In Iran, not having sex before marriage is important to many girls and their families. Sometimes men ask for a virginity certificate, a practice that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be against human rights. But in the past year, more and more people have campaigned against it.
“You tricked me into marrying you because you’re not a virgin. No one would marry you if they knew the truth.”
This is what Merjeme’s husband told her after having sex for the first time.
BBC reports that she tried to reassure him that, although there was no bleeding, she had never had intercourse before. But he didn’t believe her and asked her to get a virginity certificate.
This is not unusual in Iran. After getting engaged, many women go to the doctor and take a test that proves they have never had sex.
However, according to the WHO, virginity testing has no scientific value.
Mary’s certificate stated that the type of her hymen was “elastic”. This means she may not bleed after penetrative sex.
“It hurt my pride. I didn’t do anything wrong, but my husband kept insulting me. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I took some pills and tried to kill myself,” she said. Immediately, she was taken to the hospital and survived. “I will never forget those dark days. I lost 20 kg during that time”, said Merjem.
Growing calls to end the practice
Mary’s story is the reality of many women in Iran. Being a virgin before marriage is still crucial for many girls and their families. It is a value that is deeply rooted in cultural conservatism.
But recently things have started to change. Women and men across the country have campaigned to end virginity testing.
Last November, an online petition received almost 25,000 signatures in a single month. This was the first time that virginity testing was being openly challenged by so many people in Iran.
“It’s a violation of privacy and it’s humiliating,” says Neda.
When she was a 17-year-old student in Tehran, she lost her virginity to her boyfriend.
“I panicked. I was terrified of what would happen if my family found out,” she said
Thus, Neda decided to “repair” her hymen.
Technically, this procedure is not illegal – but it has dangerous social implications, so no hospital admits to performing it.
So Neda found a private clinic that would do it in secret, at a high price.
“I spent all my savings. I sold my laptop, mobile phone and gold jewellery,” she says.
She had to sign a document to take full responsibility in case something went wrong, and then a midwife continued the procedure.
It took about 40 minutes, but it would take Neda many weeks to recover.
“I was in a lot of pain. I could not move my legs”, she remembers.
She hid everything from her parents.
“I felt very lonely. But I think the fear of not being found out helped me tolerate the pain,” she said.
In the end, the ordeal Neda went through was in vain.
A year later, she met someone who wanted to marry her. But when they had sex, she didn’t bleed. The procedure had failed.
“My boyfriend accused me of trying to trick him into marriage. He said I was a liar and left me,” she said.
Pressure from the family
Despite the WHO denouncing virginity testing as unethical and without scientific merit, the practice is still carried out in some countries, including Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey.
The Iranian Medical Organization claims that they only perform virginity testing in specific circumstances, such as court cases and rape allegations.
However, most requests for a virginity certificate come from couples planning to get married. So they turn to private clinics – often accompanied by their mothers.
A gynecologist or a midwife performs a test and issues a certificate. This includes the woman’s full name, her father’s name, her ID, and sometimes her photo. The report describes the status of her hymen and the statement: “This girl appears to be a virgin.”
In more conservative families, the document will be signed by two witnesses – usually the mothers.
Dr Fariba has been issuing certificates for years. She admits it’s a humiliating practice, but believes it’s actually helping many women.
“They are under such pressure from their families. Sometimes I lie verbally about the couple. If they have slept together and want to get married, I will tell their families that the woman is a virgin.”
But for many men, marrying a virgin is still essential.
“If a girl loses her virginity before marriage, she cannot be trusted. She can leave her husband for another man,” says Ali, a 34-year-old electrician from Shirazi.
He says he has had sex with 10 women. “I couldn’t resist,” he says.
Ali admits there is a double standard in Iranian society, but says he sees no reason to break with tradition.
Ali’s view is shared by many, especially in the more rural and conservative areas of Iran.
Despite increasing demonstrations against virginity testing, since the notion is so ingrained in Iranian culture, many believe a total ban on the practice by the government and lawmakers is unlikely anytime soon.
“I hope in the future”
Four years after attempting to take her own life and living with an abusive husband, Maryam finally got a divorce through court.
“It will be very difficult to trust a man again. “I can’t see myself getting married in the near future,” she said.
Along with tens of thousands of other women, she also signed one of the growing online petitions to end the issuance of virginity certificates.
Although she doesn’t expect anything to change anytime soon, maybe not even in her lifetime, she believes that one day women will gain more equality within her country.
“I’m sure it will happen one day. I hope that in the future no girl will have to go through what I did,” she said.
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