplasty in Iran’s capital city of Tehran. I detail the intricate web of contested medical, sociocultural, and religious-juridical contemporary discourses that collectively crystallize the high social utility of the chaste female body, through which Iranian women seeking hymenoplasty must navigate. Secondly, I use the anthropological concept of liminality (Jackson 2005; Turner 1969 and 1967; Douglas 1966; Van Gennep 1909) as a heuristic tool to demonstrate how Iranian women who undergo hymenoplasty may be construed as liminal, socially ambiguous beings, threatening the stability of the prevailing Iranian social order. This chapter builds upon my previous work, in which I have argued that control of the female body is executed through the medicalization of virginity and that through hymenoplasty Iranian women 146   Abortion Pills, Test Tube Babies, and Sex Toys inadvertently, yet covertly, resist sexual double standards, which permeate the echelons of modern Iranian society (Ahmadi 2015). The Hymen and Hymenoplasty Its name derived from the ancient Greek god of marriage, Hymenaeus, the hymen is a mucous membrane that partly or completely covers the external orifice of the vagina (Hendricks and Oliver 1999). Although it lacks any known physiological function in the female human body (Sloane 2002; Hobday et al. 1997; Williams and Warwick 1980), it is an important physical artifact in a variety of cultural contexts in which the loss of female virginity is believed to be congruous with a ruptured hymen and subsequent bleeding. However, the medicalization of virginity is problematic for a number of reasons. Not all women are born with a hymen; a hymen can be torn as a result of physical activities and events apart from sexual intercourse; sexual intercourse may not always rupture an imperforate, elastic hymen; and some women fail to bleed upon initial vaginal-penile penetration (Essen et al. 2010; Paterson-Brown 1998). While various media reports have surfaced indicating that some women undergo hymenoplasty as a “gift” for their partners on special occasions, such as anniversaries (O’Connor 2008; Chozick 2005), most researchers believe that the vast majority of women who request hymenoplasty do so to abide by traditional sociocultural mandates requiring their virginal status for marriage (Green 2005; Usta 2000; Logmans et al. 1998). Thus, although hymenoplasty is not clinically indicated (Cook and Dickens 2009), it plays an important social role. Researchers have not definitively documented exactly when or where hymenoplasty , also known as hymenorrhaphy, and as hymen repair, reconstruction , or restoration surgery, initially developed. However, it is indeed a more sophisticated solution for faking virginity than the low-technology technique of spilling blood or a blood-like substance on the sheets on the wedding night to imitate virginity loss (Mernissi 1982). A review of the medical literature indicates that hymenoplasty, a relatively quick (thirty to sixty minute) outpatient procedure employing local anesthesia , can be performed using several different surgical techniques (Goodman 2011).1 The remnants of the torn hymen may be reattached using dissolvable sutures, or if such remnants are insufficient, tissue from the vaginal wall is extracted and used to create an imitation membrane (Renganathan et al. 2009). Often a capsule containing a blood-like substance is used in conjunc- Hymenoplasty in Contemporary Iran   147 tion with the procedure. It is intended to burst and ensure “bleeding” upon a subsequent sexual encounter. Studies on the surgery’s effectiveness—that is, whether it results in bleeding after subsequent coitus—is scant. However, in one study conducted in the Netherlands, all twenty women who were interviewed after undergoing hymenoplasty reported that they were “satisfied” with the surgery’s outcome (Logmans...



Subject Headings

  • Human reproductive technology -- Middle East.
  • Human reproductive technology -- Africa, North.
  • Birth control -- Middle East.
  • Birth control -- Africa, North.
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