In the Pink

Surgeons are sculpting labia, reconnecting hymens and inventing a new standard of beauty in female genitalia

Matlock and his associates claim their willingness to perform hymenoplasties demonstrates a commitment to women's rights. "I don't have to do this," one doctor says. "I'm jeopardizing my life to help these women."

Some conservative Muslim, Asian and Latin American cultures demonize the loss of virginity before marriage. A small number of these societies tolerate the killing of women who do not bleed on their wedding night in the name of family honor. The act is usually performed by the woman's father, brother, uncle or cousin.

Honor killings are prevalent in poor, rural Islamic communities, though isolated cases have occurred throughout Europe and even in America, according to Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the international human rights group Equality Now.

Dr. Troy Hailparn discovered that tightening vaginas is far more lucrative than delivering babies.
Todd Spivak
Dr. Troy Hailparn discovered that tightening vaginas is far more lucrative than delivering babies.

Many such killings go unpunished and unreported. One recent study found that two dozen honor killings occur in Jordan every year, according to The Media Line, a news organization that focuses on the Middle East.

Dr. Robert Stubbs, a board-certified plastic surgeon based in Toronto, doesn't advertise hymenoplasties, though he has performed them for women in dire circumstances.

A 19-year-old, first-generation Afghan-Canadian came to him covered in bruises. She said she'd been date-raped. Stubbs advised her to get counseling. But her parents were strict, conservative Muslims, and she was terrified. Her rapist had threatened to tell her parents it was consensual in order to prevent her from calling the police.

Another American doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he reconstructed the hymen of a 28-year-old Iranian woman four times. On each occasion, the same man accompanied her and paid for the surgery. The couple was having premarital sex, the doctor explains, but the woman "wanted to be ready" when her parents picked her mate. "That's expensive sex," the doctor muses.

All plastic and cosmetic surgeries are forbidden by conservative Islamic societies, says Sami Hizaji, headmaster of the Al-Hadi School for Accelerated Learning in Houston.

"God created human beings in a perfect form, whether they think so or not," Hizaji says. "Harming oneself to beautify oneself is not acceptable."

Zoubir Bouchikhi, an imam for the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, says that women who undergo hymenoplasties are committing a grave sin. "It's a deception," he says.

The moral dilemmas posed by female genitalia surgeries pass over Hailparn's head. Since the procedures are elective, she says, they cannot be compared to female genital mutilation. Hailparn has treated victims of female circumcision, a custom that remains legal in many African and Middle Eastern countries.

Several years ago she delivered the baby of an African woman whose clitoris had been removed by tribal members. The woman had been held down against her will. No anesthesia was used.

Hailparn repaired the woman's torn urethra and removed scar tissue. But she couldn't undo what had been done to her, since clitoral tissue cannot be put back.

The Kuwaiti woman Hailparn treated said she would have to hang a sheet outside her bedroom to show the blood on her wedding night.

Hailparn advised her to prick her arm with a safety pin and fake it.

Better to reconstruct a woman's hymen than to see her stoned to death, Hailparn figures.

Reflecting on her newfound fortune, Hailparn sometimes pricks her own arm.

"How can these tiny pieces of tissue have so much control over women's lives?"

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