Hymen reconstruction surgery (HR), while ethically controversial, is now available in many countries. Little clinical evidence and hardly any surgical standards support the intervention. Nearly as scarce is social science research exploring women’s motivations for the intervention and healthcare professionals’ justifications for its provision.

In order to better understand decision-making processes, we conducted semi-structured interviews in metropolitan Tunis, in 2009, with six women seeking the procedure, four friends who supported such women, four physicians who perform the operation, and one midwife.

Healthcare professionals and patient companions expressed moral ambivalence about HR: although they could comprehend the individual situation of the women, they expressed concern that availability of the procedure might further entrench the patriarchal norms that compel the motivation for seeking HR in the first place. Some women seeking HR shared this concern, but felt it was not outweighed by their personal aims, which were to marry and become mothers, or to overcome past violent sexual experiences. The women felt HR to be uniquely helpful in achieving these aims; all made pragmatic decisions about their bodies in a social environment dominated by patriarchal norms. The link between HR and pervasive gender injustice, including the credible threat of serious social and physical harm to women perceived to have failed to uphold the norm of virginity before marriage, raises questions about the healthcare professionals’ responsibility while facing requests for HR. Meaningful regulatory guidance must acknowledge that these genuine harms are at stake; it must do so, however, without resorting to moral double standards. We recommend a reframing of HR as a temporary resource for some women making pragmatic choices in a context of structural gender injustice. We reconfirm the importance of factual sexual and reproductive education, most importantly to counter distorted beliefs that conflate an ‘intact hymen’ with virginity.