Religious and secular values clash in France

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 and women.”

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 reporters.

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’

The 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 spectrum.

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.

Member 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.

The 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 Values

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.

An 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

With 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.

At the same time, the country must navigate new cultural sensitivities and constitutional boundaries.

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.

In 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 standards.

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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