Many Iraqi women resort to patching their hymens, as a result of a strict social upbringing that requires girls to keep their “treasure” unscathed. In a way, this situation reflects severe schizophrenic issues in Iraqi society, which links between chastity and the hymen of a woman with the honour and dignity of her entire family..
This thin membrane, the “talisman” that young women must exhibit in front of a new husband, is the “registered sign” of her chastity, purity and a proof that she has been capable of protecting herself from any “unlawful” sexual conduct, until she was married.
Because virginity is such a red line in Iraqi society, many myths and legends are woven around it. It is a rich subject that men and women fantasize upon voraciously even though they do without any clear scientific approach.
Fixing the family’s honour
A pharmacist called Ahmed al-Qaisi explained to The Red Line how the business of hymen surgery was built around the women’s need to protect her dignity. Mr. Al-Qaisi described how doctors from Al-Karama hospital would practice hymen surgeries on a regular basis: “The hospital staff often receive women before their weddings. They all hope to protect themselves from any accusations regarding their virginity. Some informed medical staff, including a man called Yasser that I know would then lead young women to a doctor that implants artificial hymen a day or two before their weddings.”
Dr. Barakat was performing this operation in his clinic in the Dora area. Mr. Al-Qaisi says that “Yasser was sexually and financially exploiting some of the girls in exchange for this operation.”
Israa is one of these women that undertook a surgery. She shared her story to The Red Line. Due to a horse accident, her hymen was broken, the 30-year-old woman explained. She then became the target of virginity accusations: “I was rejected by the man I loved even though I provided him with a medical report proving that my hymen had been broken during my horse accident”. In distress, the young woman felt she had no other solution than to resort to a doctor’s help in order to perform a patching operation, before marrying another man.
Hymen patching should not be seen as a scheme to deceive the men they marry: “No one wants to be deceived. Society forces us to do that. And if we are victims, no one will forgive us even if we do not commit any crime. Whoever does not have a virginity hymen is either left without marriage due to fear of a post-marriage scandal, or she resorts to these alternatives.”, Israa claimed.
According to the (Iraqi) Commission for Human Rights, in 2020, more than 75% of girls who were killed in the country were said to have committed honor suicide, meaning they either killed themselves to avoid shaming their family, or were killed by them and subsequently declared dead by suicide. A member of the Commission, Mr. Faten Al-Halfi said that “most women killed through honor crimes are categorized as suicides. The relatives of these victimes justify their crimes by convincing themselves that the woman they murdered committed a dishonorable act and deserved to die. So, when they are asked by the authorities, the relatives usually agree to declare that she committed suicide and was not killed.”, a version that the police often has no way of contesting.
The law justifies honor killings
Ibtihal is one of the victims of an honor crime. Her brother Faisal took her life in Karbala governorate when she was 33 years old. Ibtihal’s husband had just discovered that she was not a virgin on the wedding night. Her mother shared her memory of the events to The Red Line: “I remember the door of the house was knocked on all night through. Ibtihal’s husband brought her, still wearing her house clothes, dragged her by her hair, and made a scandal in front of us and in the neighborhood.”
Faisal stabbed his sister with a knife until she died. “Faisal was imprisoned for one year, and he left after I appointed a lawyer for him who proved that what he did was an honor crime. I could not lose my son and daughter. That marriage was a curse to us.”, she explained.
Indeed, the Iraqi law mitigates a crime if it is proven to be motivated by honor issues. Lawyer Ali Salam told The Red Line that according to Iraqi law, the penalty for honor crimes does not exceed three years for perpetrators. Stressing that “this punishment unfortunately encourages criminals to commit their crimes.”
Different ways of patching
Abu Mustafa works as a medical assistant in Al-Karama Hospital, and he is also an intermediary between several doctors and nurses who perform this type of operation. He shared with The Red Line about his wor, saying “Many girls have had accidents that caused them to break their hymens, and I help them obtain an operation to prevent any bad consequences because of it”
Abu Mustafa expanded, explaining that there are many cases of women who come a few days before the wedding, scared that their affairs will be exposed on the night of the wedding”.
According to the medical assistant, there are two ways of carrying these operations. One of them is easy and superficial while the second is more professional, but more painful. “The first process is to implant a thin layer of flesh in the area of the ruptured membrane, but this method is easy to notice, and we must perform it just one day before the wedding, as the new membrane will melt or be torn easily. Because of the precariousness of this method, The closer in time it is performed to the wedding hours, the better.”
The operation described by Abu Mustafa can deceive men unfamiliar with women’s physiology: “This method is easy for anyone to discover, but someone who doesn’t know women’s bodies cannot notice the effects of the operation.”
Regarding the second method, Abu Mustafa explained it was referred to as the “onion peel process”: “We cut a slice of skin where the hymen is broken, and then a thin piece of skin is placed back to close the area just like the hymen was before its rupture. We perform this operation by stitching this thin piece with a thread not exceeding 1 cm in length. This process causes terrible pain after the effects of the anesthetic wear off.”
The second method should be carried no later than two days before the wedding, because the thin piece of skin will otherwise get damaged and fade over time.
There is a price difference between these two methods. “The thread method costs between 250 thousand Iraqi dinars and 500 thousand (170 to 340 USD).”, Abu Mustafa noted.
Doctors often get opportunistic when it comes to these practices. Indeed, some surgeons raise prices according to their client’s fears: “if the girl is afraid and worried, the price of the operation increases. Women are being taken advantage of, in all honesty.”, Abu Mustafa admitted. The onion peel method costs one and a half million Iraqi dinars (more than a thousand USD), because it is more professional and harder to discover, the medical assistant said.
Slums and virginity
In the slum areas of the capital, the percentage of women who perform patching surgeries is high. Umm Kazem, a 65-year-old authorized midwife, works in one of Baghdad’s slums called Al-Ma’amal. She described to The Red Line how the need to prevent honour killings and other complications due to the loss of virginity affects the women in the slums.
“I have been here since my childhood, and as soon as I grew up, I became a licensed midwife as I have a nursing certificate. Many girls from this area pass by. They usually got involved in illegal relationships, which made them obliged to undergo this operation in order to cover up for their past.
A mediator usually puts Umm Kazem in touch with girls who seek help but are from other neighborhoods. Muhsin al-Akaili, who is affiliated with one of the armed militias, is one of them. The man owns a civil society organization and often works as a mediator between women from the upper class who wish to come to Umm Kazim and carry out these operations. He told The Red Line that the number of women from the high-end areas in Baghdad, (such as Zayouna, Al-Mansour, and Al-Jama’a) that perform these operations is much higher than the number of women in the slum areas.
Mr. Al-Akaili also pointed out that Umm Kazem is able to perform operations in such a way that women truly feel a renewed sense of virginity: “It is very difficult to discover the marks of the operation.”, he said. The mediator also pointed out that Umm Kazem’s operation may cost up to two million Iraqi dinars.
The Ministry of Health periodically monitors doctors, whether inside hospitals or in private clinics. Saif Al-Badr, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Health, told The Red Line that the ministry’s oversight offices used to follow up and monitor their cadres, and they are working to impose strict penalties on anyone who violates the medical and humanitarian oath which doctors undertake before practicing their profession.
Mr. Al-Badr stressed that there is a cooperation between the Ministries of Interior and Health in order to combat such illegal activities, due to the potential abuse women could be subject to. “We must also point out that most women are forced to resort to such operations because of the crimes of shame and the tribal reality experienced by large segments of Iraqi society.”, the spokesperson noted.
Activist Ansam Salman is a representative of the Iraqi Women’s Network. In her interview with The Red Line, she discussed the issue of hymen surgeries in Iraq. “Unfortunately, the Iraqi society pushes others to commit illegal actions. Hence women are pushed to contact some doctors in order to perform a hymen reconstruction.” In her opinion these operations violate the law, on top of being controversial on a moral level: “They push women to start their marital life with lies and deception.
Hymen represents a symbol of virginity, honor and chastity for women in the Iraqi society. While hymens have different shapes and sometimes get broken outside of sexual intercourse, women resort to surgical operations for fear of honour crimes. This type of patriarchal violence comes from people’s ignorance. After 2003, the year when the United States spearheaded a military operation to topple Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, honor crimes sharply increased due to the subsequent chaos that followed. These crimes further escalated in the last five years.