The bride said she was a virgin. When her new husband discovered that was a lie, he went to court to annul the marriage—and a French judge agreed.
The ruling ending the Muslim couple’s union has stunned France and raised concerns the country’s much-cherished secular values are losing ground to cultural traditions from its fast-growing immigrant communities.
The decision also exposed the silent shame borne by some Muslim women who transgress long-held customs demanding proof of virginity on the wedding night.
In its ruling, the court concluded the woman had misrepresented herself as a virgin and that, in this particular marriage, virginity was a prerequisite.
But in treating the case as a breach of contract, the ruling was decried by critics who said it undermined decades of progress in women’s rights. Marriage, they said, was reduced to the status of a commercial transaction in which women could be discarded by husbands claiming to have discovered hidden defects in them.
The court decision “is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women. We are returning to the past,” said Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, the daughter of immigrants from Muslim North Africa, using the Arabic term for a religious decree.
The outcry has been unrelenting since word of the April 1 decision in the closed-door trial in Lille was made public by the daily newspaper Liberation. In its judgment, the tribunal said the 2006 marriage had been ended based on “an error in the essential qualities” of the bride, “who had presented herself as single and chaste.”
Justice Minister Rachida Dati, whose parents also were born in North Africa, initially shrugged off the ruling—but the public clamour reached such a pitch that she asked the prosecutor’s office this week to lodge an appeal.
What began as a private matter “concerns all the citizens of our country and notably women,” a statement from her ministry said.
The hitch is that both the young woman and the man at the centre of the drama are opposed to an appeal, according to their lawyers. The names of the woman, a student in her 20s, and the man, an engineer in his 30s, have not been disclosed.
The young woman’s lawyer, Charles-Edouard Mauger, said she was distraught by the dragging out of the humiliating case. In an interview on Europe 1 radio, he quoted her as saying: “I don’t know who’s trying to think in my place. I didn’t ask for anything. . . . I wasn’t the one who asked for the media attention, for people to talk about it, and for this to last so long.”
The issue is particularly distressing for France because the government has fought to maintain strong secular traditions as demographics change. An estimated 5 million Muslims live in the country of 64 million, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
France passed a law in 2004 banning Muslim headscarves and other ostentatious religious signs from classrooms, a move that caused an uproar in the Muslim world.
Now, critics contend another law on the books is being used to effectively condone the custom requiring a woman to enter marriage as a virgin, and prove it with bloodstained sheets on her wedding night.
Article 180 of the Civil Code states that when a couple enters into a marriage, if the “essential qualities” of a spouse are misrepresented, then “the other spouse can seek the nullity of the marriage.” Past examples of marriages that were annulled include a husband found to be impotent and a wife who was a prostitute, according to attorney Xavier Labbee.
Ironically, Article 180 also guards against forced marriages.
Labbee, the lawyer for the bridegroom in question, says it was not the young woman’s virginity that was at issue.
“The question is not one of virginity. The question is one of lying,” he said.
“In the ruling, there is no word ‘Muslim,’ there is no word ‘religion,’ there is no word ‘custom.’ And if one speaks of virginity it is with the term ‘a lie.”
Labbee said both the man and the woman “understand that annulling the marriage is preferable to divorce because it wipes the slate clean (of) what you want to forget, but divorce wipes away nothing.”
Although divorced Muslim women are allowed to remarry, they are expected to be forthcoming with their new husband about the previous marriage, and divorce can carry a cultural stigma for women.
Indeed, the court ruling states that the woman “acquiesced” to the demand for an annulment “based on a lie concerning her virginity.”
“One can deduce that this quality (virginity) was seen by her as an essential quality that was decisive” in the man’s decision to marry, the ruling said.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said an appeal must be lodged “so this ruling does not set a judicial precedent.” The appeal was filed on Tuesday and three judges could hear the case sometime this month, said Eric Vaillant of the appeals court in Douai, near Lille.
In a rare show of agreement, politicians on the left and right said the court’s action does not reflect French values.
“In a democratic and secular country, we cannot consider virginity as an essential quality of marriage,” said an expert on French secularism, Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux.
The decision underscored the painful predicament faced today by many Muslim women in France and elsewhere in the West who become sexually emancipated but remain bound by strict codes of honour inherited and enforced by their families—and prospective husbands.
It is not unusual for young Muslim women to procure fake virginity certificates, use tricks like vials of spilled blood on the wedding night or even undergo hymen repair to satisfy family expectations, and evade the shame that would follow if their secret got out.
A survey in 2006 found numerous private clinics in the Paris region where such surgery is performed, as well as doctors who supply fake virginity certificates before a marriage.
“Today, the judicial system of a modern country cannot hold to these savage traditions, completely inhuman for the young woman,” said the rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur.
Like some others, Boubakeur, a moderate, voiced fears that Muslim fundamentalists would seek to profit from the Lille ruling “as they have done with the veil. . . . Fundamentalists use (head scarves) like their flag.”
“We ask Muslims to live in their era,” he said.