In Iran, many people believe that it is important for women to be virgins on their wedding day. Even so, many women do have sex before marriage. As a result, a real industry has grown up around hymen reconstruction and “virginity pills.” More and more ads for these kind of products and services are popping up on Iranian social media.
For many years, women have been turning to surgery to mask the fact that they’ve had sex before marriage. The surgical procedure involves closing up, sometimes almost completely, the vaginal opening so that the woman will bleed when she has intercourse with her new husband. This bleeding is supposedly proof of the young woman’s purity, as most will assume that the bleeding comes from the tearing of her hymen.
A woman’s hymen, however, doesn’t necessarily tear the first time she has sex and, even if it does, it might not bleed. Secondly, a hymen can be torn outside of sex. But the myth that a woman must bleed during her first experience of vaginal penetration is widely believed in Iran and around the world. The result is that these operations have been common in Iran since the 1970s (as well as in many other countries, including France.)
Tutorial published in 2011 on YouTube.
A pill that releases red liquid
Starting in the 1990s, another option appeared for women wanting to fake their virginity: pills that are supposed to make it seem as if a woman has an intact hymen. The price of these pills vary widely, but most seem to work in the same way. About an hour before having sex, the woman is supposed to put a pill in her vagina. When the pill becomes damp, its exterior softens. During penetration, the exterior breaks and releases a red liquid, which is supposed to trick the husband.
In recent years, more and more ads for these pills have been popping up on both Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service that is extremely popular in Iran, and Instagram, which is also widely used.
Women can order these pills to whichever postal address they want in just a few clicks. The ads promise to deliver the pills in plain packaging so as not to arouse suspicion. The price usually varies between about 30,000 and 350,000 tomans (equivalent to between 6 and 70 euros).
Example of commercials for “virginity pills” published on Instagram by a clinc that says it is specialized in vaginal surgery. On the boxes, it is written “fake hymen” and the clinic’s name.
Most of the pills on the market are made by four different brands: Noval, Beauty Virgin, Butterfly and Robert. However, online searches in both Persian and English don’t produce any results for legitimate pharmaceutical companies. If you search “Beauty Virgin”, for example, you get information about a line of cosmetics made by the Chinese company Realmus, but they don’t make “virginity pills.” Noval Cosmetics is apparently based in Singapore, but it’s not clear if this is the same company that produces the pills that have become so popular in Iran.
The France 24 Observers team tried long and hard to find an Iranian woman who had used one of these pills without success – it is a taboo topic, after all. So it is hard to know what kind of pill these companies are actually selling, if they work and if they pose health risks for users.
Vaginal pills that simulate bleeding have been manufactured and sold since the 90s in Japan, India, China and in the United Kingdom, but none of these brands seem to be on the Iranian market.
However, if the large number of ads for these products on Iranian social media is any indicator, these pills do seem to be popular. According to a 2014 study conducted by the research unit of the Iranian parliament, 74.3% of Iranian high school students (both male and female) have had sexual relations (though “sexual relations” is not defined in the study and it isn’t clear if that means penetration or not). In 2015, Iranian local media reported that it had contacted a company selling these pills. The company claimed to receive about 100 calls a day and to ship 15 packages a day to customers.
“Men want to discover sex with their girlfriends but also want the women they marry to be virgins”
Our Observer Nazanin lives in Tehran. She organises workshops about sexual health for women living in low-income areas in the capital.
“For a small part of the population – the most privileged – it no longer matters if women are virgins or not when they are married. But for a large number of Iranians, even if having a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage is starting to become normal, it’s still very important for women to be virgins when they are married.”
In summation, even if lifestyles are changing, gender roles in society are still in place. Men want to discover sex with their girlfriends, but they want the women they marry to be virgins on their wedding day. That leaves many women with little choice but to resort to a fake hymen.”
A very expensive operation
Many Iranian women turn to surgery to hide the fact that they’ve had sex and a whole industry involving special clinics has grown up around it. However, the fact that it is such a taboo topic also means that there aren’t really any statistics about the number of operations that take place each year.
However, our Observers says that it’s easy to find a doctor willing to perform the operation. A simple internet search shows an abundance of offers to perform this procedure. That said, you have to have the money to do it. On average, these operations cost between 5 and 7 million tomans (equivalent of between 1,000 and 1,400 euros).
Gynecologists remain reticent about the topic. The France 24 Observers contacted Doctor Azam Mousavi, a member of the board of directors of the Iranian Society of Gynecologic Oncology. She refused to talk about vaginal operations and claimed that she had never heard of “virginity pills”. Two other Iranian gynecologists, who regularly speak to the Iranian media, also claimed that they had no information about these pills.
“Gynecologists make money producing ‘certificates of virginity’”
“Even today, most gynecologists don’t want to cooperate with organisations that help women. In my opinion, gynecologists are complicit in maintaining the belief that virginity at marriage is really important in Iranian society. Even though it has been proven that hymens don’t necessarily tear during a woman’s first sexual encounter, gynecologists still provide “certificates of virginity” upon demand and make money doing it. That goes against any kind of ethical practice. They shouldn’t have the right to share a patient’s private information with a third party.”
The Observers team reached out to an Iranian gynecologist who practices in the United Kingdom. She spoke to the team on conditions of anonymity. She said that she had provided “certificates of virginity”, as well as certificates stating that a woman’s hymen had been pierced because of an “accident” and not because of sexual relations. She said she had made these certificates for women of both Iranian and other origins.
“What’s even more serious is that many Iranian gynecologists refuse to perform certain tests on unmarried women, like the Pap test [Editor’s note: a method used to detect cancerous and precancerous processes in the cervix], because they say that they can’t run the risk of damaging a woman’s hymen. So unmarried women run a higher risk of developing undetected cancers.”
Cervical cancer is the 4th most deadly cancer and the fifth most common cause of death for Iranian women, according to the Iranian Society of Cancerology.