June 5, 2008 in Nation/World

France in uproar over virginity ruling

Elaine Ganley Associated Press
 

PARIS – 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 last week 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 clamor 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 center 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.

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