This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
To protect her identity, I decide to call Amanda, Alba. When I tell her, she laughs and insists I pick another name. "Alba is a common name in our community," she explains. "We don't want to accidentally ruin some poor girl's life." So we agree on the pseudonym Amanda.
The 20-year-old is speaking to me on the condition of anonymity because she is a gitana—a female member of the Spanish Roma community—who is about to get married but, crucially, not as a virgin. If her secret became public, she tells me she would be shamed and thrown out of her home and community. "So now I have to do what I have to do," she tells me. And by that, she means getting a hymen reconstruction to convince her husband she's a virgin on their wedding night.
A few moments after we meet, despite some initial nerves, Amanda, unprompted, starts recanting the story of how she lost her virginity. "I fell in love with this payo (a non-Roma)," she explains. "I didn't want to lose him, so I felt like I had to have sex with him. After that relationship ended, I slept with another guy, but I wasn’t in love with him. It wasn’t like he made me do it, I had a good time too," she laughs.
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When Amanda was 14, her father made a deal that she would marry the son of a family friend. At the time, her fiancé was 15. "Luckily his father got a job abroad, so his family had to move to Portugal for a few years," she says. "It meant I could keep going to school and hanging out with my friends."
While she was leading a relatively normal teenage life, her Roma friends started to get married, one by one, until she was the only single one left. "None of my non-Roma friends are married," Amanda says. "If it were up to me, I would stay single for a few more years, but that's not really an option. Not getting married would really upset my father, and I won’t do that to him. By my age, many Roma women have three or four children." She's clearly disappointed that she doesn't have much say when it comes to her future, but at the same time she's excited it too. "I'd rather be getting married than not," she tells me. "And at least he’s a nice guy."
One of the most important parts of a Spanish Romani wedding—especially in the Andalusia region of Spain's southern coast—is the "handkerchief test," done to verify the bride’s virginity. In this ritual, a female specialist—a juntaora—inserts a handkerchief into the women’s vagina, breaking the hymen, and collecting smears of blood to prove her virginity.
But before they submit themselves to this test, non-virgins like Amanda often resort to what is commonly known as a zurcido, which loosely translates to "mending" or "sewing." "I’m definitely not the first Roma girl to get a zurcido done, that’s for sure," Amanda tells me.
Over the past 15 years, Dr. Vilas has performed countless hymen reconstruction surgeries on women who, in her experience, want the procedure done "either for aesthetic purposes or because they belong to a culture that values a female's virginity."
In her office in Madrid, Dr. Vilas explains to Amanda what the operation will involve. As she draws complex diagrams of vaginas on her board, Amanda can't stop giggling. "You don’t need to explain anything to me," she says. "As long as you know what you’re doing, I’m happy."
Dr. Vilas carries on regardless. "There are several surgical options to pick from," she explains. "The simplest one involves joining together the fragments of any remaining hymen. This can be done under local anesthetic, and I'd recommend the patient waits at least three days before having sex to allow the new hymen to set."
Another method uses an easily tearable material called Alloplant, which is inserted into the vagina and imitates the hymen. Finally, the most invasive procedure involves making incisions on both sides of the membrane that covers the vaginal walls, before joining them together. As a consequence, though, patients must wait a long time before having sex, as it creates an open wound that must heal.
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"Whichever option you pick," the surgeon stresses, "the work must be carried out by a specialist. I’ve heard of so many cases of people opting for cheap, illegal procedures that lead to horrible infections that sometimes create a layer of fake hymen tissue that is impossible to break by having sex." A quick internet search of other budget alternatives turns up several different types of gelatinous membranes that women can buy, which promises to release a red liquid when it breaks during sex.
If surgery isn't an option, there is one last resort. Amanda tells me about a friend whose parents bribed the juntaora to pretend that she had passed the handkerchief test. "On her wedding night, she also tricked her husband by cutting her finger, then reaching inside herself before pulling her finger out to pretend like she was bleeding."
As we wait for Amanda's decision, Dr. Villas explains why the handkerchief test is ridiculous. "A girl can be a virgin and not bleed at all," she says. In fact, research has found that around one in every thousand women are born without a hymen, while nearly half of women don’t bleed when they first have sex.
Amanda eventually picks the first method, which means she will have to come back four days before her wedding. "My mom will have to make an excuse about needing to come to Madrid to sort out my dress," she tells me.
Amanda has told pretty much all of the women in her family, except her grandmothers, about the operation. She describes the issue as an open secret among the women in many Roma families. "It might be reluctantly, but it’s still talked about," she says. "Sometimes, if a girl can’t afford the procedure and doesn’t want to go to her father for the money, her friends will help her raise the cash."
Amanda’s operation will cost $2,600, which is a huge sum for her family. "If my mom didn’t have the money, I don't know what would have happened to me," she says. "I have to do everything I can to make it up to her."
On the day of the operation, Amanda arrives with her mother and a cousin. Our greetings are a bit tense—her family isn’t too happy she has agreed to speak to a journalist. But Amanda has more important things on her mind. "I don’t know why I’m so nervous—I've never heard of such a surgery going wrong," she tells me. "Right now, all I want is to be married and settled with my husband, and to pay my mother back for all she has done, by giving her grandchildren."
Her mother and cousin seem remarkably calm and patient. I can't see any signs of frustration or anger toward Amanda—they just sit in the waiting room, casually talking about the wedding, as if they were here for a routine check. As Amanda heads in for the procedure, her mother gives her two kisses and says a quick prayer. Before disappearing, Amanda glances back at me. I don't really know what to do or say, so I nervously respond with two thumbs-up, and then make the universal sign for "ok."
The operation is scheduled to last an hour. My plan is to wait for Amanda to come out, ask her how she feels, and then leave. But almost as soon as she disappears through the pre-op door, her cousin gets up and, very politely, asks me to leave. "I don’t mind you being here," she explains, "but it’s really making my aunt uncomfortable. This should be a private, family matter." Before leaving, I wish them luck, to which Amanda’s mother retorts, "To hell with luck. We need our $2,600 back, not luck."
A few days after her wedding, I catch up with Amanda. She tells me that she was a little nervous about dancing on the day because the surgeon had told her to avoid making too many sudden, physical movements, but everything was fine. The handkerchief test also went as planned—though if it hadn't, her mother was prepared to also bribe the juntaora at the last minute. And her wedding night was a success, too, she tells me, even though it hurt more than she had expected. "But, of course, not as much as my first time," she said, smiling.