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A new religious decree in Egypt allows hymen repair for more women than before. While it has been welcomed by rights activists and women's organizations, some critics fear that it might lure women into premarital sex.
During a recent live Facebook broadcast in Arabic, Dr Ahmed Mamdouh, director of the Sharia Research Department of Egypt's highest religious authority, the Dar al-Ifta, said that "in some cases, patching is required and legitimate for a girl who has been raped or deceived and wants to repent and turn a new page."
This new fatwa — the name given in Arabic to legal decrees or opinions handed down by leading Islamic religious figures — was issued on August 30. It expands his ruling from a 2015 study in which he opposed hymen repair in the case of "promiscuous" women, a stance based on a 2007 fatwa issued by Sheikh Ali Gomaa.
While Mamdouh didn't give any examples of further explicit limitations or exceptions, he did point out that "there are some cases in which it is forbidden by Sharia to carry out the procedure of hymen repair."
Mamdouh's ruling came in response to the question by an obstetrician on whether hymen reconstruction surgery is permissible in Islam.
Virginity is still linked with family honor in Islam, and brides are expected to bleed during their wedding night
Only moments after his words, first comments below the Facebook broadcast were published. The majority of the commentators were critical and argued that hymen repair, also called hymen reconstruction surgery or hymenoplasty, might make sex out of wedlock more attractive for women since they would be able resort to a "quick fix" before marriage.
"There have been people who upheld this fatwa and others who saw it as inconsistent with the conditional credibility of completing marriage," Habiba Abdelaal, fellow of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and an expert on sexual and gender-based violence in Egypt, told DW.
According to executive Egyptian law, neither performing such an operation nor receiving one is considered illegal. Prices in private and public clinics start from €1,000 (around $1,200). However, having an intact hymen is still closely linked to purity and morality in the perception of many in Egypt.
"In Egypt, family honor is still linked to female virginity. Mothers continue to devote a great deal of mental energy to instilling in their daughters the fear of a ruptured hymen, warning them away from anything that might compromise that vital membrane, such as masturbation or the ubiquitous water hose found in bathrooms across the Arab world," she added.
Medics, however, have long argued that an intact hymen is no proof of virginity as the mucous membrane is rather a ring around the vagina than a membrane that "closes" the intimate cavity.
Professor Amna Nosseir of Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University, which is affiliated with Dar al-Ifta, welcomes the fact that Mamdouh's ruling allows the surgery for women in certain difficult situations.
She told the online magazine Al-Monitor that "exposing or scandalizing girls or women who have been raped or were lured into engaging in premarital sex is harmful as it leaves them with no hope."
"When they are shunned by their families or society, they are left out in the cold and are not given an opportunity to seek decent lives. The [hymen reconstruction] surgery may give them a second chance and they may move on to become wives and mothers," she said.
A second reason for the urgency of the latest ruling on hymen repair is the increase of unregistered marriages, called "urfi." Divorcees from these marriages lack any right to alimony and regularly resort to hymen surgery so they can remarry without bringing shame on their family.
Religious scholars in Egypt, meanwhile, disagree over whether a woman is morally obliged to tell the future husband about such a surgery.
According to the report on Al-Monitor, a call was made to the Dar-al-Ifta hotline that prompted the answer that girls do not need to inform their future husband, as it may past "a pall on the marriage."
However, other religious scholars disagree and argue that honesty and truthfulness are the basis for a successful marriage.
In Egypt, executive law is divided from religious law, and fatwas are officially issued by the Dar al-Ifta authority.
However, in the past, many so-called satellite sheikhs have published uncontrolled fatwas, often on sexuality and relationships. Some of them have addressed rather unconventional topics, such as men breastfeeding from women, or part-time marriages.
A rise in inofficial marriages and divorces leaves more and more women without any legal right to receive alimony
Despite the fact that such an unofficial ruling has been mockingly dubbed as a "fatty," which is short for fatwa, they still regularly stir up controversies.
In turn, Al-Azhar has been leading a campaign against the spread of uncontrolled fatwas in Egypt and has opened the Al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwas to serve as a platform for moderate them.
The affiliated superior body, Dar al-Ifta, publishes questions and fatwa answers online on their website and on Twitter, in English as well, to provide transparency on new rulings, such as the new hymen repair fatwa.
Although the new ruling can be considered a success for women, it also highlights the limited gains of advocacy work for women's rights in Egypt in the past decade.
"I think this is not enough, as Egypt has other religious groups that also need protection. There should be clear and detailed laws and policies to protect Egyptian women, regardless of their religious affiliation, with sustainable and inclusive strategies," Habiba Abdelaal told DW.
Her wish is that the Egyptian community as a whole works on changing perceptions of women's rights and provides services to assist women: "I believe that this fatwa is a good start for creating more options for women and opening a channel for women to have the medical access and support they need for those surgeries and break the stigma and shame around them," she said.
This article was updated on September 17, and additional medical terms have been included.