PARIS (Reuters) -- Sitting in a cafe near the Champs Elysees, the 26-year-old French-born woman of Algerian descent looks like any other Parisian. But two months ago, she did something none of her friends have done.
She had her hymen re-sewn, technically making her a virgin again.
"I'm glad I had it done," said the woman, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. "I wanted to reconstruct part of my life, to reconstruct myself so that I could feel better about myself."
This 30-minute outpatient procedure, called "hymenoplasty" and costing between 1,500 and 3,000 euros ($2,000-$4,000), is increasingly popular among young women of North African descent in France.
No exact figures exist to say how many such operations are done, but the woman's surgeon says he gets three to five queries and performs one to three hymenoplasties each week. Demand has been rising for the past three or four years.
Doctor Marc Abecassis, whose office is near the chic Champs Elysees, sees the rise in religion among France's five million Muslims fuelling this trend. His patients are between 18 and 45 years old, Muslim, born both in France and in North Africa.
"Many of my patients are caught between two worlds," said Abecassis. They have had sex already but are expected to be virgins at marriage according to a custom that he called "cultural and traditional, with enormous family pressure".
For this woman, the decision to have the surgery came after she broke up with a boyfriend who had pressured her into having sex. Unable to cope with breaking family tradition, she felt a hymenoplasty would help put her life back together again.
Another of Abecassis' patients, a 22-year-old Algerian immigrant who asked to be called Karima, said most young women had the operation to respect their culture or family tradition, not for religious reasons.
In fact, neither woman is a practicing Muslim. They dress, speak and act like other young Parisians, but are also part of a growing silent group of women who juggle traditional Muslim and modern French values.
All the women who spoke to Reuters did so condition that their identities not be revealed.
DON'T DISAPPOINT THE FIANCE
Karima also lost her virginity to an ex-boyfriend. She plans to marry soon and her fiancé expects her to be a virgin. So last month, she commuted in from an eastern suburb of Paris, where she lives with her parents, and had the surgery.
The next day she was back at work. "I don't want to disappoint my fiancé," she said, adjusting her glasses and brushing her highlighted brown hair from her face. "I wouldn't have had the surgery if I hadn't met him."
A leading Muslim spokesman said Islam says bride and groom should be virgins before marriage, but did not take a clear stand for or against hymenoplasties.
"If someone committed a sin, the essential thing is to repent," said Lhaj Thami Breze, head of the Union of French Islamic Organizations.
For many doctors, resewing the hymen goes against their ideals of sexual freedom and personal liberty.
"The surgery is an attack on women's dignity," said Professor Jacques Lansac, president of The National College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians of France. "We will not take part in a market that places value on the quality of a woman -- if she's good or not. It is an attack on women's liberty."
He also argued that any doctor who performed these operations at state hospitals violated France's legal separation of church and state.
The church-state issue flared up in 2004 when France passed a law banning religious garb, notably headscarves, from state primary and secondary schools.
Since then, Abecassis said, some Muslims in France have been putting much more emphasis on certain customs as a way of expressing their identity. "Today it's the two 'V's' -- veil and virginity," he said. "It's a social phenomenon."
Surprisingly, French social security reimburses some of the cost of the operation in cases of rape or trauma. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, the claim is a fraud," he added.
Still, Abecassis defended the operations and said he helped patients who could not pay his 2,500 euro fee. "This surgery gives them another chance," he said. "It's a rehabilitation. For many, it's the only solution."
ANOTHER PATIENT AWAITS
Sitting in the same cafe, a 19-year-old Moroccan studying in Paris who asked to be called Amel spoke just before her first consultation with Abecassis.
"I dated a boy when I was 15 and I didn't even realize what had happened," she said, referring to her first and only sexual experience. "I didn't understand what I did."
Her parents introduced her to a young man earlier this year, and they plan to wed when she returns to Morocco in June. But he would not accept a non-virgin, so she needs the operation soon.
Amel is scraping together the monthly allowance sent by her parents and emptying her savings account to pay for it. Two friends back home will lend her the remaining 1,000 euros.
"If my mother ever found out about this, she would have a mental breakdown," Amel said. "I don't want to have this surgery, but I don't have any choice."