For many in socially conservative Georgia, a woman's virginity remains a virtue. Virginity tests are another matter, however.
A recent news report on Georgia's Imedi television raised howls of protest when it revealed that Georgia's National Forensics Bureau was performing as many as 200 "virginity inspections" a year.
The report showed a bureau doctor describing the process, in which three medical experts use basic gynecological equipment and a head-mounted lamp to examine young women for telltale breaks in their hymen -- the traditional sign of sexual activity.
Since then, hundreds of Georgians have poured onto social media sites to alternately defend and assail the practice. And on July 30, a group of Georgian women gathered outside the forensics bureau to stage a noisy protest.
Natia Gvianishvili, a member of the Independent Group of Feminists, which organized the protest, said it was time to tackle what Georgians call the "virginity institute," the notion that a woman's value as a future wife and mother rests almost exclusively on her chastity.
"We are calling on the forensics bureau to stop providing these types of services. The idea of destroying the 'virginity institute' lies in treating women's sexuality and their sexual behavior on equal terms with men's sexuality," Gvianishvili said.
Despite the fact that its own employees were cited in the Imedi report, the Forensics Bureau on July 30 posted a statement on its website saying it performed virginity tests only in the case of court-ordered rape and abuse allegations. It denied issuing certificates for brides and other young women.
Virginity At All Costs
The Imedi report said most of the young women who came for virginity inspections were brought by their mothers, fiances, or mothers-in-law, and paid between $100-$200 in hopes of receiving a certificate testifying to their purity.
Failure to pass the exam is considered reasonable grounds for calling off a wedding and prompting even close family members to turn their back on the woman in question.
Proof of virginity is so important that some women who fail the exam appeal to surgeons for a hymen restoration -- an expensive procedure, necessarily performed in the days just before a wedding, that temporarily stitches the hymen back together.
One surgeon said he had even performed the surgery on a 40-year-old woman looking to resurrect her virginity on the occasion of her second marriage.
Critics say the procedures are prone to mishap, and barely less barbaric than the antiquated custom of displaying a bloodied bed sheet on the morning after a wedding.
Others are angered by the apparent hypocrisy in social mores that insist on female virginity but encourage men to have sex early and often.
Protester Tata Tsopurashvili, a philosophy professor, says the situation results in many men having their first sexual encounters with prostitutes, an experience she says can cause lasting damage. "Men, by the way, are also traumatized by the 'virginity institute' and repressed from a cultural point of view, because they are deprived of their right to have their first sexual experience with a person they love," she says. "They get this instead through sex workers."
Backward Or Popular?
Opponents of the virginity inspections also say that the Georgian government, which is a signatory to the UN convention to end discrimination against women, should not permit any of its bodies to perform the controversial virginity tests.
Some officials have suggested the virginity examinations are a blow to Georgia's credentials as a progressive democratic country. Speaking on July 31, the justice minister denounced the tests as a sign of "backwardness."
But Guguli Magradze, a member of the parliamentary health-care committee and Georgia's gender-equality council, disagreed, saying, "If there's a demand for this service, the government can't forbid it."
Others argue that the obsession with virginity -- driven in large part by the Georgian Orthodox Church and a social premium on male machismo -- has contributed to a range of social ills, including premature marriage, divorce, and a significant drop-out rate for young women who leave school after marrying and becoming pregnant.
They hope the recent rush of public interest will fuel a fresh dialogue on the need for better sex education and a more liberal attitude toward women's sexual behavior.
But while many young Georgians agree the virginity inspections are extreme, they appear divided about sex before marriage.
"A girl loses her decency when she loses her virginity before marriage," says one young man.
"It's a personal choice. Everyone should behave as they like," a young woman says.
"Society and the entire country shouldn't meddle with someone's personal decision," another woman observes.
"I wouldn't marry a girl who wasn't a virgin," a second young man says.
Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague based on reporting by Nino Tarkhnishvili in Tbilisi. Ana Lomtadze contributed to this report