- Firouzeh Akbarian and Sofia Bettiza
- BBC World Service
In Iran, virginity before marriage is considered important to many girls and their families — a value deeply rooted in cultural conservatism.
Men sometimes demand a certificate of virginity — a practice that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers against human rights. But in the past year, more and more people have campaigned against it.
“You tricked me into marrying you because you’re not a virgin. No one would marry you if they knew the truth.”
That’s what Maryam’s husband told her after they had sex for the first time.
She tried to assure him that even though she hadn’t bled, she’d never had sex before.
But he didn’t believe her and asked her to make a certificate of virginity.
This is not uncommon in Iran. After getting engaged, many women go to the doctor and get a test that proves they’ve never had sex.
The virginity test has no scientific merit, according to the WHO.
Maryam’s certificate stated that her hymen type was “elastic”. That means she might not bleed after penetrative sex.
“It hurt my pride. I didn’t do anything wrong, but my husband kept insulting me,” she said. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I took some pills and tried to kill myself.”
She was taken to a hospital in time and survived.
“I will never forget those dark days. I lost 20kg during that time.”
Maryam’s story is the reality of many women in Iran. Being a virgin before marriage is still crucial for many girls and their families. It is a value deeply rooted in cultural conservatism.
But recently, things have started to change. Women and men across the country have been campaigning to end virginity tests.
In November, an online petition received nearly 25,000 signatures in a single month. This was the first time that the virginity test was openly criticized by so many people in Iran.
“It’s a violation of privacy and it’s humiliating,” says Neda.
When she was a 17-year-old student in Tehran, she lost her virginity to her boyfriend.
“I panicked. I was terrified of what would happen if my family found out.”
So, Neda decided to repair her hymen. Technically, this procedure is not illegal — but it has dangerous social implications, so no hospital will agree to do it.
Faced with this, Neda found a private clinic that would do this in secret—at a high price. “I spent all my savings. I sold my laptop, my cell phone and my gold jewelry,” she says.
She had to sign a document to take full responsibility if something went wrong.
A midwife then performed the procedure, which took about 40 minutes.
But Neda would need many weeks to recover.
“I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t move my legs,” she recalls.
She hid everything from her parents.
“I felt very alone. But I think the fear of them finding out helped me to tolerate the pain.”
In the end, the ordeal Neda endured was in vain.
A year later, she met someone who wanted to marry her. But when they had sex, she didn’t bleed. The procedure failed.
“My boyfriend accused me of trying to trick him into getting married. He said I was a liar and broke up with me.”
Despite the WHO denouncing virginity testing as unethical and without scientific merit, the practice is still carried out in several countries, including Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey.
The Iranian Medical Organization maintains that they only perform virginity tests in specific circumstances — such as court cases and rape allegations.
However, the majority of virginity certification requests still come from couples who are planning to get married. Therefore, they resort to private clinics — often accompanied by their mothers.
There, a gynecologist or nurse midwife takes a test and issues a certificate, including the woman’s full name, her father’s name, her ID number, and sometimes her photo. That document describes her hymen status and includes the statement, “This girl appears to be a virgin.”
In more conservative families, the document is signed by two witnesses — usually the mothers.
Fariba doctor has been issuing certificates for years. She admits it is a humiliating practice, but believes she is helping many women.
“They’re under so much pressure from their families. Sometimes I verbally lie to the couple. If they slept together and want to get married, I say in front of their families that the woman is a virgin.”
Many men say that marrying a virgin is still essential.
“If a girl loses her virginity before marriage, she can’t be trusted. She can leave her husband for another man,” says Ali, a 34-year-old electrician from Shiraz.
He says he had sex with 10 girls. “I couldn’t resist,” he says.
Ali recognizes that there is a double standard in Iranian society, but says he sees no reason to break with tradition.
“Social norms accept that men have more freedom than women.”
Ali’s opinion is shared by many people, especially in the more rural and conservative areas of Iran.
Despite growing protests against virginity testing, many believe that, given that the practice is deeply ingrained in Iranian culture, an outright ban on it by the government and lawmakers is unlikely in the near future.
Four years after trying to take her own life and living with an abusive husband, Maryam was finally able to get a divorce in court. She was single just a few weeks ago.
“It’s going to be really hard to trust a man again,” she says. “I can’t imagine getting married in the near future.”
Along with tens of thousands of other women, she also signed one of the growing online petitions to end the issuance of virginity certificates.
Although she believes that nothing will change soon, perhaps not even during her lifetime, she hopes that one day women will have more equality in her country.
“I’m sure it will happen one day. I hope that in the future no girl has to go through what I went through.”
All names have been changed to protect their identities.
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