CAIRO — Whether it's seen as a clever little gadget to help a woman keep a secret or a devilish deception that threatens Islam, the Artificial Virginity Hymen Kit is not welcome in Egypt.
The kit allows a bride who is not a virgin to pretend that she is. A pouch inserted into the vagina on her wedding night ruptures and leaks a blood-like liquid designed to trick a new husband into believing that his wife is chaste. It's a wink of ingenuity to soothe a man's ego and keep the dowry intact.
Egyptian conservatives condemn the device as technology that will promote promiscuity in a culture that forbids premarital sex. Their protests are arising in a nation that over the last 40 years has gone from miniskirts and secularism to hijabs and religious devotion. But seldom have conservatives faced such brazen advertising.
"No more worry about losing your virginity. With this product, you can have your first night back any time," states the website of Gigimo, a Chinese mail-order company that sells the kit and other sexual products, including sex dolls and bondage toys, worldwide. "Add in a few moans and groans, you will pass through undetectable."
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls 20% of the seats in Egypt's parliament, have called for banning the kit and arresting anyone selling it on the black market. Cleric Abdul Moeti Bayoumi has issued a fatwa urging that peddlers of the $29.90 device be charged with banditry and punished for spreading immorality and sin.
"Egyptian girls are normally afraid to lose their virginity before marriage," Sayed Askar, a lawmaker and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently told parliament. "A product like that can make it easier and tempting for girls who don't have strong wills to commit such a sin. It will be a crying shame and a blot on the government if they allow the selling of this product in our markets."
Lina Samaan, an accountant, said the furor raises disturbing questions about her country and the double standards that often apply to women:
"I think it's a shame that we are discussing a product like this. If most girls don't have sex prior to marriage only because they want to keep virginity, then there is something wrong with the way we think," she said. "Sex is a right for every woman but unfortunately we started turning to products like these because men -- even non-religious ones who have sex before marriage -- wouldn't marry a girl if she's not virgin."
The emotion over the kit speaks to a traditional society that is increasingly pious, whether it's rich professionals seeking moderate Islam on websites of progressive imams or poor and middle-class families adopting strict religion as a buttress to the influence of Western media and a loss of confidence in a state that has failed to provide prosperity.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak is troubled by ultraconservative Islam imported from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Egypt's leading Muslim cleric, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, is considering forbidding the niqab, or face veil, at the university and schools run by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's top educational institution. A similar edict barring nurses from wearing niqabs has been loosely enforced.
The Egyptian media quoted Tantawi telling a student that the "niqab has nothing to do with Islam. . . . I know about religion better than you and your parents."
Many parents, however, did not grow up with the economic and social problems that their children face. Single women have traditionally lived with their families until they found a husband. But today's inflation, joblessness and poverty are forcing many couples to delay marriage until money is saved and dowries are accumulated. With men and women single longer, dating, breakups and natural impulses challenge religion and tradition.
"Having something like the virginity kit can cause complete mayhem within the Egyptian social life," said Farid Ismael, a member of parliament's health committee. "It can lead to the spreading of vice and the loss of all the good morals and values we had and that totally contradicts with our Islamic beliefs."
The kit -- like surgical repairs to the hymen that Middle Eastern women have relied upon for years -- is marketed to offer a sleight of hand. Such secrets keep prospective brides in the graces of their families and avoid what in rare cases are honor killings of women accused of promiscuity.
Choosing to have "sex or not is something every girl and woman should decide regardless of the society's perspective toward her," said Samaan, the accountant. "Even if she is religious then she shouldn't do it because of her religious belief and not in fear of other people or fear that she will not get married if she's not a virgin."
"If a girl decided to have sex before marriage," she added, "then God already knows it and she shouldn't hide it from anyone else."
Hassan is a special correspondent.