There is a tradition in the South Caucasus for a girl to be a virgin when she gets married. However, some future brides have to see a doctor to keep this tradition, thus hymen reconstruction surgery has gained popularity in recent years.
If it takes around $1250 for cosmetic plastic surgery to get a nose job, or up to $1500 to get breast implants in Armenia, then the cost of 'renewing' one’s virginity is significantly less. A ‘long-term’ hymen reconstruction surgery is only $420. This is the price that many females often pay in order to recover their virginity before marriage, since the tradition of keeping one's “red apple” for marriage still remains an important factor across the country.
It is a centuries-old tradition: a woman should be virgin on the first night of her wedding. She must lose her virginity to her husband. And the bed sheet, marked with blood, must be shown to the neighbors and relatives as proof of the morality of the woman. If the woman does not keep this tradition, the consequences are often irreplaceable. Yet, for a woman who decides to control her sexual life but has to marry a man with a traditional viewpoint, hymen reconstruction surgery is becoming a more available option.
Gynaecologist Armine Gevorgyan (the name has been changed) is working at one of the maternity hospitals of Yerevan. It has already been 7 years since she has been secretly doing hymenorrhaphy. The operation lasts a very short time and there are two options to do it; temporary or permanent.
“The temporary option is the one in which the two edges of the hymen are brought together with stitches that dissolve, and during time, they dissolve and the edges become separated from one to another again. It means that this kind of operation should be done 2-3 days before marriage,” -says the doctor, otherwise it won’t work and the money spent on it will be useless.
In the case of permanent surgery, the walls of the vagina are brought closer to each other and sewed. The woman can engage in intercourse even after 2 years. However, in this case, there is a risk of heavy bleeding.
The doctor mentions that the patients - mainly because of the lower prices - choose the option of temporary hymenoplasty more often than not. The temporary hymenoplasty costs around 40 to 60 thousand AMD, and the permanent one costs 150-200 thousand.
"My customers are mainly girls aged 18 to 25 of the lower income group", says the doctor.
Quite interestingly, according to the doctor, the girls who use her services never visit her again for any other reason; they prefer to avoid any contact, fearing that the fake ‘red apple’ could be discovered.
The tradition of the ‘red apple’ has had different forms of practices and has transformed throughout the centuries. In ancient times, the apple was a symbol of fertility and a confession of love. The apple was a sign of the innocence and morality of a girl. During recent decades, this marriage tradition has mainly had the following practice: After the first night of marriage, the groom’s mother enters room of the newlywed couple and checks for the presence of the ‘red apple.’
If everything is alright, the mother-in-law, along with several other women, prepares a tray mainly filled with red apples and takes it to the house of the parents of the bride, as a sign of gratitude. The parents of the bride give presents too. Sometimes the parents of the bride invite the relatives and the neighbors to show the virginity and the morality of their daughter. And if it turns out that the bride wasn’t a virgin, then unpleasant events may follow it. In old times in the villages, the bride would be made to be seated on a donkey and sent to her parents house, so that everyone would see her - a ride of shame.
There are exceptions everywhere even in villages…
85-year-old grandma Roza is from the Dsegh village of Lori province. It has been a few months since she lost her husband, with whom she was married to for around 65 years. She met her husband in a ‘backward’ village. She says that her husband was a very liberal man, and didn’t let the family carry out such a tradition.
Like her husband, grandma Roza too, thinks, that virginity should be a matter kept the couple and to no one else. So she didn’t apply the tradition to her son’s family either.
On March 8, the ‘Feminist platform’ of Armenia organized a march. ‘A red apple is for eating’ was among the voiced statements.
“In the 21st century we live in a society with such traditions, where the sexuality of a woman doesn’t belong to herself, rather is under societal supervision. The tradition of the red apple is this embodiment,” says a member of the feminist platform, Elmira Meliksetyan. According to her, the concept of this tradition is to prevent women from engaging in a sexual relationship before her marriage, and it is a human rights violation. Moreover, the presence of hymenoplasty is a sign that we should review our traditions, as there is an active sexual life flourishing in Armenia, even among the underage population.
In opinion of artist Anna Martirosyan, the issue of virginity shouldn’t be a matter of public discussion. Her series titled ‘Red apple’ bears that very concept.
However, according to doctor, Armine Gevorgyan, in recent years, a ‘thaw’ in demand was noticed. The number of hymenoplasty patients has begun to decrease. According to him, it is the result of a change in mentality.
Like in Armenia, traditions in Azerbaijan forbid premarital sex. In general, even the topic of sex considered a taboo topic.
Until recently, if a girl was not virgin during her wedding night, she would be publicly disgraced, boldly shaved, beaten, and sometimes risk even death. In some rural places of Azerbaijan, such violence still exists.
During the wedding night, there is a woman - an adviser, called a “yenge” - who gives the right advice and guides the bride in her first night. Usually, this woman is the bride’s uncle’s wife. The Yenge also shows the bloody sheet, as proof of the innocence of the bride.
But that's not all; the responsibility of the woman is not only to give the necessary advice, but also "monitor the situation on the ground" and not to give the groom a second opportunity to make a sexual act. Thus, a few minutes later, after the couple enter the room, the "yenge" starts to knock, so that they finish faster. According to custom, on this night, the groom is left to spend the night without his wife, and spends time with his friends.
Tahirova Leyla (name changed), 46, Khachmaz, Azerbaijan, has been a "yenge" over three times.
"Once at the next wedding of one of my nieces, I was a yenge, and decided not to stand at the door, and left early. The next morning, the groom's relatives did not speak to me until I could show the sheet with blood, and proved that the bride was a virgin... although the bride at that time was already 30 years old," says Leya.
"After the groom finishes his job," said Leya, "he gives some money to the Yenge "in gratitude for the "clean bride."
Leyla says that in some villages, after the end of a successful wedding night, the bride and groom's relatives shoot into the air, and in Dagestan they all go out and dance. According to Leyla's words, the wedding night definitely partakes on the floor, on a mattress fitted by the Yenge. And after the wedding night, “guymaq,” a national porridge is prepared for the bride and on the third day after the wedding, the bride's mother prepares pilaf and goes to the bride’s home on "yuzachyhdy" (accessed to the people), which brings together women from both sides.
Over time, the image of the ‘mentor’ has exhausted itself, but the tradition, thought to cause confusion among urban youth, is still considered to be mandatory in the region. Leyla Ahmadova says that she knows a case, when a bride received such serious psychological trauma during her wedding night, that she did not let her husband have sexual relations with her for three years, and as a result, they were divorced.
The symbol of virginity can be seen during the wedding ceremony, when the groom's brother ties a red ribbon on the waist of the bride, and which should be kept until the wedding night.
Since the topic of extramarital sex is forbidden and punishable by society (or by families), the girls have to choose a method to restore the hymen. It is for this reason, that the operation to restore a hymen, or, in medical terminology, “reconstruction surgery,” has become very popular in Azerbaijan. For some women, it is almost the only way to create a family. The price of the procedure varies from 500 to 1000 AZN. This difference in price is due to the fact that gynecologists offer to restore chastity for either a very short period of 3-5 days or for a longer period of up to two months.
Traditions and stereotypes in Azerbaijan are so strong that sometimes even the most modern and well-educated man cannot afford to marry the girl, who had extramarital sex, and that causes them to take this step.