A picture of the artificial hymen Photograph: Mohamed Al Rahhal
As a member of the XY tribe, evolution has spared me of one anatomically useless little membrane; and of course, my virginity, as a male, is of little interest to society. For women, however, it is frequently a very different matter.
Recently, news of a $15 Chinese-made artificial hymen sent ripples across the Egyptian media and blogosphere. China has been manufacturing this very same product for years, but it was an advertisement for a Chinese company offering shipping into the Middle East that started the discussion here in Cairo.
Conservative MPs took the debate into parliament, requesting a ban on imports of the product – and incidentally meteorically boosted its public exposure. There was, however, no information available whether the product was already available in Egypt, or whether there were individual orders coming locally. Of course, I had to provide an answer. I just had to order one.
Gigimo (NSFW) mainly sells sex-toys, and offers a "discreet packaging" option – removing the original packaging and any user manuals. I made sure to select that. One secured online payment and two weeks later – instead of the "three to four" suggested on the website – the product had arrived in Cairo.
As I went to retrieve my package at the post office, it had been opened by various puzzled customs and postal employees who, at a loss, defined the product in writing as "containing an unknown red liquid" – and awaited my description.
Though yet to be officially banned, an honest description would have almost guaranteed confiscation. I was inspired to describe the item as "cinematographic make-up". Not much of a stretch really – with the website suggesting adding "a few moans and groans", to make the performance convincing.
After much paperwork, various stamps, signatures and duties – and a total of 12 pairs of hands processing the package and its paperwork – I left with my, well, hymen.
Such is the "hymen": a 5x7cm folded piece of plastic – of albumin, the notice promptly corrects me – covered on one side by dark red ink. Placed in the vagina before sex, the plastic hardens slightly, and rips upon intercourse. A few drops of "blood" will stain the sheets, preserving the woman's, her family's, or society's "honour".
Whether it does actually work or not I cannot answer. The complete absence of medical information on the product, as well as online accusations that this product can cause infections, made me unwilling to give it to a volunteer to test.
We must remember, however, that the "Chinese hymen" – as it has come to be called in the media – only exists because of demand. Virginity "restoration" – or the illusion thereof – has been around ever since some societies decided that every bride's virginity was her most prized attribute.
A vial of chicken or pigeon blood – why poultry seems thus privileged I have no idea – kept under the bed and spilled on the sheets appears to be the oldest version of the trick. More recently, hymen reconstruction surgery is said to have become fairly widespread. Despite its price – often going into the several hundred dollars – and the fact that the operation is usually performed in unsanitary backstreet clinics, it is unlikely to go out of fashion.
The introduction of the artificial hymen on the Egyptian market has been forewarned by alarmists as the demise of all morality, providing women with a free-for-all opportunity for sexual promiscuity.
Yet the opposite is truer. Instead, this product allows society to bury its head in the sand and continue to engage in the hypocritical game of the "three drops of blood". It can only perpetuate the national illusion of our sexless perfection.
Lest I am so accused, I have nothing against a religious-based idea of pre-marital chastity per se, nor am I encouraging a sexual revolution of sorts. And I genuinely empathise with the women who feel compelled to recourse to those methods – sometimes at the peril of their lives – to uphold their reputation in the fact of a merciless society.
I do, however, strongly condemn the hypocrisy that allows us to discriminate against 50% of the society while giving a free pass to the other half. I am against forcing women to go such lengths, sometimes endangering their health, to allow us to delay a long-awaited national moratorium on gender relations.
Morality is worst interpreted by anatomy. And if we're waiting upon a small piece of plastic to define morality, then we've already failed – and ought to find a better definition.