The Islamic Garden
The Myth of the Hymen
Women around the world are expected to bleed on their wedding nights as proof they are pure. But modern medicine tells us not all pure women will bleed. What's more, it is illegal in Islam to accuse a pure woman of immoral behavior. Read about this controversial issue here.
Most young women in America have never given thought to the status of their hymen, a thin membrane covering the opening of the vagina with which most infant girls are born. While an intact hymen that bleeds when broken on a bride's wedding night has traditionally been regarded as proof of her virginity, this is a myth which has been disproven many times over in the twentieth century as the medical establishment has made it clear that:
1. Some girls are born without a hymen;
2. The hymen may tear naturally when a girl plays sports or engages in any physical activity;
3. The hymen is not always smooth but tends to be perforated and that the perforations may get bigger and cause the hymen to break once a girl menstruates;
4. The hymen can be broken by the use of tampons;
5. The hymen may be very small or very elastic so that no breakage occurs at all (some women even become pregnant while their hymens are still intact);
6. A hymen may not bleed when broken.
Given these facts, it is extremely sad that women all over the world are still expected to bleed on their wedding nights as proof that they are virgins and that they often pay severe consequences if they happen not to bleed, possibly being shamed and humiliated, instantly divorced or even killed. To avoid such disasters, women have resorted to various tricks to ensure that they bleed, including the use of animal blood in their private parts or even cutting themselves, while wealthier women often get gynecological exams before marriage and do hymen-repair surgery in the event that no hymen is found. There is so much confidence in the idea that an intact hymen proves virginity that the trend in many countries now is to have one's daughter "officially certified" as a virgin by a clinic. This is so embarassing for the girls that a number of them (most notably in Turkey) have committed suicide rather than be touched by strangers in this bizarre, invasive manner.
As a Muslim woman, it pains me greatly to hear of lives being destroyed by such blatant ignorance. In Islam, there is no such need to prove one's virginity by bleeding on the wedding night. This is not to say, however, that it is not important that both the husband and wife should be virgins provided that they are entering into their first marriages. Sexual relationships outside the marital union are strictly prohibited in Islam and there are very serious punishments for men and women who violate this rule. It is actually very difficult to prove someone's adultery in Islam as there must be four witnesses to the act and this is seldom (if ever) achieveable. One may also choose to confess to his/her own adultery while a woman's adultery is considered automatically proven should she become pregnant out of wedlock. Married men who witness their wives committing adultery do not need three additional witnesses in court but may swear four times that they have seen the act. Islam is so fair in this case that the wife is allowed to confirm or refute her husband's accusation; if she claims innocence, she need only swear four times that she did not commit the act, and she will not be punished.
The Islamic process for verifying adultery is very cautious simply because it is such a serious crime of which to accuse someone. In fact, it is a very big sin in Islam to falsely accuse someone of adultery, and the accuser is held accountable for slander under Islamic Law. Islam has discussed all aspects of adultery and fornication from defining the terms to explaining how it is proven and how one is punished for them. In all the texts and historical references we have available to us, it is never mentioned that a woman must bleed in order to prove her virginity or that there are any physical signs of virginity (such as an intact hymen) of which we should be aware. We only know that it is prohibited to accuse another human being of illegal sexual intercourse without having sufficient proof of that as described above. If a Muslim woman (or man, by the way) is truly not a virgin and she chooses to lie about that, then she surely knows that she will face Allah with her lie on the Day of Judgment. This alone is enough to make the vast majority of Muslims abstain from illegal sexual relationships.
Unfortunately, Islamic Law is not applied to its fullest in many of our Islamic nations, and the people who have religious knowledge are not always well coordinated with the people who have scientific or medical knowledge. Even worse, it only takes one or two people in positions of power to give wrong information, and lives are changed forever. This is what is happening in parts of the Muslim world.
I was prompted to write this article after reading a disturbing essay on virginity authored by a well-known Muslim professor in the field of obstetrics and gynecology at a university in Kuwait. (I am not sure whether or not he is also a medical doctor as this is not mentioned on the website where I found his essay. It is, by the way, a very nice website with a lot of useful information about medical ethics in Islam.) In any event, the professor takes it upon himself to say that it is completely false that a hymen may tear when a girl engages in activities such as horseback riding, bicycle riding or gymnastics. He does not give any evidence for that at all, and it does not take much reading between the lines to understand his real message: that some unchaste women who want to conceal their pasts use sports as an excuse for why they do not bleed and that women in general have become less fearful of being identified as non-virgins since science now backs them up and allows them to escape suspicion of immoral behavior.
While a small percentage of women may deceive their husbands and families in this manner, the fact is that we cannot ignore or twist scientific facts in order to enforce morality. I am not a doctor myself but it seems like common sense that physical activity can stretch and tear the hymen which is, incidentally, not usually any thicker than a grape skin. As I researched this subject, I came across pictures of various types of hymens, and it is clear that no two women are exactly alike in how their hymens are formed. Some (as mentioned earlier) are perforated while some are smooth and elastic. Some girls are do not even have a hymen. So, to state the obvious: it is outrageous to use the hymen as a means by which to gauge the chasity of any woman.
But it is still not obvious to many. The professor also writes that gynecologists are generally wary of examining single women for fear of breaking the hymen and often do pelvic examinations per rectum. Women who suffer from cryptomenorrhoea (a closed hymen which does not allow for the flow of menstrual blood and results in the blood getting backed up) only get a small incision made in the hymen so the blood can pass rather than having the hymen fully opened. In other words, the health of women is compromised and put at risk just to ensure she will bleed after marriage and prove something Islam never asked her to prove in the first place.
I realized how scary this whole situation can be for women when I read a young woman's question on an Islamic discussion board a few months ago. She wrote:
Assalamua'alaikum dear people
I am a 22 year old muslim sister who is currently looking for a husband. My cultural background is such that people can only tell that you are a virgin if you have a hymen. Scientific fact is that some women don't have a hymen and others break theirs easily.
Although i am a virgin, i am terrified of what my wedding night holds because if there's no hymen (please Allah i hope there is), my family and even my husband (whoever he might be), would doubt my virtue.
Any suggestions or advice for my fears?
A heated debate followed this question with the majority of respondents (mostly Muslims living in the West) suggesting she should not even bother with the accusations of others as they are baseless in Islam. Of course this information is correct but it does not take into account the reality of the consequences a woman may face if she is thought not to be a virgin. When a woman's life is literally at risk in such situations, then she should definitely think about this issue and decide how she will handle it. In fact, all women should think about it because it might not be you in this situation but your daughter, sister or friend one day in the future. Are we (the women) going to allow the misinformation to continue by teaching our daughters how to use animal blood and other false techniques to ensure their husbands see blood, or are we going to take the steps necessary in order to educate men and women both about this very important issue? Apparently, it is not even enough that the husband be educated in the field of obstetrics and gynecology (as evidenced by the professor): a major, widespread effort is needed to combat this deep-rooted ignorance.
Western (non-Muslim) feminists often fail in their efforts to educate other societies about such issues because they approach the situation from the wrong direction, one which Muslims find offensive. They do not take into account the values of the Islamic religion which state that men and women both should be pure at the time of first marriage; rather they often suggest that women should be liberated from this idea and allowed to date and have boyfriends with whom they may choose to be intimate. This idea is unacceptable in Islam, and it should not have a place in the movement to educate Muslims about the nature of the hymen. Instead, the focus should be on scientific facts and on understanding the true Islamic position on this matter.
Another mistake non-Muslims often make is to blame and criticize Islam for the ignorance which can serve to oppress women. We have already seen this in the Western movement to abolish female genital mutilation: in the beginning of this movement the world was informed that this abhorrent practice is an Islamic ritual that Muslim women must undergo as a matter of religious obligation when the fact is that this practice is un-Islamic and has its roots in pre-Islamic African traditions. While some Muslim women are circumcised, it is not because Islam asked them to do that but because they live in a society in which religious knowledge has taken second place to cultural practices. With regards to the hymen issue, it is also wrong to blame Islam (as I have demonstrated in this article), and what's more: this problem is by no means limited to the Islamic world - women in Asia, South America, and even Europe and North America still believe in the myth of the hymen: just ask your mothers and grandmothers.
All Muslims have a responsibility to fight ignorance and oppression. If you are a Muslim, the least you can do to educate others about this issue is to start with your own family...make sure that your sons and daughters both have correct information before they get married. Open the subject with your husbands, mothers, aunts and friends as much as you can within the limits of good taste as it is not always acceptable to discuss such topics openly (depending on the culture.)
If you work in the healthcare industry, find opportunities to educate your patients even if they come to your office for another type of healthcare concern. One way to do this might be to prepare a general package of healthcare pamphlets for each patient, and the hymen can be one of the subjects covered. This way you are not embarassing or offending anyone, but you are still getting the word out. If you work in a multi-cultural society, do not forget to have the information printed in more than one language.
I thank you all for taking the time to read this lengthy article and I ask that Allah guide us all to the Truth and Beauty of Islam as it is truly a religion and way of life which fights injustice in all its forms.Health