Premarital sex is common in Tunisia, a conservative Muslim country, but just before marriage, Tunisian brides-to-be rush to doctors begging for a reconstructive surgery so they don't present themselves as used women. It happens every April ahead of the summer marriage season, says Tunisian gynaecologist Faouzi Hajri - desperate brides-to-be beg for surgery to make them "virgins" again for their wedding night.
Fearing rejection as "used" women in a conservative Muslim country where premarital sex is nevertheless common, Tunisian women are increasingly opting for the sort of surgery offered by Doctor Hajri.
But it doesn't stop them regretting the need to convince new husbands of their purity.
"A woman's honour shouldn't be determined by a few drops of blood," says Salima, a 32-year-old who admits she had the operation so that her "honour" was not in question on her wedding night.
It is easy for a woman to have her hymen surgically reconstructed in Tunisia.
The routine hospital operation takes around 30 minutes and costs from 400 to 700 euros ($550 to $960), with a less permanent version needing to be done within a week of the wedding, while the stitches hold.
"The number of women resorting to hymenoplasty or hymenorrhaphy (as the operations are known) has gone up a lot in recent years," says Moncef Kamel, a doctor in the southern island of Djerba.
The women he operates on -- around 100 each year, aged between 18 and 45 -- come with their faces hidden behind a scarf and dark glasses, "have a normal, active sex life", and generally hail from working-class backgrounds.
"It's a taboo subject, which explains why there's a lack of official statistics," says Doctor Hajri.
The Tunis-based gynaecologist says he also treats about 100 women annually, including from neighbouring Libya and Algeria.
- Men want virgin brides -
Since the 1950s, Tunisia has been considered the most progressive country in the Arab world in terms of women's rights, and politicians enshrined gender equality in the new constitution adopted in January.
Demographic changes have reinforced personal freedoms, with sex outside marriage increasingly common and more people opting to marry later.
But conservative attitudes persist, and for many Tunisian men marrying a virgin remains a priority, hence the rising demand for hymen restorations.
For Tarek Belhadj Mohamed, a sociologist, such male attitudes reflect the "hypocrisy" of Tunisian society, which he said refuses to recognise the change in behaviour of a large section of the population.
Research by psychoanalyst Nedra Ben Smail indicates that just five percent of Tunisian young women are not worried about losing their virginity before marriage, while more than 75 percent of women appearing to be virgins on their wedding night have had the operation.
"The Tunisian way of life seems modern and open, but the reality is different: our society and even our ruling elite is in theory tolerant on the question of virginity, but when it affects them personally, virginity is a primordial condition for marriage," said Belhadj Mohamed.
"Virginity certifies a woman's validity in our society where her purpose is essentially sexual and reproductive, while men have to 'train' so that they are sexually mature when they get married," he argued.
He called the hymen operation a form of "discrimination towards women".
- Lying under pressure -
Salima agrees, despite having consented to the operation herself, saying she was forced into it by "the hypocrisy of men and of our society".
The young woman decided one day that she would be honest with her boyfriend, whom she had not slept with, and told him she was not a virgin.
"But as soon as he knew, he refused to marry and did everything he could to get me into his bed. That's the way Tunisian men think. A woman who has had sex before marriage is just a slut and can't be a good mother!"
Another young woman, Sabra, believes unmarried women should have the right to a sex life just like the men, and that virginity is never a guarantee of fidelity.
But the 27-year-old also chose to lie and yield to social pressures, rather than run the risk of remaining single.
"If I had told my husband that I wasn't a virgin, he would never have agreed to marry me. And it's the same for many women in Tunisia."
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