For Many Romani Women, Marriage Requires a Reconstructed Hymen

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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.

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