"The test has destroyed me. I can't think of getting married."
Conversations and relevant discussions highlight that Desi women are undertaking procedures to restore their virginity.
At the same time, some Desi women are viewing the ability to restore virginity as a possible avenue of freedom.
Procedures to repair virginity can enable women to explore sex and their sexuality, whilst still meeting cultural expectations.
However, the act of restoring virginity is concealed due to social and cultural attitudes.
Socio-cultural attitudes problematise and police female sexuality and bodies.
Dialogue around sex and sexuality is occurring more than in the past amongst Desi communities.
Nevertheless, they are still taboo topics, which are not openly discussed, particularly in mixed-gender settings.
Taybah Khan, a 20-year-old student from Birmingham whose family belongs to Pakistan, states:
“No, no. Stuff like sex and virginity is so not talked about. I can talk to my closest friend and she to me when it’s just us.
“But no way would I have that conversation with my mum or family. That would be too weird – just no.”
Taybah says she would not even have such a discussion with a male counterpart or prospective husband:
“I would never have that conversation with a guy. Even thinking of whoever I marry and talking about sex, my virginity, feels cringe-worthy.”
Taybah has internalised the cultural framing of sex as taboo. Sex is also still positioned as somewhat dirty within families.
A 52-year-old British Pakistani and single mum from Birmingham, Mobeen Ayan, considers virginity as essential before marriage:
“You don’t do gundi (dirty) things, legs are meant to stay closed until after Shaadi. “If legs don’t stay closed it will come to badly bite the kuri (girl).”
Even during modern times, a person’s gender is still used to judge what is appropriate sexual behaviour.
For women, in particular, this brings constraints. Norms and ideals police and regulate women’s bodies and actions.
The taboo nature of sex and the value placed on virginity has led to the secrecy surrounding the revirgination industry.
The idealisation of virginity and expectations of female sexuality play a key role in socialising individuals and groups.
Both have shaped how women understand and perceive virginity and procedures to restore it. Thus, there is a heightened demand for procedures.
Language Matters: Women, Chastity and Restoring Virginity
Whilst changes do occur, women and men continue to play by different rules.
Women have less sexual freedom than men, as cultural norms powerfully police and regulate women’s behaviour and actions.
Language plays a critical ideological function, encouraging the use of procedures and tools like fake blood to restore virginity.
Language helps produce and maintain norms around sexual behaviour and sexuality, sustaining inequality.
Birmingham based, Sonia Rahmen, a 34-year-old Pakistani bank worker, pointed out:
“I got fake blood from a joke shop. My boyfriend, now husband, knew. We were living with his parents and Daadi (grandmother) as soon as we got married.
“No one asked to look at the sheets, but just in case, I put some fake blood on there.”
“Then put the sheets with the rest of the washing, which my mother-in-law was going to do.
“Doing this meant no risk of me being called any bad names behind my back. Husband’s dadi peaked.”
Sonia states that neither she nor her husband disapproved of premarital sex.
Instead, she wanted the illusion of virginity to “avoid” the possibility of any negative labels:
“It also meant my kids will never hear that their mum was a slut or easy. None of the words people use for a woman are nice.
“They could have heard these words at an age when they were too young to understand I did nothing wrong”.
Sonia was concerned that her future children would hear insults through the family grapevine of gossip.
For Sonia, the fake blood was an important safety measure in protecting the daughter and son she has today.
Sex through a Gendered Lens: A Comparison of Words
Comparing words through the lens of gender highlights that inequality exists.
The words used for women are more degrading. Hence, procedures to restore virginity can help women avoid stigmatisation, shame, being disowned, and even killed.
Labels such as player, playboy, f***boy, and manwhore, are given to men who are very sexually active outside a monogamous relationship.
In contrast, words used to describe women who are very sexually active outside a monogamous relationship are disapproving in tone.
Words include, for example, whore, slut, slag, harlot, jezebel, hussy, trollop, tart, and the town bike.
Western values, where premarital sex and lack of virginity is normalised, influence Desi communities.
However, female purity remains a valuable commodity for Desi women.
Restoring Virginity: The Importance of Hymen and Blood
The emphasis placed on what makes a ‘good’ unmarried woman reflects the taboo nature of sex and sexuality.
It is also why some Desi women are looking at procedures and products to restore virginity.
One feature of a ‘good’ unmarried woman is chastity.
A definitive marker of virginity is meant to be the existence of the hymen. Evidence of blood during a woman’s first time having sex is also vital.
Birmingham based, 25-year-old beautician and British Indian Meeta Mehra, maintains:
“If you don’t bleed, you’re not a virgin. I mean, that’s what my mum and friends said.
“Blood is the sign, all women bleed.”
For many in the Desi community, proof of female virginity is still deemed to be; the breaking of the hymen during penetrative sex and bleeding.
However, medical professionals stress that not all women bleed during their first time having penetrative sex.
Moreover, although uncommon, it is possible to have penetrative sex without tearing the hymen.
In the popular imagination, the idea that continues to dominate is that having penetrative sex breaks the hymen. This links to the phrase ‘popping the cherry’ – this idea is wrong.
Medically, the hymen is defined as “a thin membrane that surrounds the opening to the vagina.”
Instead of breaking, the hymen stretches and tears.
Restoring Virginity due to the Symbolism of the Hymen
Desi communities overall think of the hymen as a marker of virginity. This association continues to legitimise the cultural positioning of the hymen as a sign of purity, innocence and chastity.
The above virtues are positioned as key markers of a ‘good’ unmarried woman, symbolised by the hymen.
A Desi woman’s virginity embodies community and family ideals of honour, pride, and good upbringing.
The meaning given to a woman’s virginity is not new and can be found across civilisations historically.
However, the reality is that the hymen is not a reliable or even valid indicator of female virginity.
The hymen can be torn and stretched for many reasons like active sports, tampons, masturbation, and falling off a bike.
As a result, female virginity is not a biological fact but instead a social construct. In the words of the World Health Organisation (WHO):
“The term “virginity” is not a medical or scientific term.
“Rather, the concept of “virginity” is a social, cultural and religious construct – one that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls.
“The social expectation that girls and women should remain “virgins” (i.e. without having sexual intercourse) is based on stereotyped notions that female sexuality should be curtailed within marriage.
“This notion is harmful to women and girls globally.”
Additionally, the idea of virginity has long been tangled with a specific heteronormative idea.
The idea that when a penis enters a vagina, a woman’s virginity is lost – the cherry is popped.
The above idea ignores the reality that not everyone is heterosexual. It also disregards the fact that vaginal sex is not the only type of sex that can occur.
Still, the allure of the hymen and its symbolism remains strong.
Therefore, demand for procedures and products to restore virginity continues to grow.
Procedures to Restore Virginity
The key illusion to restoring virginity is a woman bleeding during her first time having penetrative sex. There are two ways to make this happen:
- Have hymenoplasty surgery where the hymen is reconstructed – restored.
- Use non-surgical methods by purchasing products like artificial hymen kits, virginity pills/fake blood.
Professionals and companies stating women can regain their virginity use words such as ‘restore’ and ‘repair’. The symbolism of both words is significant.
Repair implies something was damaged and thus needs fixing. Whilst restore suggests that something was lost and needs to be recovered.
The revirgination industry continues to grow. But the secrecy surrounding the industry means that data on exactly how many women undertake procedures is not public.
A 2020 Sunday Times investigation found at least twenty-two private clinics across the UK offering hymenoplasty.
Hymenoplasty takes approximately 30 minutes to an hour, costing up to £4000 in the UK.
In Pakistan, hymenoplasty can cost Rs 40,000 (£183) to a million (£4,598). Hymenoplasty is easily available in Pakistani cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.
A google search led to 19 doctors being identified in Karachi as the ‘best’ for hymenoplasty.
A similar Google search led to a site listing 145 ‘hymenoplasty clinics’ within India.
Non-surgical products can cost £5 to over £90. In the digital space, one can find creams, gels, and soaps promising to restore virginity.
Representations of Virginity and Sex in Popular Culture Matter
Representations of pre-marital sex and female sexuality have widened.
Nevertheless, female virginity and innocence are still idealised across communities and popular culture, including Bollywood.
Representations create, maintain, and even help change perceptions of virginity, sex, and intimate relationships.
Moreover, popular culture can shape ideas of what virginity is.
In movies, romance books, and young adult literature, blood as a sign of virginity has been reinforced.
The romance publisher Harlequin have many books where the heroine is a virgin, only giving herself to the hero.
A 31-year-old, British Bangladeshi teacher Elisha Begum, recalls reading Mills and Boon books (an imprint of Harlequin publishers):
“I read a ton of Mills and Boon books when I was a teen. And in the books where there were virgins, all the virgins bled.
“Even where the male lead didn’t initially know, he found out when he saw blood on the sheets.”
Throughout time, cultural representations in books, art, and films have reflected and solidified society’s attitudes around sexuality and sex.
That being said, popular culture has played a role in normalising the visibility of intimacy, female sexuality, and premarital sex.
Premarital sex is shown as normal in Bollywood films like Salaam Namaste (2005), Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), and Queen (2013).
Through transnational cultural industries like Bollywood, the tensions around depictions of sexuality, sex, and intimacy are seen.
The subtle undertones that viewers see in such films can reinforce the idea that the illusion of virginity is needed.
Attitudes towards Virginity and Restoring Virginity
Premarital sex occurs across South Asia and the Asian diaspora, but it is still carefully concealed for women.
A 2015 Youth Survey conducted by Hindustan Times revealed 61% believed that premarital sex is no longer taboo. Yet, 63% wanted their spouses to be virgins.
Dominant attitudes remain conservative when it comes to female sexuality and premarital sex.
A 30-year-old British Pakistani single mother Shazia Bhayat, from Leeds, expresses:
“The assumption is that being non-married equals virgin. At least if you’re female and a good one, especially for the older generations.
“And honestly, when it comes to marriage, the younger males can repeat those expectations.”
She continues to say:
“Sex and female sexuality doesn’t compute for them [community and family] when it comes to good girls.
“We’re forced, positioned as asexual, having no desires.”
For Shazia, exploring her sexuality and experiencing pre-marital sex was not an option for two key reasons.
Sex was reinforced as being ‘dirty by Shazia’s mother. Thus, as Shazia grew up, she found the issue of sex and her sexuality painfully uncomfortable.
Also, Shazia feared the negative repercussions for herself and her sisters if she engaged in pre-marital sex:
“If I had slept around or even just dated one guy and slept with him and my parents found out, my younger sisters would have suffered.
“Their freedom would have disappeared. And for me, nothing good would have happened.
“So any curiosity I had when it came to my sexuality and sex, I stamped down on it hard.
“I tried not to think about it and I definitely didn’t mention it to anyone except my closest friend. And I spoke to her because she mentioned it first.”
Shazia’s words highlight that the unwritten rules women feel they must follow play a big role in suppressing their desires and curiosity.
Women fear that other female family members could face the consequences of rule-breaking.
Thinking of Undertaking Procedures to Restore Virginity
Birmingham-based, British Pakistani Henna Ali, is a 26-year-old hairdresser.
Henna cannot afford hymenoplasty surgery and is scared of being caught breaking the rules, and so restrains herself:
“There is no way I can ever justify spending my savings on the surgery. And the stuff you can get online I wouldn’t risk using them.
“The blood capsules would be good for some girls. But honestly, I’m too chicken shit to risk it.
“I don’t mean just too chicken shit to use the capsules, but to even think about sleeping with someone who isn’t the guy I’m hitched to.
“I’ve heard enough stories from friends and my mum to know what happens when you’re caught out as a girl.”
For some like Henna, the imagined risk of being found out is too big. Hence, neither the procedures nor premarital sex are seen as options.
Yet, for other Desi women, procedures and products to restore virginity are seen as highly valuable, allowing a degree of control and freedom.
Reasons Desi Women want to Restore Virginity
When exploring the reasons why women wish to restore virginity, it is not one size fits all.
Hymenoplasty and buying products may occur for several reasons: izzat (honour), fear, and wanting freedom to explore.
Additionally, the reasons for choosing to restore virginity are tied to feelings of love, loyalty, fear, and a desire to be liberated from restraints.
Restoring Virginity due to Izzat and Shielding against Stigma
If a girl or woman is found to have had premarital sex, she faces significant family and community stigma.
Women are raised to know that their family may restore honour:
- Making the girl/woman have a forced and early marriage;
- Restricting the girl’s/woman’s activities in daily life;
- Stopping them from leaving the house;
- In the most extreme cases, force suicide or kill the girl/woman.
Many Desi women feel that a female’s purity is still powerfully tied to ideas of family izzat (honour).
A 27-year-old British Pakistani customer service worker Maya Saleem from Birmingham, says:
“If you’re not a virgin and it gets out, most if not all families lose face in a huge way. The girl, I don’t want to think about what would happen to her.
“It would be a nightmare since all would say and think izzat is gone, tarnished.”
Traditionally, women knew that there was no alternative but to follow the rules.
They knew breaking rules would lead to their family’s izzat being blemished and needing restoration.
The emergence of procedures and products to restore virginity gives Desi women an alternative.
London based Shafina Saleem, a 38-year-old British Bengali housewife states:
“If I had known about the products that restore virginity when I was younger, yes, I would have used them.”
“All the things relatives said about girls holding their family honour in their hands was used as an indirect threat.
“A threat to stop me and my cousin-sisters from doing anything before marriage.”
She then asserts:
“The pills and such give my nieces and others the chance to decide. Unlike me, they don’t have to be afraid of the unknown…
“Not all men care now, about their wife being a virgin, but the Asian community and families do.”
The Sharing of Virginity Stories Matters
Desi women are raised to be aware that breaking rules and expectations will impact others.
In particular that their female siblings and possibly other female relatives will also be impacted.
Such awareness can work as another way of controlling what women feel they can and cannot do.
Consider 24-year-old Birmingham based student Maya Begum’s words:
“As a Bengali girl and Muslim, I know that my virginity is viewed as mattering when it comes to my family honour.
“It’s the same for my Pakistani (female) friends. I can’t date or anything. My cousin told me about one girl who years ago got caught sleeping with a guy by her family.
“Her parents took her to get married as soon as they could. Then all the girls in her immediate family had a close eye kept on them. So, I wouldn’t risk the pills.”
Stories showing the consequences of defying norms work as a warning.
The stories shared between female friends and relatives help regulate girls’ and women’s sexual behaviour.
Secondly, the stories create a sense of fear and hesitancy to use products that promise to give back virginity.
On the other hand, sharing stories can also motivate Desi women to consider re-virginity procedures.
Halima Hussain, a 23-year-old student from Birmingham declares:
“My cousin-sister told me about a friend who got and used the kit.
She broke up with her boyfriend and then chose an arrange marriage. She didn’t want her past thrown in her face.
“And for her, virginity has never been real, so she was like ‘sod it, they want it well they’ll get it.’
“I’ve started talking to her, and she has me thinking.”
“The [virginity] kit is a viable option depending on my situation in the future.”
Pressure to Restore Virginity due to Virginity Testing?
Virginity testing still takes place across conservative cultures and religious communities.
Two common types of virginity testing are the two-finger test and the white sheet test.
The white sheet test involves blood being released on white sheets. This test usually occurs on the consummation of marriage.
For some women, revirgination products like blood pills are a way of passing the white sheet test.
British Pakistani Henna Ali emphasises that “[t]he blood capsules would be good for some girls’. In her words:
“[The] capsules allow girls who have been brave enough to have sex outside marriage, not to have heart failure.”
“Those girls don’t have to worry thinking about the hubby and family finding out that she’s not lily-white.”
WHO and the United Nations (UN) in 2018 issued a statement stressing that virginity testing is unscientific.
They also maintained that no known examination could prove that a woman has had vaginal sex.
Yet, virginity testing continues to occur across cultures and communities.
India as an Example of Virginity Testing in South Asia
In India, the Kanjarbhat community enforces a mandatory virginity test for all women before they get married.
The Kanjarbhat community defends the practice by arguing that it is a 400-year-old tradition.
Additionally, the issue of virginity testing made news in India in the winter of 2020.
Two sisters faced being divorced after one of them failed to prove she was a virgin via the white sheet test.
One of the sisters wrote in her letter to the police:
“We got married in Belgaum in Karnataka, and just four days after our marriage, we had to face torture at the hands of our in-laws.
“We were asked to undergo the virginity test and on the fifth day, were sent back from Karnataka to our house in Kolhapur.”
According to the sisters, their family attempted to appease the in-laws. However, matters did not improve, and divorces were sought.
Stories such as the one above shared across media platforms show women the consequences of failing a virginity test.
Accordingly, the story when read could have women contemplating hymen repair procedures.
Are Desi women coerced into Virginity Testing in the UK?
In the UK, virginity testing has a long history. A 2021 Sky News report outlines that campaigners are saying girls are “begging for help.”
Women are begging for aid due to families and prospective husbands making them undertake a virginity test.
One of the women interviewed by Sky News, Zara, had to undergo a virginity test before her forced marriage:
“He was somebody you didn’t know. It felt like…like you’re not a human being anymore.
“You wouldn’t treat an animal like that. He could see I was terrified. I was tearful, crying. I pleaded with him, begged him don’t do it.
“The test has destroyed me. I can’t think of getting married. I don’t want to have children, and I don’t want to be in a relationship at all.
“I’ve lost all my happiness.”
Virginity testing can be a very traumatic and undesired procedure. As of July 2021, there is no UK law that prevents virginity testing.
The Freedom Charity views virginity testing as a “degrading and harmful practice.”
Therefore, the Freedom Charity is campaigning to make virginity testing a criminal offence in the UK.
Restoring Virginity allows Women to Explore their Sexuality
The continued emphasis on female chastity means that mechanisms of revirgination are seen as valuable.
Such mechanisms enable some women to explore their sexuality and sex without fear of failing a virginity test.
Roshini Bajwa, a 35-year-old Delhi based Assistant Professor recalled conversations she had while living in a hostel in Gujarat:
“Hymen reconstruction is a big thing in Gujarat. It’s an open culture, in that there’s a lot of licence to play.
“But then there is also the cultural and community norms in Gujarat.
“Women are seen in a certain way and supposed to behave in a certain way. So the surgery allows women to have the best of both worlds.”
Roshini said that for “wealthy” Gujarati women, college was a time for sexual exploration and freedom.
Such freedom to explore was facilitated by the ability to obtain and afford hymenoplasty:
“In the hostel room girl talk, the girls knew there was a certain expectation of virginity.”
“But they didn’t want to miss out on the college experience. And they have a sexual curiosity they want to and can explore.”
Roshini highlights that for some Gujarati women, hymenoplasty enables exploration without fear of future stigma.
She maintains hymenoplasty means the illusion of virginity could be maintained. Hence, allowing women to “have a good time”.
Roshini then pointed out that women are very aware of the gender inequality they have to navigate:
“They are very clear in the hypocrisy of the morality argument when it comes to virginity.
“These women, like many Indian women, are aware it’s very patriarchal. And so have found a way to navigate the issue and community needs.
“They know what the community expect is impossible, but they also know there is no point arguing.
“Not everyone wants to walk away from their family. They don’t think their sex life is anyone else’s business.
“So the repair surgery lets them give the community the pure wife they want [laughed as she said last six words].”
Roshini’s words show that women are working out ways to navigate community and cultural expectations within their daily lives.
In doing so, they create a space to explore their desires. A space for such exploration is enabled through procedures to restore virginity.
The Tension between wanting to Explore and Fear
Even where women know that premarital sex is not a cardinal sin, they can be conflicted when reflecting on what they want to do.
Miriam Khan, a 30-year-old British Pakistani and PhD student from Birmingham first heard about procedures to restore virginity at a conference.
Having said that, Miriams has the curiosity to know more:
“I was and still am super curious about the industry. I am unmarried by choice. But how I’ve been raised means issues.
“Although I know sex doesn’t have to be tied to marriage, it still is tied to marriage for me. So, I’m in a weird headspace when it comes to sex and dating.
“Thinking about doing it outside marriage leads to feelings of guilt and fear. If I were found out, my sister would be judged, and everyone would blame my Ammi.
“My family is super traditional when it comes to women and virginity. Even though no one says it out loud…”
Like single mother Shazia Bhayat, Miriam worries about how her actions.
In particular, she has concerns about how this could negatively impact her sister and mother.
As a result, Miriam carries a sense of responsibility, shaped by social expectations that police and restrict her actions.
Miriam ends by stating:
“Honestly I can see the option of surgery as liberating, [but] I couldn’t do the surgery.
“I don’t like the idea of someone looking down there, but the kit and fake pills, that’s an idea.”
Family and cultural norms and expectations weigh heavily on Miriam’s mind.
Nonetheless, for her, procedures to restore virginity are potential avenues of enabling exploration and freedom without fear of not meeting expectations.
Restoring Virgninty because I and/or my Partner want the Virginity Experience
One argument for having procedures to restore virginity is that a woman and/or her partner want the experience.
British Pakistani and mum of two Sonia Rahmen was adamant that neither she nor her husband wanted to re-live experience:
“No, neither my boyfriend nor I wanted to re-experience by virginity being lost, once married. The first time was awkward enough.
“I wish I was one of the lucky one’s who didn’t have blood spotting the first time.”
A US website offering hymenoplasty, differ in opinion:
“Another reason women have a hymen repair procedure is to surprise their new husband on their wedding night.
“Some women have been intimate with their intended spouse and want the wedding night to be special and memorable.
“This will strengthen your love and bond, and having hymen repair will surprise and thrill him, and make your wedding night one to remember.
“For many men, the hymen has a special significance., and it gives them a special thrill to know they are the ones removing this barrier.”
This description positions women’s virginity as a gift for their male spouse. It suggests a lack of hymen will reduce the magic of the wedding night.
The focus is on the pleasure and thrills the man will have and not the woman.
No attention is given to the discomfort she may feel or the possible long-term consequences.
The description also reinforces heterosexuality as the norm. The words ignore the reality that other forms of sexual intercourse can take place for women.
A Male Perspective on Restoring Virginity
Some Desi men may want the virginity experience and expect it. Yet, this is not all men.
Birmingham based 33-year-old British Gujarati, and taxi driver Farhan Sayeed did not desire “the gift” of virginity when married:
“I wasn’t fussed, at least we both knew what we were doing.
“Her past was her past like mine was. She didn’t need to be a virgin.”
“Being in a relationship and being intimate is different to just putting it about; that applies to guys and women.
“We didn’t go into details. We were just both honest with each other. It’s no one else’s business.”
Restoring Virginity: Empowerment or Patriarchal Suppression?
As South Asian societies grow and change, the symbolism associated with unmarried women maintaining their virginity remains strong.
The emphasis placed on virginity and its symbolism works as a mechanism of controlling female sexuality.
Furthermore, it works to legitimise such control.
Procedures to restore virginity are advertised as allowing women to be empowered and navigate family expectations.
Some Desi women are trying to restore the illusion of virginity. Whilst others are seriously contemplating doing so.
Procedures to restore virginity gain support and criticism from medical professionals.
Dr Naomi Crouch worries that women and girls may be coerced into a procedure with “zero medical benefit[s].”
Dr Crouch chairs the British Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology.
Though, others like Dr Khalid Khan maintain that a ban “isn’t an appropriate response.”
Dr Khan is a professor of Women’s Health at Barts and the London School of Medicine.
For Dr Khan, the priority should be on making “good quality information” available to patients.
He claims that by providing good information, the decision can be left up to individual women.
“I believe doctors’ motives are genuinely for protection against abuse.”
The revirgination industry will continue to expand, and banning products and procedures would lead to a dangerous black market flourishing.
Technological and surgical advancements give women options. However, such options exist within a patriarchal bubble.
Thus, it needs to be asked to what extent are Desi women restoring virginity? Is it truly an individual consumer choice? Is it really empowering?
Desi women continue to conceal their engagement with procedures like hymenoplasty to restore virginity. Hence, precise numbers remain hidden.
Nonetheless, the continued emergence of clinics offering hymenoplasty in countries like Britain and India show demand is there.