Tunisia has made seemingly dramatic strides in recent years in the realms of women’s rights and religious freedom. In 2014, the country gained worldwide praise for adopting a constitution that addresses women’s equality, as well as freedom of belief, worship and conscience.
But while equality for women is gaining ground in parts of Tunisia, a deep-rooted conservatism underlies much of the liberal facade. Tunisians are increasingly delaying marriage, and analysts estimate that the number of Tunisian women remaining virgins until marriage is decreasing. Yet a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 89 percent of Tunisians still consider sex outside of marriage "morally wrong."
Many families and husbands expect brides to be virgins on their wedding night, and will shame or shun a woman they suspect of having had sex before getting married. This places an outsized importance on physical evidence of female virginity: the blood that sometimes appears when her hymen has been broken for the first time.
People across the country still follow various wedding night traditions surrounding a bride's virginity, such as newlyweds presenting a bloodied sheet to their families, or the man lighting a candle that can be seen from outside and that indicates his wife bled when they had sex.
"The sacredness surrounding the woman's virginity persists in the country, particularly in rural areas or areas still marked by tribalism," said neuropsychologist Emira Adouz.
Some women spoke to HuffPost Tunisia about these rituals, which a few see as celebrations of the bride’s honor and which others find to be traumatic. Due to the candid and personal nature of the information they shared, these women have been identified by their first names only.
"At my cousin's wedding, her husband requested that we stay by the bedroom door for a few minutes," said Rania, a native of northwest Tunisia. "After a while, he lit a candle in the window. It was a good sign. We could go home. Our cousin was a virgin. We celebrated. The families of the married couple laughed and ululated."
Rabeb, who hails from a town in Cap Bon, a peninsula in northeastern Tunisia, said her beautician collected her stained sheets the day after her wedding, and showed them to her mother-in-law and mother.
"I would have preferred to have a hemorrhage rather than suffer the shame of not bleeding." Imen
Asma, a nurse who lives in Sahel, in eastern Tunisia, wanted to be the one to show the sheet to her husband's family.
"In our family, we do not put pressure on the bride. You get two, three days. It is understood that the couple may be tired," she explained. However, this time frame can't extend too long, or else the family "might get suspicious."
"For me, it took place the day after my first relation with my husband," Asma said. "I called my sister-in-law to show her the sheet and tell her to bring it to my mother-in-law if she wanted to. I see no harm in doing this, quite the opposite. It is a sign of respect, and it remains symbolic."
Other women said the social pressure that comes with these rituals ruined their wedding night and has hurt their sex lives in general.
"We had to show them the sheet the next morning, and we did, except that it wasn't covered in spots but rather a tide of blood," recalled a woman named Hajer. "We felt so under pressure, exhausted after a week-long wedding celebration but forced to do it. My husband forced things a little bit. Besides the intense pain, I had a hemorrhage."
Hajer’s husband took her to the hospital to stop the bleeding.
"I was still wearing my makeup and negligee," she said. "I felt such shame before the medical staff. I was so upset that I didn’t have time to change."
To remain in a position of control over female bodies, many men will pretend to be able to distinguish between a real and fake hymen." Raoudha El Guédri
But not all women bleed when their hymen stretches or breaks, and in fact, some women are born without one.
Imen, a young bride who had an "elastic" hymen, did not bleed when she first had sex -- and that also caused problems. "I would have preferred to have a hemorrhage rather than suffer the shame of not bleeding," she said.
Although Imen's condition is common, her husband wasn't familiar with it and was surprised by the absence of blood. He took her to a gynecologist the next day to find out if she had been a virgin.
"It was the morning after the wedding night ... very early," Imen said. "I was accompanied by his sister because someone from his family had to be there."
Dr. Abdelhakim Ben Mansour, a gynecologist, said he sees many patients like Imen: women accompanied by suspicious husbands and asking questions about why they didn't bleed during sex.
"In this case, we explain to the woman that her hymen is elastic, which explains the absence of bleeding," he said. "If she has already had sex, she'll know it. It is not up to us to tell her husband. We're bound by medical oath. Our duty is to protect our patient first."
Raoudha El Guédri, who has studied the sociopolitical uses of the body in post-revolutionary Tunisia, explained that there is no clear link between a person's socioeconomic profile and his or her attitudes or practices surrounding the virginity issue.
Her research suggests that men often consider themselves to be the most affected by this issue and believe their bride's hymen is a form of capital that they hold.
"When you know the weight of the tradition and that no man will want to marry you after, you look for tricks to satisfy your desires without compromising [your virginity]." Mayssa
Regardless, "men are not fools," said El Guédri, whose research has involved collecting testimonies from men about their wedding nights. Many of them admitted to knowing they weren't marrying virgins, and that some women choose to reconstruct their hymens through surgery.
The surgery, which reconnects a woman's hymen to hide evidence of previous sexual activity and allow her to bleed during sex, is popular among Arab women who fear being ostracized by their families and communities for breaking the taboo against premarital sex.
"To remain in a position of control over female bodies, many men will pretend to be able to distinguish between a real and fake hymen," El Guédri said.
"Some men would rather accept a false hymen than admit their companion is deflowered," she continued. "Others say they categorically refuse premarital sex, while a few prefer not to ask questions about the sexuality of their partners, because of the complexity of the issue."
Some unmarried partners opt for physical intimacy without penetration.
"When you know the weight of the tradition and that no man will want to marry you after, you look for tricks to satisfy your desires without compromising [your virginity]. Like partial penetration or humping," said one Tunisian woman, Mayssa.
Others choose to engage in sexual acts that will leave their hymen intact.
Hana, 28, who is now married, said she had anal sex before marriage. "I wanted to offer my virginity to my husband," she said. "I did not practice anal sex for pleasure but to please my boyfriend. He was the only one I did it with."
Riadh, a 29-year-old man, said he has resorted to anal sex to "save" the virginity of his partners.
"They were afraid of losing their virginity, so they asked me to have anal sex, a practice that I like," he said. "They didn't always enjoy it, but they got used to the practice and eventually they said they experienced some pleasure."
Ultimately, although the social expectations surrounding wedding night virginity affect the sexual activity of both partners, women's bodies and actions are policed the most heavily.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Tunisia. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.