Videos encouraging women in Algeria to undergo so-called virginity tests or hymen repair procedures are flourishing on TikTok and YouTube, despite the country ending a law in 2016 that asked brides to supply virginity certificates when they married – and despite both video platforms promising to remove misinformation that can cause harm to individuals.
Human Rights Watch as well as several doctors told VICE World News that the videos were “highly concerning” and “could further increase violence against women and girls.”
Neither TikTok or YouTube responded to requests for comments, but shortly before publication, one content creator’s YouTube account was no longer available.
This creator, who calls himself “Houssam” online to preserve his anonymity, has amassed over 100,000 followers across social media sharing content about virginity testing and hymen repair operations, almost always wearing a balaclava to hide his identity.
He appears to be one of the only people online to name himself a “medical intermediary,’ essentially a go-between for doctors who can find and escort women through the process. “I guarantee the protection of the girl from the beginning of the journey to the last procedure until she reaches safety and preserves her rights in a society that has a negative, one-sided view of the loss of virginity,” he told VICE World News on WhatsApp from where he lives in Oran, Algeria’s second largest city.
He then takes a cut of the total cost of the “operation,” which is around 25,000 Algerian dinars for a hymenoplasty (about £1,000).
Erroneous beliefs held around women’s bodies and sexual activity persist worldwide, but in Algeria they have a history of being supported by legal, medical and judicial systems. Up until 2016, the Algerian Family Code asked for a certificate signed by a doctor from brides that included “proof” of virginity. When the law was changed, local media reported that courts could also still ask for virginity examinations in investigations where women have been raped or “are involved in criminal networks”.
Algeria is among many countries worldwide that have not heeded the UN and WHO’s interagency statement in 2018 calling for a ban on virginity testing – but the clandestine online world that supports it, and the people profiting from it, is unique. It is the largest country in Africa and home to almost 45 million people, for whom premarital sex is illegal. Women are thereby expected to have never had sex when they get married, and may in some families be expected to show proof of bleeding on their wedding night.
Those that don’t may be accused of lying to their husbands and divorced or ostracised. “Virginity certificates” therefore are a pseudoscientific way for families to confirm a bride is a virgin ahead of any possible allegations; and hymen repair is viewed as a way to escape public shame if a woman fears she won’t bleed. Numerous studies have debunked such examinations as well as misinformation that connects hymen to a woman’s sexual history, but a lack of awareness has meant that myths have proliferated, inhibiting women’s access to healthcare, positive sexual health and human rights worldwide.
Sex education is not part of the national curriculum in Algeria, and the country ranks at 134 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders global index on freedom of expression. Human rights defenders and journalists are regularly detained, and Amnesty International writes that in 2021 “authorities took no steps to address violence against women. The women’s group Feminicides Algérie recorded at least 55 femicides in 2021, saying that the police had failed to adequately investigate those cases or prosecute those responsible.”
Houssam, who keeps his identity private in order to protect both the doctors he works with and his clients, as well as himself, is unusual in an online world that is generally occupied by whisper networks; Arabic language Facebook groups you join to then be added to a private WhatsApp or Viber group. Algeria has these too – one group seen by VICE World News has over 50,000 members.
But Houssam has instead pivoted to video, even though he’s sometimes had videos taken down because the platforms claimed they violated community guidelines around sexual content. He delivers livestreams on YouTube, where he has told viewers that all women bleed the first time that they have sex (which is untrue), and that while there are many reasons other than sex that might mean a woman breaks her hymen (which is true) it means that to only be truly sure one is intact, they must get a virginity test – something that presumably might persuade a viewer to contact him.
Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “It is highly concerning that a YouTuber is conducting misinformation campaigns on virginity testing and hymen repairs in Algeria, and this could further increase violence against women and girls.
“The Algerian authorities should prohibit conducting ‘virginity tests’ on women and girls which is a form of gender-based discrimination and violence. They should also undertake prevention measures such as information campaigns to raise awareness that female virginity is not determined by the hymen, shift discriminatory attitudes which tie women’s value to virginity before marriage, and ensure that they provide comprehensive sexual education in schools.”
Dr Ahmed Ben Naser, a doctor who has worked with UN agencies in neighbouring Tunisia to combat practices like virginity testing and hymen repair, described Houssam’s channel as “charlatanism.”
“Virginity tests have no medical indication and are ethically unacceptable,” he told VICE World News via email.
When contacted by VICE World News via WhatsApp, Houssam declined to say how many women he has assisted but in a recent YouTube video he said he has helped 100 in total. In an April TikTok, he boasts how searching “hymen repair Oran” on Google brings up results almost exclusively directing people to his content. His channels list several virginity certificates, not all from the same doctor or surgery, though they are always heavily redacted and anonymised.
Hera Hussain, founder of Chayn, a tech non-profit, calls content like this which promotes virginity testing “gender misinformation.”
“People, especially men, capitalise on the anxieties that women have and the lack of information that we have. The question of, ‘what if I don’t bleed?’ – it’s so common,” she said. While she believes that women need to be able to access hymen repair operations if they fear their lives are at risk, she said that platforms could be looking to suppress videos that put forward harmful gender misinformation if they aren’t willing to wholly deplatform.
YouTube also has several videos from other content creators who try to debunk ideas around virginity, including women who accurately tell their viewers that virginity certificates are no longer required by civil courts when they want to get married. That content may reach the same young women that Houssam’s does, but the problem is far bigger than what appears on social platforms. Wissal Sangouga, a junior doctor studying in the capital who runs a podcast discussing Algerian youth issues, told VICE World News via video call that she had two professors at her university hospital – one in gynaecology, and one in forensic medicine – who both suggested virginity tests had scientific grounding.
“A procedure where the patient may accuse you of ruining her hymen, you can go to prison,” she added, suggesting that doctors’ beliefs were partly reinforced by fear. “In some cases of urine retention in women we don’t insert the device responsible for pulling out the urine without having witnesses with us to confirm that we have not touched the hymen. Anything that has any sort of relation to the hymen is so problematic.
“We’ve had cases in which women have not urinated for over 48 hours which could lead to the explosion of their bladder, but we still could not insert the device in women who are not married out of fear of going to prison or having our medical degree taken away from us. In the Algerian legislation, someone who is not married is by default not sexually active. So they can sue you for ruining her virginity.”
In recent years, campaigners like the feminist group M.A.L.I in Morocco have tried to tackle myths around virginity in public discourse, but Algeria has witnessed no such movement. Western countries like France and the UK have banned these practices, but no such legislation is being drafted in North African countries. Even doctors like Ben Naser, who work on the other side of the border, have little idea what is going on in Algeria.
YouTube did not respond to or acknowledge repeated attempts to contact it about these videos. TikTok said that its Europe, Middle East and Africa safety team would investigate the videos, but did not respond to any of our questions by time of publication.