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Constructing a hymen

Written response by Isra Al Kassi

A look at the tell-tale cinematic signs of feigning a virginity in Elaha

If American teenage films are anything to go after the “losing of” or “ridding of” or are actively sought out by men while women are more mindful of the preservation of what’s deemed as both their innocence and their value. 

Milena Aboyan debut feature film Elaha’s original synopsis reads: Elaha, 22, believes she must restore her supposed innocence before she weds. A surgeon could reconstruct her hymen but she cannot afford such an operation. She asks herself: why does she have to be a virgin anyway, and for whom?

In this context virginity takes on the word ‘innocence’ - instantly negated by the ‘supposed’. As an audience we are told that virginity isn’t where the film or filmmaker places the value, but that the pressures in the community feature is something so real it affects the protagonist. We are to understand it as a value placed by someone else; if being a virgin is to be innocent then to get rid of that innocence is to be damaged, impure and devalued. 

The experience of ‘the first time’ in cinema aims to set the tone for the rest of the character’s journey. Whether it be everything they dreamt of, or a horrendous experience. From the coercive like Cruel Intentions (Roger Kumble, 1999) to the pact making à la American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999). 

As I continue to trip on the words to use, left with phrases like ‘popping cherry’, and ‘losing’ or ‘taking’ we’re already engaging in a futile discussion on ownership and conquest. Where are the terms for pleasure, self-expression, love, and exploration for women? What language and words do we have for virginity or a first sexual encounter?

Constructing a virginity in cinema is a reflection of the misconceptions and ignorance of real life. Equal parts sacred, and saved for preserving and simultaneously not for the choice of giving or losing to be up to the woman herself. What does it say about the high value we claim a woman’s virginity holds if it can crumble so quickly and easily? 

As a society we seem to revel in the ‘is she or isn’t she?’ - it wasn’t that long ago (1981) that Princess Diana had to prove her virginity or the marriage to the then Prince, now King Charles. Her marriage to the future king depended on her virginity. There is nothing to say that Diana was inspected, but her word and her uncle’s public announcement confirming that she was a virgin were enough to seal the deal.

Other ways of telling are if someone has been married before, if they’ve had children or if they’ve been in long-term relationships. In Sex & The City (The Ick Factor, Season 6, Episode 14, 2014) when Miranda refuses a white wedding dress and asks for ‘nothing that says virgin’ for her nuptials she says: ‘I have a child; the jig is up.’ Of course cinema is the perfect place to look at the signs; and the aesthetic ques to go along with them. 

Elaha’s secret is that she is not a virgin. We as an audience only know this from her desperate quest to reconstruct her virginity before her wedding to Nasim a mere weeks away. We know nothing of with who, or when, or the new favourite way to measure a woman’s purity: how many. 

We never know Elaha as a virgin, this secrecy denies Elaha and audience of viewing sex as a rite of passage. This is not a teenage movie, nor is it a slapstick comedy about people in their 40s who ‘missed the boat’ and must now play catch up. This is a film about honouring one’s culture, loving one’s family and respecting one’s custom while also attempting to figure out what she wants and if she also places the same value on her virginity as those around her. 

Writer Kim Hudson developed an entire method called The Virgin’s Promise for screenwriting which aimed to subvert the hero’s journey by focusing on ‘Feminine Creative, Spiritual, and Sexual Awakening’ - the word ‘Virgin’ here relates not to a woman’s sexual experience but of domesticity as her starting point before embarking on her journey. In a way this applies to Elaha.  

While there is an emphasis on the Kurdish culture which Elaha comes from and is deeply embedded in in every facet of her life. The two outlets for her non-kurdish life is her course, one where her teacher tries to get involved in her personal life as a saviour of sorts. The second outlet is a male German peer who dropped out of the course but who Elaha is drawn to, exploring a different side of her domesticity within the walls of his flat and on walks with his dog. 

Writer and director Aboyan credits VirginiaCare (blood capsules to be inserted before penetration to mimic the breaking of a hymen) and hymen reconstructive surgery as inspiration behind the story and says: It is my opinion that for as long as these patriarchal structures do not change, the women affected have no other choice than to have their “virginity” reconstructed. 

The concept of virginity in film is about a before and an after, and the idea that the significance of the first time is the same across the board, for all women. On the most basic level after sex there’s nothing but pain, shame and blood. The act, and preservation is then reduced to this elusive hymen; one which may tear when cycling, doing sports, using a tampon or during intercourse. This is how the physical elements of sexual intercourse run the risk of being led by fables.

Elaha engages in the same tropes which she starts to resent. Placing value on bleeding on her wedding night and going to great lengths to restore her hymen, or to at least fake its tear.

In cinema the stages of losing one’s virginity are split into the planning, the act and the aftermath. 

Unfortunately in some cases, like in Elaha: the aftermath involves fear, and a painful surgery to cover her tracks and transgression. 

In Real Women Have Curves ( Patricia Cardoso, 2002) after Ana (America Ferrera) loses her virginity, her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) somehow knows that her daughter is no longer a virgin. This is either due to being incredibly insightful and that there were clear signs; maybe her daughter started to emit a glow which was closely linked to a new womanhood; or the mother is just paranoid. 

The question isn’t so much about whether Elaha will get away with it on her wedding night, but if it’s even possible to consider so many people, carry all of that responsibility, and stay true to herself, her wishes and sexuality.


Isra Al Kassi (she/her) has a background in events management and community spaces and cinemas. She is the co-founder of T A P E Collectiveand has curated for London Short Film Festival, BFI Southbank and Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Isra has more recently worked with BIFA, Inclusive Cinema, Independent Film Trust and London Film Festival, Habibi Collective and Shasha with a focus on audience development and outreach. 


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