eNews, November 18, 2008
France Strikes Down Court Ruling on Virginity
On Monday a French court struck down a ruling
that allowed a Muslim man to annul his marriage because his wife was not a virgin.
The case continues the legal battle over freedom of religion and women's secular
PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)--In a case that has sparked a national
controversy here, a French appeals court in the northern city of Douai handed
down a decision on Nov. 17 that virginity could not be considered as an "essential
quality" for a valid marriage, overturning a lower French court's decision.
The case involves an April 1 decision from a judge in the northern city
of Lille to annul a French Muslim couple's 2006 union because the bride was not
a virgin as she had claimed to be. The ruling said the bride should not have lied
about her virginity because it was an "essential quality" in her husband's
culture. That raised concerns among some legal observers that the ruling could
pave the way for a wider recognition of virginity as a legal obligation to marriage
if a husband or family demanded it.
A few hours after the wedding night,
the bride--in her 20s--was returned to her parents by her in-laws, who felt dishonored.
She then agreed that her husband--an engineer in his 30s--could file for an annulment
in the local court.
Women's rights activist Sihem Habchi said she was relieved
and told reporters this decision was a "recognition of equality between men
Habchi, president of the Paris-based group Neither Whores
Nor Submissive (Ni Putes ni Soumises), said the Muslim women's progressive movement
had worked with other women's rights groups to organize demonstrations after the
case first broke into public view in May. Several hundred activists came together
to demonstrate in Paris on May 31.
"Will one day female genital mutilations
be considered as an 'essential quality' for a woman?" one demonstrator told
French civil laws allow such an annulment if one of the spouses
lies on important matters such as nationality, criminal records or a previous
divorce. The judge concluded that the bride had misrepresented herself as "pure"
and, because virginity was an "essential quality" in her husband's cultural
background, annulled the marriage.
Debate Over 'Essential Quality'
April court ruling--the first in France stating that virginity could legally be
considered as an "essential quality" for a woman and a legal ground
to annul a union--was lambasted by many politicians from across the political
Valerie Letard, France's minister for women's rights, expressed
shock at seeing the civil law used to diminish the status of women when the case
first broke. So did Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, a daughter of Muslim
immigrants. "We are returning to the past," she said.
of Parliament Jacques Myard--who is with the conservative UMP Party, which has
taken a strong position against allowing Muslim students to wear head scarves
in public schools--said that the Lille decision, by accommodating religious custom
in this way, takes the country too far backward in the name of cultural integration
and validates an "archaic integrism."
"All the girls and
women that I am close to are appalled by this regression and especially bitter
to know that, in France, virginity can be considered an 'essential quality,'"
Habchi said in a press statement after the judgment was made public.
Ministry of Justice filed an appeal on June 3 to reverse the Lille court's ruling.
The couple's lawyers, meanwhile, have tried to reach an agreement on keeping
the union canceled, no longer on the virginity grounds but due to an absence of
marital life, as they have lived separately since their wedding night. Since the
appellate court's ruling yesterday means their marital status is reinstated, the
couple will now have to appeal to a higher court to retain the annulment or they
will have to go through a regular divorce proceeding.
Influence of Muslim
Waves of immigrants from North Africa and Muslim nations since
the 1970s have made Islam the second most important religion in France, with 4
to 5 million adherents. Premarital chastity is highly valued in Muslim culture
and strongly linked to a family's reputation.
But France's constitution
defines the country as a secular republic and religion here is considered a private
matter. While 51 percent of the population claimed to be Roman Catholic in a February
2007 survey, only 5 percent were churchgoers.
Many French-born Muslim girls
and women, well integrated in the French way of life, struggle to reconcile the
gap between traditional family ways and the broader secular society.
indication of this is the growing prevalence of premarital sex, followed up by
hymenoplasty, or surgical repair of the hymen, before a wedding date. Paris clinics
offer such surgeries at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000. And Web sites--such
as those advertising doctors' services or travel arrangements to clinics--advertise
"hymenoplasty tours" for $1,800 to Tunisia or Morocco, where this discreet
surgery has also become common.
Predicting a Run on Hymenoplasties
that in mind French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter--who has studied the advancement
of women's rights in history and the role of secularism, as well as the male identity--predicted
that the Lille court's decision would send more young Muslim women "running
to hospitals to have their hymens restored."
In France, women's rights
organizations say they must be vigilant about court rulings that pave the way
for legal recognition of customs forbidden in France, such as polygamy, forced
marriage or--as in this case--divorces or annulments based on husbands who claim
to discover "hidden defects" in their wives after the wedding.
the same time, the country must navigate new cultural sensitivities and constitutional
In June, the Council of State--France's highest judicial body--denied
French citizenship to a 32-year-old veiled Moroccan woman on the grounds that
her "radical" practice of Salafi Islam was incompatible with the constitutional
French value of gender equality.
The woman wears a black burka that covers
her entire body. A narrow slit at the eyes provides her a way to see out.
interviews, social service workers described her as a near recluse who lives in
isolation from French society, in "total submission" to her husband
with no idea about the secular state or the right to vote.
But the French
constitution also guarantees full freedom of religion, leaving room for further
judicial conflicts over the line between traditional customs and secular social
Benedicte Manier is a French journalist who has written extensively
about gender justice issues in many parts of the world. She is the author of two
books, one on child labor and one on sex-selective abortion in India.
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