When Aisha Salim marries her fiance in Pakistan next March, it will be the wedding of her dreams.
Wearing a veil and gown, she will be every inch the fairytale virgin bride and as befits her strict Muslim religion, after the ceremony, she will hand her blooded wedding-night sheets to her in-laws as proof of her virginity.
But far from being the traditional untouched bride that many Muslim families demand, she is a modern-day university graduate who has smoked, drunk, made love to – and even lived with – a previous English boyfriend.
To disguise the fact that she has had sex, she has paid for painful surgery to “restore” her virginity.
It is a drastic and costly measure but as she takes her husband’s hand in marriage, she knows it is one which may – quite literally – save her life.
The horror and outrage that would ensue if it was discovered she had already slept with a man would be so damning that her own strictly religious relatives might kill her rather than face public shame.
“My virginity was restored in a delicate operation just last week, and I honestly view it as life-saving surgery,” says Aisha.
“If my husband cannot prove to his family that I am a virgin, I would be hounded, ostracised and sent home in disgrace. My father, who is a devout Muslim, would regard it as the ultimate shame.
“The entire family could be cast out from the friends and society they hold dear, and I honestly believe that one of my fanatically religious cousins or uncles might kill me in revenge, to purge them of my sins. Incredible as it may seem, honour killings are still accepted within our religion.
“Ever since my family arranged this marriage for me, I’ve been terrified that, on my wedding night, my secret would come out. It has only been since my surgery last week that I’ve actually been able to sleep properly. Now, I can look forward to my marriage.”
Aisha is far from alone in seeking such drastic – and almost barbaric – surgery.
The rise in Islamic fundamentalism is being blamed for the growing trend for hymenoplasties, where the hymen is re-created from the already torn tissue, or a new membrane is inserted using a gelatine-like substance.
In some cases, the vaginal lining can also be used to create a “false” hymen.
A blood capsule can be inserted into the lining to ensure realistic blood flow when the false hymen is broken.
Twenty-four women in the UK had the procedure on the NHS between 2005 and 2006, but it is thought that hundreds or even thousands more – Aisha included – have plundered their savings to pay up to ?4,000 to have private surgery.
Aisha’s story illustrates the intense pressures on young British Asian women caught between the strict moral code of their own community and the laxer, permissive attitudes of their white contemporaries.
She grew up against a stiflingly strict background as one of seven dutiful Muslim daughters in an affluent middle-class family who moved to England from Pakistan two generations ago.
Aisha says: “I’ve always adored my parents. My father, now 62, is a retired accountant and my mother raised a family of seven sisters in a five-bedroom house in Birmingham.
“I attended the local Catholic secondary school and although I wore a scarf on my head, I refused to wear a veil, telling my parents that it would make me stand out too much.
“I was one of the girls, totally accepted by my white, English friends whose lives revolved around shopping and fancying boys.
“But the moment I stepped over the doorstep, normal teenage life would cease and it was like entering an entirely different world. At home, we had to pray together five times a day.
“We weren’t allowed to watch television. My parents were so worried that Western influences might take our minds off the most important things – education and religion – that we were never allowed to bring any schoolfriends home.
“But it made all the things my friends did more attractive to me. I would sneak out on Saturday afternoons and join them in town, hanging around, shopping and chatting to boys.”
Perhaps ironically, it was Aisha’s academic success that was to prove her downfall, as she moved away from home to study language and politics at university, and found herself plunged into a world of louche student living.
She recalls: “I was a totally naive 18-year-old, and found myself living away from my parents for the first time, and suddenly, everything that I had been bought up to believe was wrong, was being played out in front of me.
“I decided that drinking, smoking and having boyfriends was just a part of normal, teenage growing up.
“Like other young girls, I just wanted to be part of a crowd. I stopped wearing the veil and for the first time in my life I wore Western clothes – designs which revealed far more of my body than anything I had ever worn before.
“I also started drinking. I started off on beer and then gradually things like vodka and cocktails, which naturally helped me lose my inhibitions.”
Aisha was in her second year of university when she found love and inevitably, lust.
She says quietly: “He was another student in my tutorial class, and the more time we spent together, the more I found myself falling in love.
“Philip was white, English, charming and kind. When we started dating, I told him I was a virgin and that I was expected to keep my virginity for marriage.
“But he wore my inhibitions down, and I began to see that having a physical relationship with him would be pleasurable.
“All my friends were sleeping with their boyfriends and it was entirely accepted. I was the odd one out, so after several months I took the plunge and went on the contraceptive pill as a precaution.
“As the months went past, he became more and more desperate to make love.
“I wrestled with my conscience night after night, but having taken away the fear of pregnancy by being on the pill, I saw that – as long as my parents never found out – there was no reason not to make love.
“Marriage was the furthest thing from my mind. Anyway, at that time I assumed I would marry for love, not have an arranged marriage.”
She says: “I tried to resist Philip but I discovered that I liked the physical contact. Then one fateful night, we went out and I had too much to drink. My head was spinning, we ended up in bed together and couldn’t resist any longer. It was really lovely, and I felt no shame.
“It was only when I woke up the next morning, and saw Philip lying beside me, that I thought: ‘What have I done?’
“But there was no turning back and it felt entirely natural. He reassured me it was OK and told me that he loved me.
“Part of me was scared but I was also rather proud of what I’d just done. I wasn’t just a little Muslim girl, I was an independent young woman who could make up her own mind how she was going to live her life.
“Four months later, Philip and I broke up but I suddenly felt sexually empowered.
“When I started going out with another student, I knew from the word go that we would sleep together and we did, on the second night.
“I also had another sexual fling at university with a friend.
“Having lost my virginity, it didn’t seem to matter how many men I slept with, the damage was already done.
“Besides, I was living away from my parents, and my old life of endless prayer and abiding by the customs of our religion seemed a long way away.”
The full reality didn’t hit home until Aisha returned home to Birmingham at 22, after she finished her degree.
“It was horrible,” she says. “It felt like returning to a prison, and I could feel my father’s eyes burning into me, as if he knew. I tried to play the dutiful Muslim daughter, but I had changed.
“I felt as if I was being smothered. My parents wanted me to live at home and work in Birmingham, but I got a job on a graduate sales training scheme in London. I convinced my parents it was a great honour.”
With a new job and a new life, Aisha fell in love with a colleague, Steve, and the couple moved in together in an astonishing breach of her strict Muslim upbringing.
She says: “I still managed to keep it secret from my parents; my father was quite ill by now and they rarely travelled.
“I would talk to them on my mobile phone, and we didn’t have a landline in the flat.
“Steve and I lived together for two years, but then the relationship started to go wrong. He spent too much money, and he was very jealous and possessive of me.
“When a job opportunity came up in the chain of stores I worked for in Birmingham, I seized it and moved back to get away from him. My parents were thrilled and they started talking seriously about an arranged marriage.
“I realised I had two choices. I could either move back to London and live a Western life, bringing shame on my poor parents and estrange myself from the sisters, aunts and uncles I loved. Or I could go along with their dreams of an arranged marriage.
“A Muslim husband would have the same values as me, and I would be firmly back within my family support system.
“For a year I played the part of the dutiful daughter. I wore the hijab, even to work, and I helped my mother care for my father. His pleasure at my return was so touching.”
Then last summer, Aisha’s mother announced that she had found a prospective husband who came from an affluent Muslim family living in Pakistan.
As tradition demanded, the families had shared two ceremonial meetings and the parents of both prospective bride and groom agreed to a match.
In July, Aisha flew to Pakistan to meet her “fiance” for the first time.
She says: “I was absolutely terrified. This was the man I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with.
“I didn’t know if I would get on with him, or even if he would approve of me.
“And at the back of my mind was this awful, sickening worry about my virginity.
“But when I met him, I liked him immediately. He is 28, 6ft 3in tall with black hair and very handsome. He made me feel so welcome.
“I spent a month at his parents’ house, and I grew to love my future husband. We didn’t kiss in all the time we were together, and I played the diligent Muslim girl who prayed five times a day, wore my hijab and kept my eyes downcast.
“But as I said goodbye to my future husband and flew back to Birmingham, I really started to panic about my virginity.
“Muslim tradition demands that on my wedding night, my bridegroom will take the bloodied sheets to show his mother and aunts to prove that his bride is pure.
“If I do not bleed, the wedding will be annulled, and I will be sent home in disgrace.
“This was all I could think about. How could I fool my own husband and his family into believing that I was pure?”
Through friends, Aisha heard of a new operation to “restore” a torn hymen, and, in her desperation, she went onto the internet to find out more.
Aisha explains: “A few friends have already had this operation, though it has to be done with the utmost secrecy, as we would be disowned by our family if the news ever came out.
“On the internet, I found the clinic of Dr Magdy Hend, at the Regency Clinic on Harley Street.
“I went for an initial consultation, telling my family I was travelling to London on business, and was absolutely reassured.
“The operation would cost ?2,000 and would be done under local anaesthetic.
“Dr Hend said it would take only about an hour and a half, and I would be able to go back to work the next morning, though I had to be careful not to do anything which would make the hymen break, such as strenuous exercise.
“The operation would involve taking the ‘torn’ parts of my hymen and basically stitching them back together, adding further tissue from the side of my vagina.
“If I wanted, just prior to my wedding he could place a capsule of blood into the hymen which would ensure a healthy amount of blood. It sounds barbaric, but what choice did I have?”
Inevitably, there was controversy when it emerged that taxpayers had funded such operations on the NHS, with MPs suggesting it was a sign of “social regression”.
But while Aisha felt she had no choice, she preferred the discretion of a private clinic: “The operation went just as he predicted. It was painless, and I can feel no difference at all.
“I think I will have the blood capsule put in place, just to make sure. I’ve had to save up for months to afford it, and I still have student debts, but it is such a weight off my mind. I had been crying myself to sleep, wondering how I was going to cope, and now I know that my secret is safe.
“I feel very sad that women like me feel so torn between our two cultures. Our religion is so rigid – yet I was brought up among Western friends who thought nothing of sleeping with their boyfriends.
“It makes life so confusing and I feel so deeply for all the many Muslim girls in Britain who are caught in the same dilemma.
“I was lucky, I suppose, in that I could afford to repair my ‘mistake’ so no one would know.
“But it scares me to think what will happen to Muslim girls who do not have this option and are seen to be ‘shaming’ their families. They are the ones whose lives will be at risk.”
• Aisha’s name has been changed
Dec. 16, 2007