Soundbites but no solutions in French “virginity lie” case
The “virginity lie” case gripping France for the past two days has given French politicians the opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes — expressing indignation. There’s been much more heat than light in this story since it broke last Friday.
If you haven’t been following it, the story is about a French Muslim couple who got their marriage annulled after the husband complained the wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. Since he could not have cited either religion or the traditional Muslim preference for virgin brides as valid reasons for annulment, the husband’s lawyer argued the wife had lied about an “essential quality” necessary for the marriage. Under French law, a marriage can be annulled if, for example, one partner found out only after the wedding that the other had lied about a previous marriage or a criminal record.
Politicians, feminists and human rights activists immediately demanded the ruling be overturned. The critics vied to issue the most ringing denunciation. “A real fatwa for women’s liberation … (like) a ruling handed down in Kandahar” was a memorable one from Fadela Amara, the state secretary for urban affairs who comes from an Algerian Muslim family. Here are many more in French. By Monday, Justice Minister Rachida Dati — another cabinet member with a North African Muslim background — was flip-flopping. After originally defending the ruling as a means of helping a woman get out of an unwanted marriage, she decided on Monday to ask a public prosecutor to launch an appeal.
The news today was that the erstwhile husband and wife both accept the ruling and do not want an appeal that would make them a legally married couple all over again and force them to replay their separation through a longer and more costly divorce process. The woman’s lawyer said she was furious. “I have to get on with my life,” he quoted her as saying. “I don’t know who decided that they would think for me. I haven’t asked for anything. It feels like I’m hallucinating.”
Almost nobody but the couple and their lawyers want the ruling to stand. But almost nobody is actually thinking through the implications of what they’re demanding.
Most critics want the ruling overturned for one or several of the following reasons:
- it violates a woman’s privacy by making virginity a possible criterion for marriage.
- it violates sexual equality because no proof is asked of a groom’s virginity.
- it introduces a religious concept of the virgin bride into the secular marriage contract.
- it treats the bride like merchandise in a commercial transaction.
These are all valid arguments. Unfortunately, the result of a successful appeal would be to restore the marriage of a couple who do not want to be married, especially not after the drama they went through. As was widely reported, the hoodwinked husband discovered his wife’s lie on their first night together and went right back to the wedding reception, which was still in progress, to announce the news…
Simply overturning the ruling would also leave on the books the paragraph in the civil code that allowed it in the first place. Several hundred marriages are annulled in France every year because of the “essential quality” clause, and nobody’s saying this should be scrapped. Some critics have said the other criteria — such as hiding a previous marriage — were OK but a woman’s sex life must remain completely private. There is probably a way to amend the code to accommodate that, but the legislators will have to get around another problem. Male impotence is currently accepted as a criterion for annulment. Should that be private too?
One of the few politicians who seemed to look beyond a knee-jerk reaction was the straight-talking health minister, Roselyne Bachelot. While explaining her position, she made some statements that might surprise people outside of France. But her comments still made a lot more sense than most others:
“This is a topic that cannot be resolved in court,” she said. “What one ruling has done, another can’t simply undo. Now, it’s an issue for national legislators. Parliament is where all this should be decided.
“It’s true that the notion of a ‘fundamental quality’ is something that, in the case of virginity, may have been widely accepted … in the 19th century or in the early 20th. Morals have changed and that’s fine. So I want parliament to pass a law to define these characteristics.”
She rejected the argument that the wife’s lie was the central issue. “The right to lie is a fundamental right of human beings. The issue at the heart of this is the notion of a fundamental, substantial and essential quality.”
Nadine Morano, the state secretary for family affairs, warned against seeing this as a Muslim issue. “People say it’s a Muslim family, but I also know many families of practising Catholics for whom this element remains an essential quality for both the man and the woman.”
“No matter what anyone says, the decision handed down by the court in Lille conformed to the civil code. Should we make a law and say we cannot include virginity as one of the essential qualities of a person simply because we see that it creates inequality between men and women?”
Any suggestions about what French lawmakers should do once the soundbite phase of this story is over?