For Many Romani Women, Marriage Requires a Reconstructed Hymen

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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 smiled.

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