Peshawar: On the night of her wedding, Safina Bibi was given a herbal concoction known as ‘kanwari’ by her aunt. The herbs, which purport to conceal any pre-marital loss of virginity by repairing the hymen, may have saved her life.
In a country where women can get honour-killed for extra-marital sex, a bride can have her life, signs of apparent virginity, and the respect of her husband and in-laws for as little as Rs 4,500 ($43) – the price of kanwari.
“No one wants to marry a girl who is not a virgin,” kanwari vendor Naheed Bibi, who says her remedy helps “needy girls and women who have lost their hymens”, told News Lens Pakistan.
“Virginity is tested on the eve of the wedding. Girls that are not virgins are either divorced or killed. So I am here saving their lives.”
Safina’s* aunt knew that she was no longer a virgin because she had secretly married some years earlier. The family was keen to have the girl remarry.
Her aunt, who did not wish to be named, told News Lens Pakistan that Safina’s immediate family did not know about her dilemma because she had not told them about her short-lived first marriage.
“You know better when a girl loses her virginity, she is never owned by anyone – parents or brothers,” said Safina’s aunt.
“Girls get killed in the name of honour and it was because of this fear and concern for her future that I decided to try and find a ‘virginity recovery’ treatment.”
The herbal concoction fetishizes female virginity in a patriarchal society that places a high premium on it.
In April this year, a bride was allegedly killed by her husband on the wedding night for not being a virgin, in the Jacobabad district of Sindh province. Killing women in the name of honour is common in patriarchal Pakistan, especially in the largely feudal and tribal districts where such killings are either hushed up or go unreported.
In recent years there has been an alarming spike in honour killings. Statistics compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) for the period spanning Feb 1, 2004, to Feb 1, 2006 shows 988 incidents of honour killings in Pakistan.
HRCP’s recent database for the period between February 2014 to February 2016 shows the number of honour killings at 1,276. Around one third of those killings have not been filed with police.
“Most honour killings go unreported in Pakistan because communities and villages councils never allow such murders to make their way into media,” Haroon Shinwari, a lawyer who practices in Peshawar, told News Lens Pakistan.
“No doubt the practice of checking and confirming virginity is a tradition across Pakistan, but owing to strict the tribal structure in rural communities, such cases do not make it to courts and media. Nor could they be legally and forensically investigated.”
Safina used the medicine her aunt got her on the eve of her second marriage. “I took the contents of the package with some water and my husband could not tell that I was not virgin,” she said.
Ali, an online seller of “hymen recovery herbs, powder and medicines”, said his products were “guaranteed” to deliver.
“I receive orders from across the country. From hymen repair to breast tightening and reshaping, medicines are available online and delivered to every corner of Pakistan.”
It’s not only Ali’s shop in Faisalabad that delivers hymen repair products to the rest of Pakistan.
Online portals proliferate locally as well as internationally. One such shop is “Hymen Shop” sending medication with detailed instructions on precautions and use.
Naheed Bibi, a woman selling hymen repair medication in Peshawar, said her medicine helped “needy girls and women who had lost hymens.”
“No one wants to marry a girl who is not a virgin. Virginity is tested on the eve of the wedding. Girls that are not virgins are either divorced or even killed, so I am here saving their lives,” she said.
Fateh Lal, 63, a mother-in-law of three young ladies told News Lens Pakistan that she had confirmed virginity of her daughters-in-law through traditional checking of “hymen” after the couple spent the first night together.
“It is common. We provide a white handkerchief, placed at the wedding bed. In the morning, the blood spots from hymen rupture are observed by an elderly lady of the family and the mother-in-law. If virginity is confirmed, the women congratulate the mother-in-law.”
Other than sexual intercourse, a hymen can be torn by careless use of tampons, insertion of fingers or other penetration into vagina, strenuous physical exercise involving stretching, cycling, hard sports like high and long jumping and gymnastics.
According to Dr Naeema Usman, head of Gynaecology C Unit at Hayatabad Medical Complex, some girls are born with so little hymenal tissue that it seems like it was never there in the first place.
The use of herbal and other medications to restore hymens could lead to infection of pelvic organs and weight gain, she warned.
“Usually unmarried girls who want to fake virginity do ask for help,” Dr Usman told News Lens Pakistan.
“As a gynaecologist, I recommend hymenoplasty, a medical procedure performed by doctors and plastic surgeons.”
*Safina Bibi: the name is changed to protect the identity of the woman in view of the social and cultural taboos and sensitivity of the subject.