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Hymenoplasty in Northern India

Since independence, India has been struggling to maintain its traditions while embracing aspects of Western culture. As an Indian women who has spent most of her life outside of India, I have also often strived to somehow balance Western and Indian values. A technology that also seemed to be struck me in class discussions was that of hymenoplasty. This seems to me a technology whose use also seemed to be stuck in trying to maintain this balance. It seemed to me that women who opted to undergo this procedure were living in a constant predicament, with believing in expressing themselves sexually, yet acceding to tradition. This led me to question why it is that they ultimately succumbed to tradition. In this paper, I will be examining why women in northern India are increasingly opting to undergo this reconstructive surgery, and how feminists view this dichotomy.

Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure to restore the hymen. An intact hymen is often interpreted as a sign of virginity, even though it can break through other means, such as intense physical activity. In many cultures, women are expected to remain virgins until marriage and the bleeding on the wedding night serves as a proof of virginity. However, a women may or may not bleed, thus making this assumption largely futile. Regardless, it is still a highly valued method of determining the chastity of unmarried women. The increasing popularity of this procedure illustrates the importance given to female virginity in many cultures.

In northern India, pre-martial sex is highly condemned, although it is becoming increasingly common. It is very important that a bride is a virgin and in the event that she is not, her family will have to face societal wrath. In addition, a sexual history will decrease her chance of getting married by a large amount. In fact, “a bride’s virginity is still considered the best wedding gift to the groom” ( There are also women who, after having been call girls, want to get their hymen reconstructed so that their husbands and in-laws do not find out about their past profession (,prtpage-1.cms). In this way, it perhaps can be seen as a liberating tool since it allows women sexual freedom and the freedom to hide their sexual past. It is interesting to note that unlike in some Islamic cultures, these women are not subject to honour killings. Many sexually active women undergo hymenoplasty to avoid indignation from both their husbands and society.

Like all medical surgeries, hymenoplasty one also has its share of complications. While, it may not be fatal, it can lead to infections thus cause pain. It is interesting to note that having this surgery brings back the pain associated with the first sexual experience, that is, in having this surgery, women are voluntarily increasing their pain. To many feminists, this seems detrimental, repressive, and backward. Society demands that women who sexually assert themselves must undergoing pain to experience more pain and women are willingly undermining their freedom and giving in to tradition. Accepting this surgery is agreeing that sexually active unmarried women should not be accepted in society unless they get “revirginated” (, which is a form of oppression.

Eco-feminists see technology like hymenoplasty in a similar way. In general, eco-feminists “see technology as an example of the way in which men try to dominate and control both nature and women” (Grint). Thus, hymenoplaty can be seen as mens’ way of using technology to subjugate women. In undergoing the procedure, women have to suffer through any complications and have to tolerate the pain caused by subsequent sexual experience. This is their punishment for sexually asserting themselves and to avoid going through it, they must remain “pure” until marriage.

In doing this surgery, feminists think that doctors too are reinforcing the stereotype rather than breaking it. Instead, they should be educating women and society in general that a broken hymen does not necessarily denote previous sexual experience. Doctors, however, do not agree, asserting that this is a personal decision which should be left to the woman. If her happiness lies in undergoing the procedure, then she should be allowed to undergo it. In addition, they cite its popularity in the West as a measure of whether it is morally correct (

Some theorists see this restriction on female sexuality as a way to limit womens’ autonomy. It also implies that a woman’s virginity has some intrinsic value, which should not be lost outside of marriage (Schlegel). There is an interesting paradox with having a value associated with virginity. Although virginity is be valued and this desire to preserve virginity seems, as a certain level, to put a high value on women, this is hardly seen in the treatment of women in India, who often have a low social status.

Hymenoplasty seems to be a technology that is at odds with its role in womens lives. While on one end, it could be seen as a liberation tool, it is also a manifestation of society’s oppression of women. Women who have broken societal norms and have exercised their sexual freedom later give it up to avoid punishment and conform to tradition. With authorities, such as doctors, supporting their decision, if north Indian women are to assert their sexual freedom, one day they must end it and go back to tradition, only after going through a lot of pain, and being reborn as a pure sexually inexperienced woman.


Chozick, Amy. “Virgin Territory: U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time”. My Plastic Surgeon

USA. 2005 <


Crumley, Bruce. “The Dilemma of ‘Virginity’ Restoration”. Time . 2008. <


Grint, Keith and Rosalind Gill. The Gender Technology Relation, Contemporary theory and

research. Taylor and Francis Publishers Inc.

Hymenoplasty – increasing trends in northern India. Free Press Release, 2008 <>

Kaur, Gagandeep. “For Pleasure and Pain”. 2009 <


Priyadarshini, Subhra. “Be a virgin again – ‘Virginity is still an important issue in Indian

marriages’” The Telegraph. 2006 <


Schlegel, Alice. Status, Property, and the Value on Virginity. American Ethnologist, Vol. 18,

No. 4 (Nov., 1991), pp. 719-734

Sharma, Radha. “Get Under the Knife be a Virgin Again”. Times Of India. 2006


One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 16, 2009

    Be sure to check out Roisin’s essay on “constructing virgins” and compare your conclusions; I’m suggesting she do the same.

    You’ve traced the fascinating (im?)balance between liberation and oppression that hymenoplasty points to: offering (on the individual level) a freedom from past sexual activity and its consequences, while reinforcing (on the social level) conventional oppressive restrictions on the sexual behavior of women. Those are the two “ends,” the two levels of analysis—individual and social–that you describe in detail, but don’t quite lay out explicitly as oppositions.

    Your essay raises a series of related questions for me. Why, if pre-martial sex is so highly condemned in northern India, is it becoming increasingly common? It’s that tension, of course, that gives rise to these new surgical interventions, so it would be helpful to me to more fully understand the cultural and historical context. At several points in the paper you observe that it is “interesting to note” something or other (that there are no honour killings in this part of the world, for instance; or that undergoing this surgery forces a woman to then re-experience the pain of having her hymen broken once again in sex). I’d like to know more, in those spots, about just what it is you find interesting; it would make it more interesting to me to understand those things.

    My most important question, though, has to do w/ the paradox you trace @ the end of your paper: that valuing a woman’s virginity is not necessarily about valuing the woman herself, but rather….what? Her as property? Whose? As symbol of…what? I’d like to know more (again) about the cultural context that so weights the importance of this one biological part of women.

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