Even by the standards of medical horror stories that have filled our papers of late, it’s a tale that beggars belief. According to the latest figures, some 24 women have recently had their virginities “restored”, not by some divine miracle or act of magic, but by a surgical procedure paid for by our already hard-pressed National Health Service.
How ridiculous, how dangerous and how indefensible. At a time when cancer and Alzheimer’s patients are routinely deprived of drugs, the idea that a single penny of NHS funding is spent on repairing something as fragile, ephemeral and medically useless as a woman’s hymen is absurd.
Only where a young woman has been raped or violently sexually assaulted can there even be the slightest justification for the NHS to pay for such a procedure. And yet in 2005-2006, the NHS clearly decided otherwise time and time again.
So who are these women who are seeking to have their virginities restored? According to the figures, they are “immigrants and British women of ethnic origin”.
Well, speaking as a British woman of ethnic origin, let me make it clear. The British NHS should simply not be paying for a cosmetic procedure that is unnecessary, demeaning to women and totally at odds with modern British culture.
The report accompanying the figures is too politically correct to identify the religion of the women who have had the operation, but it’s my informed guess that most of them – all of them, perhaps – will turn out to be Muslim.
As the daughter of parents who arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the mid-Sixties, I’m a Muslim myself but I’m appalled by the sort of cultural pressures these women must be under to seek such a procedure.
But I’m also angry that the NHS has agreed to carry them out. By paying for and performing such operations, the NHS isn’t furthering the integration of the Muslim community into the British way of life; in fact, it’s doing quite the opposite.
It’s effectively condoning an increasingly fundamentalist Islamic culture that is patriarchal, regressive and increasingly demeaning to women. Surely that has no place in the Britain of today?
The prizing of a woman’s virginity is a cultural tradition rather than a religious practice – and it’s an archaic one at that. True, the Koran does encourage both sexes to abstain from sex before marriage, but so do the religious texts that provide the basis for most of the world’s religions.
Most, of course, are routinely ignored in modern Western societies, where both sexes are free to experiment or abstain as they choose. But not, increasingly, in Britain’s Muslim communities today, where the differences between the sexes is in real danger of becoming a gulf.
Muslim young men in Britain are generally at liberty to live their lives as freely as any of their non-Muslim friends, with a blind eye being turned to their nights out and their sexual encounters with girls of all faiths or none.
Their sisters, by contrast, are having a far tougher time – under mounting pressure to wear the veil, cover their bodies and not even to glance at a non-Muslim boy.
For them, sex before marriage could result in their being ostracised, beaten or even worse by their male relatives.
You can see why those who have strayed sexually might be desperate to restore their virginity, especially with so many young British Muslim women being sent abroad to enter into arranged marriages in parts of the world where their new in-laws will still expect to fly a blood-spotted sheet from the window of the wedding-night bedroom.
For a bride to fail to live up to these expectations of purity is to risk becoming a social pariah – or, worse, another sad statistic in the shameful roll call of “honour killings”.
But that doesn’t mean the NHS should be helping them; indeed, it means quite the opposite.
What we desperately need now are British politicians to stand up and say this sort of practice is not compatible with the British way of life. But none of them will, terrified they’ll be accused of being racist, anti-Islamic or politically incorrect.
Well, let me, as a British-Asian Muslim and a woman, say it for them: those of us who choose to live in Britain must follow and respect British values – and the most precious of those is equality of the sexes.
Even my father, a devout Muslim from a Kashmiri village who read his Koran every day, understood that.
He knew – and was profoundly grateful for the fact – that it was the British taxpayer who paid for my free school lunches and my free school uniform and, until Mrs Thatcher enabled him to buy it, our Derbyshire council house.
He accepted that he had to adapt his religious beliefs accordingly, which is why my sister and I were educated every bit as well as our brothers, didn’t have to go to mosque, and why we learned our Koran in English rather than Arabic.
And, although the minute I turned 17 unknown Muslim men would arrive on our doorstep asking for my hand in marriage, my father knew that nothing would happen without my agreement. It was, he accepted, a more British way of doing things.
He understood then what so many immigrant communities seem to be struggling with today. In Pakistan, you can live according to Pakistani values and customs, but once you come to Britain, you have to live according to British values.
The trouble is, too many of those who wield political influence in Britain today seem to lack the courage to stand up and say what those British values are.
And as such, they grant unwitting approval to practices that have no place in a modern, civilised nation such as ours.
No one in government would dream of condoning female circumcision – a barbaric practice still carried out in some Islamic communities in North Africa.
Yet the prizing of a woman’s virginity is on the same oppressive continuum that subjugates women to men in a way that is totally unacceptable in Britain.
By offering “virginity restoration” on the NHS, the State is effectively signalling its approval for such backward-looking attitudes. It is not only unacceptable, it is downright dangerous.
For what is the point in the Government spending millions on creating a “Fortress Britain” to protect ourselves against terrorism when it is allowing the roots of Islamic extremism to spread into our hospital wards?
Two decades on from my 17th birthday, I’m still living life by my father’s enlightened approach to cultural integration.
On the one hand, I’m delighted that my mother is about to go to Hajj, the spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must make once in their life.
But on the other hand, I’m pregnant, married to Steve, a lovely man from Essex and looking forward to celebrating Christmas as much as I am the festival of Eid ul-Adha that precedes it.
I’m delighted that, following my lead, three other British Muslim women I know have felt confident enough to marry white men without fear of reprisals from their own community.
But I’m also aware that we are in danger of becoming a fortunate minority among British Muslim women, a generation raised and educated before the fundamentalists got hold of Islam and before Britain became so politically correct it lost sight of the values that made this country such a great place to live.
For all our sakes, it’s those values that need to be restored, not surrendered virginities.
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