People always asked us why we didn’t have any kids. No one ever thought to ask if we'd consummated our marriage or not.
I was born and raised in a joint family in Karachi, the largest metropolis of Pakistan. The eldest of several siblings, I'd always been an extrovert, so much so that what happened with me later in life became the talk of the town. People would say to my parents, "Your eldest child is barren, woh tou bara bolti thi (she was quite outspoken)."
I was 18 when I signed my nikkah papers. Ours was a love marriage and I couldn't wait to begin life with my husband. But my rukhsati (the formal 'giving away' of the bride by her parents) didn't occur until two years later in 2008. At the age of 20, I could finally say that I was married to the love of my life.
We were happy together; we laughed, talked and spent all our time together. My husband, who was 25 at the time, was employed in the UAE. A month after our wedding, he went back to work, leaving me behind, a virgin.
DISCLAIMER: This article contains descriptions of medical procedures that some may find graphic in nature.
A sexless marriage
Few families openly talk about sex in Pakistan and my mother is no different. So I didn't get the 'talk' before getting married and had no idea how 'it' happens.
It didn't help that when I was younger, a tutor tried to molest me and my siblings. I believe that experience created subconscious fears about sex in my mind. My husband knew this and never pressured me to get intimate with him.
When we tried having sex on our wedding night, I couldn't bear the pain and my husband stopped.
We tried again multiple times but weren't successful. I felt like, in its true meaning, our marriage had yet to start.
But we were a happy couple and for him, sex wasn’t everything.
He returned to the UAE but came back some months later. Again, nothing happened.
About two years passed and our marriage remained unconsummated. My husband was well settled, I've always been a happy-go-lucky person and from the outside everything seemed 'normal' between us. Soon enough, tongues began to wag at home: "Why aren't you having kids?"... "What's wrong?"... "What do you do in your room all day?!"
And so we started a long phase of visiting hospitals and trying all sorts of medications.
No cure in sight
Someone in my husband's family had a tilted uterus due to which it was said she couldn’t have kids (this isn't scientifically true); my in-laws thought I had a similar condition. We got that checked first.
The doctor said everything was fine. My physical history was perfect, my periods were always on-the-clock. But I couldn't bring myself to share the real issue with her: we hadn't done the deed yet, so how could we have kids?
When I finally managed to tell one doctor that I couldn't have sex, I could only say that we couldn't do it because it's painful. She checked the ultrasound and said everything is perfect, “you are just scared”.
This was the standard response from the many gynaecologists I visited. When I described my pain to them, they would carry out tests and conclude that nothing was wrong.
"You're scared... that's the reason you can’t do it. Loosen up!" they said.
I was told to use lubricants. Another doctor said I might have swelling and gave me medicines for that. One doctor advised me to apply a local anaesthetic Xylocaine (used in endoscopy to numb the area).
We tried it all.
One female doctor said to me, “If I was your mom I would have slapped you twice”.
Apart from the rounds to the doctors, I was subjected to visits to pir fakirs (spiritual healers). One pir said that a jinn has possessed me; that jinn doesn’t want me to have a marital life. Another said that I'm having an affair with someone else, that’s why I'm not willing to start my married life with my husband.
My husband stood like a rock with me throughout; he is kind, soft-hearted and knew that both of us were trying, something is wrong which we can’t seem to fix.
A medical condition
In 2012, almost six years into my marriage and after innumerable doctors, pirs and fakirs, I moved to Dubai.
In 2014, I developed cysts in my breasts. I was being treated by Dr Archana Gupta at Thumbay Clinic and I was able to confide in her that I haven't been able to consummate my marriage. At this point in my life, I was sure something was wrong with my body.
I was reluctant to let the doctor examine me and she had to console me before she could proceed. She actually had a revelation. After doing a scan and later an internal ultrasound, she said it’s a clear case of a hypertrophied hymen, a condition where the hymen tissues are thick.
This condition has a number of types:
In the first, the hymen has a tiny hole in it through which blood flows out during periods. In some vaginas, there is no hole in the hymen and the female body goes through a lot of pain during periods. This is easily diagnosed at an early age and doctors either create a hole or remove the hymen.
In the second, the hymen is fully functional i.e. it has the hole but it's thick, like in my condition. It takes some effort to break through it, and, in severe cases, it may lead to serious complications. Forced sex can lead to internal tears that need to be repaired in the operation theatre under general anaesthesia.
Dr Archana was shocked by my husband's patience. She said, "You should be thankful that your husband was kind and didn’t force you because it’s common in villages for women to be forced to have sex and land up in hospitals. Because if you try to have sex with a girl whose vagina hasn’t developed yet, her vagina tears apart, sometimes up to her anus. They get third-degree stitches from their vagina to their anuses."
Another doctor told me that she has seen heavily bleeding brides brought in on their wedding night. The valima event often has to be cancelled in such cases, leading to social trauma.
The treatment for hypertrophied hymen is a hymenectomy, which is a minor surgery that removes hymen tissues. The surgery was meant to be 20 minutes long but was prolonged when doctors discovered there were four extra tissues inside the initial four detected.
Because my husband was also a virgin, he had performance anxiety too. He told me later that even though it was hard for him, he knew for sure that his love was going to be enough and we will find a solution.
After the surgery, they removed the tissues and I got about eight stitches. I was sent home with vagina dilators, which is done by inserting variously sized dilators to increase the opening.
My doctors said it would take a month to heal and after the final check-up, we were allowed to have intercourse.
I conceived the same month and we had our first baby and the second soon after.
The barren woman
When I was going through this ordeal, at weddings, people wouldn't let me sit with the bride because I was "barren". My in-laws would taunt me that since I couldn't give them a grandchild they'll have to get my brother-in-law married. My brother-in-law’s children and mine are age fellows, born months apart.
I hope to raise awareness by sharing my story. I wasted six years of my life, enduring emotional and mental trauma as people taunted me for being barren and unfaithful. My mother asked me, “What do you do in the room all the time?” and my father thought there was something wrong with my husband because his family had a history of diabetes.
My father-in-law thought something was wrong with me because Punjabi men are always fertile.
People weren’t ready to accept my side of the story. A man who doesn’t force his wife is under pressure, under a black magic spell or not manly enough. If a woman says, "I can’t have sex," people usually laugh at her. They do not realise some woman may actually have a medical issue. Because I had no information I wasn’t able to understand my body. I had started to believe everything that was being said and thought about me was true. Maybe I was doomed or my body is abnormal. I wasn’t married for six years, according to society.
We survived because my husband was strong, we both knew we were doing our best and were happy with each other even during the hardest phase of our lives. My confidence was never shattered only because of my husband’s love, undivided attention and support.
My mother later confessed that she thinks she failed as a woman because of the lack of knowledge we have about our bodies and the little we pass on to young girls. We tend to ignore the signs our body gives us and I wasted six years of my life because of this so-called ‘sharam’ (shyness).
Parents should listen to their children and doctors need to check them thoroughly and not make personal comments. No one asked me why I was scared, or why wasn’t it actually working out? We take sex for granted in Pakistan; we think everyone is able to do it.