BERLIN — At first glance, Leyla is like many other young women in Germany. The 29-year-old auditor enjoys going to the beach with friends, reading women's magazines, exercising at the gym.
Leyla recalls reaching puberty, back in the 1990s when she lived with her Turkish immigrant parents.
“My mother taught my sister and I from a young age that we could do whatever we wanted to,” says Leyla. (Our editorial department changed her name to grant her anonymity.) The girls did not wear headscarves. They were allowed to wear makeup, go to parties, attend university. They did go to a mosque as cultural habit and also because they felt it was their family duty, much like their friends who attended church. The only difference between them and their Christian friends was that the mothers of their friends did not talk about hymens.
Leyla's mother spoke about virginity — frequently. “Guard it as if it were sacred,” she told her daughters on a regular basis, Leyla recalls. “Men can fake their virginity, women can't.”
Leyla, anyway, wasn't interested in sex growing up. That was until she fell in love at the age of 18. “I was sure that I would marry him,” Leyla says about her first love, smiling shyly. But things turned out differently. The relationship failed after they spent four years together. “Only afterwards did I realize what that meant for me. He can always find a new girl but would someone still take me, an impure woman?”
A ripped hymen is a catastrophe for many Muslim families, even today. Kazim ErdoÄŸan, a Berlin-based family counselor and psychologist who has many clients of Turkish descent, is familiar with this problem. “To the majority of parents, their daughter's hymen is more important than their job. Even in progressive, academic families,” he says. “Women are taught that men are evil and obsessed with impure thoughts while women are responsible for upholding the family's honor.”
Young women, in despair about no longer being virgins, often seek his help. They are torn between patriarchal tradition and the modern lifestyle Germany offers.
Leyla prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan and does not drink alcohol. “I cannot imagine marrying a man who is not Muslim,” she says. “I don't want to be the only one going to the mosque when we start having children.”
But Leyla would never allow anyone to dictate to her about whether she can wear tight jeans or high heels. And she does not want to feel ashamed for having had sex outside of marriage. Leyla dated a second man for two years and shared her past with him. But, she says, he treated her less respectfully with time, was often jealous and tried to stop her from going out with her friends. When Leyla finally broke it off with him, she wondered whether he would have treated a virgin the same way.
A year ago, Leyla met a police officer — a tall, polite Turkish man with green eyes. She liked him and they texted back and forth for weeks. This time, she did not tell him of her previous relationships. “In front of him, I was the thoughtful Leyla that I normally am,” she says. “But I wasn't the Leyla who has tried marijuana and alcohol and who is no longer a virgin.”
Layla and the officer traveled together and went on dates to trendy restaurants. Once, he woke her up at 6 am and drove her to the seaside. With other men, she usually stayed home on the sofa and watched TV. “It was the first time that I could dream together with a man,” says Leyla. They talked about their feelings, about their faith and he said he does not want to have sex before marriage. He was still a virgin, after all.
Leyla, who was 28 at that time, had friends who had already started families. Leyla would like to have a family as well. That autumn, her boyfriend and she decided to get married. “I was so in love, everything was just perfect except for that one tiny, little thing,” she says.
Obscured view, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany — Photo: Glasseyes View
For the first time, Leyla typed the term “ripped hymen” on Google and discovered that there are little plastic bags, filled with artificial blood, which can be inserted into the vagina. Costing 50 euros, these pouches are supposed to rip during sex. Leyla decided that it was too risky. She searched online for the word “reconstruction” and found the website of a private clinic that promised the opportunity to “be a virgin on your wedding night.”
The clinic's plastic surgeon is one of the few doctors in Germany who openly advertises hymen reconstructions. “Others do it secretly,” says the German doctor, who wants to remain anonymous so he can frankly discuss his work. “Due to the current security situation, we are very reluctant to publicly discuss such a delicate topic.”
The doctor says he reconstructs the hymen of about 200 women a year, typically when they plan to get married. “It is mostly young women from immigrant families who come to us, who were born here, raised here and like to go out and have a boyfriend,” says the doctor. “Nearly 80% of the women are Muslim. The other women are of a strict Christian faith and may be from Kosovo or Albania, where virginity (before) marriage is still actively promoted.”
His patients include couples from religious families who demand a bloody bed sheet from the wedding night as proof of the couple's virginity. Other patients are women who come to his clinic alone. For them, it's not so much about upholding religious rules as about not disappointing their fathers or future husbands, he says.
The surgeon who performed Leyla's operation said there was no guarantee that her hymen would bleed when it ripped again. The surgeon made a few stitches to seal the vaginal membrane, creating a bulge. It's an absurd procedure as the membrane is not meant to be knit together once it's torn.
Leyla's doctor is aware that he is earning money doing an unnecessary surgery because of the faulty view society has of sexually active women. “I do not wag a moral finger at the women,” he says. “I am merely helping someone out of a tight spot.” For 1200 euros, that is.
He's not the only doctor who profits from the virginity business. Some gynecologists issue “virginity certificates” to protect daughters from their skeptical families. But, by doing so, these doctors support an inaccurate idea about the female anatomy.
The virginity myth
Anette Debertin of the Hannover Medical School busts the myth about virginity. “The condition of a hymen usually does not allow for speculating on that woman's virginity,” says Debertin. The hymen is not a lid on top of the vagina. It's more like a border that frames it.
Only a quarter of women who have sex for the first time bleed. For many women, the hymen rips while exercising or it's so elastic that it doesn't rip at all. Leyla knows this but ignores this fact-based argument in favor of hundreds of years of tradition.
Two weeks before her civil ceremony, Leyla and her fiancé decide to sleep with each other. “Both of us couldn't stand to wait any longer,” she says. But she didn't bleed — not even a little bit. Her fiancé looked at her suspiciously, hissing, “don't act as if you are a virgin now.”
The couple fought and Leyla broke into tears but she didn't tell her fiancé the truth. “I felt like such a failure,” she recalls. They canceled the wedding using her father's heart condition as a pretext. Leyla feared that her fiancé would turn his back on her forever. He sent her an email with a confession. He wasn't a virgin when they slept together but he's sure that she lied to him about being a virgin. “I need a woman who is pure,” he wrote to her.
Leyla is desperate and angry. She thinks it's unfair that men are allowed to have sex and women are not. She says that she cannot find anyone with whom she can talk to about this. “I don't think that anyone would understand me,” she says. “I have about 100 friends and good acquaintances but none of them would be able to understand me.”
Even Leyla's sister, who drinks alcohol and loves to go out, values chastity. When the wife of Leyla's uncle died when he was 50, he wanted to remarry — and he searched for a virgin. “He did actually find a 30-year-old Turkish woman who was supposedly pure but he doesn't have anything in common with her and does not love her,” Leyla says. “He admits now that he is very unhappy.”
But why does this virginity myth persist? This view of virginity exists not only in Islam but in other religions and cultures as well. Although the Bible, like the Koran, does not explicitly ask women to be virgins on their wedding day, virginity has played a central role in Christianity for centuries.
Only an “unspoiled” woman was allowed to be the mother of Jesus and was venerated as the “blessed virgin” and the embodiment of purity. Virginity was even protected by law until the 20th century in Germany. Men who had sex with their fiancés but did not marry them could, in Germany at least, be forced to pay the woman's family compensation as her prospects on the marriage market were diminished. This section of the German civil code was only eradicated in 1998.
Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood — Photo: Regine Debatty
The gains of sexual revolution in German society are yet to make a mark in many Muslim communities. “We have to explain to parents and young men that it's totally nonsensical to insist on intact hymens,” says ErdoÄŸan, the psychologist. “But we cannot do so without the help of young women.”
Do women like Leyla have to be more rebellious? Does Islam need a sexual revolution as women's rights activist Seyran AteÅŸ has called for?
Leyla knows that things will have to change. If she has children of her own one day, she says she does not want to pass on this hymen mania to them. “You lie to God, you lie to your family but, most of all, you lie to yourself,” she says.
Still, Leyla is indecisive. On the one hand, she would like for sex to be seen as something that is not dirty. “Men and women get to know each other better that way, it is something beautiful and you have to find out if the two of you are compatible.” On the other hand, she is still in contact with her former fiancé and hopes that he will believe her lie about her prior virginity.
Throughout our interview, Leyla stresses that she is not a “whore,” the term she uses to describe women in Turkish clubs who wear miniskirts and low-cut blouses. Women, in her opinion, shouldn't sleep with too many men.
ErdoÄŸan is not surprised to hear this. “We, once and for all, have to make it clear that a woman who is fond of her sexuality is not a whore.” And this point is hardly limited to Muslim society alone.