It started like any teenage love story.
Maryem met a boy at Taekwondo practice. She was 16, red belt. He was 18, black belt. They started dating.
“We go everywhere together. I trust him, he trusts me,” Maryem said while sitting at a busy cafe. “Everything was OK.”
They had been together for two years when, last summer, Maryem began feeling pressured.
“When a girl loves a boy and she trusts him, he will look for something," she said. "All boys want sex here!”
And so one day, it happened. But it didn’t take long for Maryem to regret her decision.
“Here in Tunisia, in our tradition, no guy will marry a girl who’s not virgin. So I didn’t know what to do. I was confused, so worried and lost. I don’t sleep enough, I was just thinking about what happened. I thought that I made a big mistake, a huge mistake,” she said.
Seeing Maryem so distressed, her boyfriend came up with an idea. She could do a hymen reconstruction surgery and she’d be like a virgin again. All it takes is a couple of hours at a clinic and $300. He even offered to pitch in.
Maryem said at first, she took it as a good sign: He cared about her feelings and wanted to do right by her. So last August, just a few weeks after they'd had sex, she had the surgery.
“That’s when everything changed,” Maryem said. Her boyfriend grew distant, uninterested. They broke up.
“I wish that I never met him, that I never loved him. I want to forget these bad moments," she said. "Actually, it was good moments but I don’t want that to happen again. But it’s life. It happened and we continue."
Maryem studies in Tunis, the country's capital. Like many women here, she wears eyeliner, lipstick and no headscarf. She says her parents are quite liberal. In fact, Maryem even told her mother about the predicament. Her mother helped come up with the money for the surgery.
But while her mother was understanding, Maryem said she was still mad at her for losing her virginity.
“First, she slapped me. Then we talked,” she recalled.
Female virginity is still seen as a holy grail by most Tunisians, whatever their social background, gender or education, said psychoanalyst Nedra Ben Smail.
She wrote a book in 2012 about the “revirgination” trend in Tunisia, based on interviews with hundreds of women. Three out of four told her they had undergone or would consider undergoing the "revirgination" surgery, which essentially closes the hymen.
Ben Smail said so many women turn to medicine because the lifestyle in the country has changed so dramatically.
“There’s a paradox in our society today. More women now study well into their twenties, they start working, and only get married on average at age 30. But before that, of course, they’ll fall in love, they’ll experience things. And yet they’re still stuck in a conservative culture, rooted in Islam, that requires them to be a virgin when they marry," she said. "That’s created an identity crisis and a social crisis in our society. And that’s where medicine has provided a fix."
In the Tunisian dialect of Arabic, a girl who’s lost her virginity is said to be “broken.” Dr. Kamel Moncef said he “repairs” up to a hundred women a year — a clear upswing since he started working 20 years ago.
And with the number of weddings highest in Tunisia in the spring and summer, now is when most women show up at his practice.
“We make the appointments during down hours, when they are few people at the clinic,” Moncef said. “Otherwise, these women come in fully covered, with glasses and a hijab, so nobody can recognize them. They’re just a silhouette. And usually, I never see them again. They try to avoid the gynecologist who did this procedure. For them, I’m a reminder of their past — and they want to forget about it.”
But if women want to forget, he said, men are in denial.
I went out on a recent Sunday afternoon and asked guys clustering at a sidewalk café for their take on the whole thing. Unlike most women, they weren’t shy about sharing their bed-time adventures.
“Just last night, I had sex with a girl,” bragged Saif 23, an off-duty police officer. My translator described him as “beau gosse.” In other words, he’s hot.
When asked if he’s had more than ten sexual partners, Saif answered with a laugh, “Over ten. Way over ten.”
Yet Saif said he would never marry a woman with a similar past.
“If I’m going to be engaged with a woman, I want her to be clean.”
“Clean?” my translator asks.
“Yes, clean,” Saif repeats. “Like — never touched by a guy, never had any contact with a guy.”
Tunisian women say that’s the problem. To this day, men think of women as two groups: the ones they sleep with, and the ones they marry. But with so many women resorting to surgery, what they don’t realize is they’re often one and the same.
Like other men I questioned, Saif said he would know the difference between a real and a "fake" virgin, though he admitted that he has never slept with a girl who’s had the surgery so he can’t know for sure. And he hopes he’ll never have to find out.
“I’m against the surgery. I’m not OK with a woman who cheats on me, or who’s not saying the truth from the beginning.”
Telling the truth or not, that’s the dilemma Maryem faces now.
She has a new boyfriend, but still hasn’t decided whether and how to tell him. She’s afraid that might end their relationship.