The value placed on virginity and what happens to the women found to be 'impure'
Journalist Sahar Zand grew up in Iran, where value was placed on a woman's virginity, and was taught that women were disposable to men. When she was 11 she came to the UK with her mum, but soon learnt that a similar notion of value was placed on a woman's virginity and in some cultures, girls were forced to have virginity tests, sometimes in front of family members.
While filming for the ITV Exposure documentary, she discovered some clinics in the UK which offered a procedure to repair the hymen. She writes about her experience in Iran and meeting the women who still experience trauma as a result of what they've gone through.
“A bride who is found not to be a virgin, should be killed on her wedding night.”
“The honour of this family depends on your purity being protected.”
“If you are not a virgin, you're not clean. You're deemed a whore. You're deemed dirty. “
These are just some of the things I regularly heard when I was growing up. I knew the words 'virginity' and 'hymen' long before I was old enough to know what 'sex' even was.
Being born in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country where women are stoned for sex outside of marriage, meant I was brought up in a suffocating environment where an oppressive system of 'honour' ruled our lives - culturally, religiously and politically.
This meant dressing modestly, not attracting attention and above all, as a girl, preserving your 'virginity'.
Virginity for a woman is often judged by the breaking of the hymen, a small piece of skin, inside the vagina. So, anything that could tear it, even by mistake, was discouraged. This for me included things like wearing a tampon, and not being alone with boys, and for many other girls, it extended to even more mundane activities, such as cycling, horse riding, and even stretching.
'A girl is like a tissue,' my mum would tell me when I was in my early teens. 'Men will only want to use you, and once they’re done, they throw you away because you become worthless.'
It saddened me to think I was so disposable. So vulnerable.
When, aged 32, I finally confronted her, she said: ''I hated that I had to tell you that. I was only trying to protect you."
My mum surprised me when she admitted she hadn’t believed what she was teaching me.
It was simply that she, “had seen far too many lives destroyed, some literally, just because a girl was thought not to be a virgin.” She was only trying to protect me. It brought tears to her eyes when she said the reality we were trapped in was far from the ideal she had wished for me.
It dawned on me that my mum herself was a victim of the pressures of the deeply patriarchal and conservative society, that was obsessed with virginity. She told me: "The last thing I wanted for you was to have to grow up in that environment, too."
My mum and I both escaped from Iran when I was 11-years-old. When I first came to Britain as a young teenager, I assumed we had left these antiquated ideas behind. Instead, I soon found out they had arrived long before us.
Over the last six months, I’ve been working on a documentary for the Bafta-winning ITV Exposure strand, speaking to women from communities across the UK - from Orthodox Jewish to Kurdish Muslim - whose lives are ruled by even stricter notions of honour, and purity, than mine ever was. Girls who’ve been made to feel their value is bound to their virginity.
Finding these women was extremely difficult, and to have them share their experiences, my team and I had to take extreme security measures to make sure they’re protected. For example, we had to keep their address and identities secret from most of our crew, who were all female, to make sure they felt comfortable.
These ideas cross religious divides. But charities and prosecutors in this field say the majority of women coming forward are from conservative Muslim communities, and that notions of 'honour' are often seen as the root cause of these pressures.
Someone who knows about honour all too well is Payzee Mahmod, who, for bravely taking a stand against honour based abuse, will forever have to look over her shoulder.
Her family’s determination to uphold their supposed honour has had devastating consequences.
Nearly 16 years ago, Payzee’s sister, Banaz, was murdered by her own father and four other men. Her crime? Leaving an abusive child marriage and being seen with a new boyfriend. Payzee holds back her tears as she shows me old photos of her sister Banaz.
Only two years apart, the sisters look almost identical. “I can't quite comprehend," Paayzee says, "how she lost her life for wanting a life".
It’s fear of repercussions like this that prevents so many women from speaking out. But Payzee decided to talk openly to me about her own traumatic experiences around virginity.
She says: “It's what you've been prepared for pretty much throughout your life. You're constantly told about saving yourself for that one man and keeping yourself for marriage.”
The moment Payzee had been prepared for came when she turned 16. Twice her age, the man she says her parents were forcing her to marry was a stranger to her.
I asked her about her wedding night. Payzee’s eyes widen as she recalls looking at the stranger who was now her husband. "It was so scary.". "This could literally be someone that I just saw in the street and is now in a room with me on my own.”
As Payzee sat on the corner of the bed, her husband tried to get close to her. She says: “I remember just, like, flinching and removing my hand."
Payzee says he took her reluctance personally and started yelling at her, before returning her to her parents the morning after the wedding.
She says they were horrified because they assumed that there was something wrong with her, for her husband to have taken her back.
Former Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, a muslim from Pakistani heritage, says: “If you've lost your virginity outside of marriage somehow you are tainted, that the community is tainted, your family is tainted, and therefore it can lead to significant harm."
Sara - not her real name - is from North Africa. A few years ago, she moved to the UK with her parents. When I met her, the first thing I noticed was how glamorous she looked. Sara couldn’t help but smile when she started telling me how she met her now-husband.
Just weeks before their wedding, as Sara was busy planning her big day, she says her mother-in-law demanded to see proof of her virginity.
Sara refused to go ahead with the test until her fiancé told her that she had to do it.
Inside the clinic, there was no privacy. She said the doctor examined her hymen while both her mother and mother-in-law were in the room.
Sara says: "She told me open your legs, you feel like someone's coming to kill you." The doctor confirmed Sara was a virgin and even provided a certificate as written proof, which Sara says her mother-in-law kept.
Over a year later, Sara is still traumatised. Even now she tells me, she remembers the whole thing like it was yesterday, which makes her hate both herself and her mother-in-law.
Virginity tests, like the one Sara says she was forced to go through, are currently legal. They have however been widely condemned by the medical profession, and are described by the World Health Organization and the United Nations as a violation of human rights. They’re facing a ban in England and Wales.
A woman we are calling 'Naz' explained that her test helped facilitate what became an abusive forced marriage. Since she escaped a number of years ago, her family has been hunting for her.
"When I turned 18, a marriage proposal came from my first cousin," Naz begins.
Naz says the groom’s family had demanded a virginity check before the wedding and she was taken to London for a test.
Hoping she could prevent the intrusive examination, Naz says she blurted out the truth: “You don’t need to do a virginity test on me, because I’m not a virgin.” But the doctor ignored her and continued.
“You feel like you are dead,” Naz recalls, her voice shaking. ”Putting his fingers inside, disgusting. So disgusting. Really, really disgusting.”
By now, Naz’s family knew the truth. She wasn’t a virgin. Naz told me: “In the front of the clinic, my dad, he had a smile on - a fake smile on his face and he said don't worry.” But when they got home, away from the public, things were different: “My dad started hitting me so badly, I couldn’t even get off the bed for a week.”
For those who fail the virginity test - or fear doing so - there are some doctors, here in the UK, that offer a procedure to repair the hymen, called a hymenoplasty.
The operation generally involves stitching together both ends of the torn hymen together to make it look intact. The operation comes with both long and short term potential risks including infection, altered sensation, painful intercourse, scarring, and mental health problems.
Our research found twenty doctors currently offering hymen repair surgery across more than thirty clinics and private hospitals in England alone. Prices range from £2,000 upwards; excessive amounts, many believe, for a procedure that can take just ten minutes.
Despite the high costs involved, hymen repair surgery can be traumatic and doesn’t always work. Later Naz was, once again, taken to London to see the same doctor. Her parents said he would make her a virgin again.
Yet despite the hymen repair surgery, Naz says she didn’t bleed when she first had intercourse with her new husband. When she admitted to her in-laws that she'd had the surgery, her father again became violent.
“He said I bring shame on him and the whole family,” Naz’s recalls before taking a deep breath, “he tried to stab me.”
Forced to remain in the marriage for two and a half years, Naz says she suffered domestic abuse and violence. Eventually, she escaped, but years later, she is still living with the trauma.
In recent months the government has been moving to change the law and finally end virginity testing. This however, will not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nor, currently, will it include hymen repair surgery - despite widespread condemnation of the procedure.
Though many campaigners are trying to get hymenoplasty banned - others fear that doing so will simply push the procedure to backstreet clinics, putting women further at risk.
Our investigation has revealed how some doctors might be prepared to continue offering hymenoplasty if it becomes illegal. Those who fear virginity testing and surgery are used together as an instrument of control, say that a ban is still vital.
The charity Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) works to protect women like Naz from honour-based violence. Payzee Mahmod is now one of its campaigners.
“Hymenoplasty is a form of violence against women and girls,” she says, “and it is a harmful practice which perpetuates honour-based abuse such as child marriage and forced marriage.”
Looking back at my own life, whatever my mum said, whatever restrictions I had growing up, it was meant to protect me from a deeply patriarchal society that viewed me not as a human, but merely a sexual object, where my virginity determined my value.
I was lucky, because my mother brought me out of that environment, and thereafter, respected my freedom to make my own choices. This allowed me to respect myself and in turn, make informed decisions about my body, sexuality and life.
I did eventually lose my virginity when I felt ready, with someone I chose. I wasn't forced to do it, or feel ashamed, nor did I get punished or had to fear for my life.
It was liberating to know I had not become worthless like 'a used tissue,' but in fact, I had as much value as any other person, for possessing one of the most basic human rights: freedom of choice.
If only other young women across the world were given the same freedom.
Britain's 'Virginity' Clinics Uncovered is on ITV at 10.45pm on Monday.