Sunday, July 13, 2008


In France this week, there has been a cacophony of righteous indignation at the revelation that a judge in Lille annulled a marriage because the girl was not a virgin.
It’s quite a story. It was first pointed out to me on Thursday by a friend who noticed it in the official journal. “Can you imagine?” she asked, “in France today? And what I want to know is what proof did he have that she is not a virgin? Because if it’s because there was no blood, that means nothing. The hymen is so easily perforated by all kinds of things.”
Frankly, I could not imagine. It had not even occurred to me that a married could be annulled in France- the country that is after all the flag-bearer for secularism- for such a reason.
And sure enough within 24 hours the story was making headline news with the great and the good lining up to say just how outrageous this decision was and how it should be overturned immediately.
And, of course, it has brought out the usual suspects with their talk of Islam being incompatible with the values of French society and its growth a danger to the French way of life and so on…
If a judge in France did annul a marriage simply because the girl was not a virgin, this would indeed be cause for concern. If a girl was repudiated simply because she did not bleed on her wedding night, that too would be cause for concern. The first would be worrying because virginity is not a prerequisite for marriage. The second would be worrying because a lack of blood on the wedding sheets is not proof that someone has had sex.
As it happens, in this instance neither is the case. First, the marriage was annulled because the girl passed herself off as a virgin to her husband while knowing that he would not marry her if he knew her to have had a previous sexual experience. The cause for the annulment was deception, not non virginity. And though it was indeed the lack of blood that alerted the husband to the lie, the girl then admitted she had lied. Both husband and wife were keen for the annulment.
By all indications, this is a marriage that should never have taken place. It was clearly neither a love match not a meeting of two mutually minded souls. If there had been love in the relationship, perhaps the girl would have been able to tell her fiancĂ© about her previous experience, and if had loved her, perhaps he could have shown understanding and forgiveness, or at least some discretion. As it is, he came down from the bedroom where he had just consummated the marriage and showed to all present the unsullied sheets that he claimed proved that his wife was “impure”.
Though the voices raised in outrage are wrong about the facts of this case, they are right to point out that this case sets an unwelcome precedent. Believing that a woman should be a virgin on her first marriage is a religious belief, and one that should be accompanied by the belief that a man should also be a virgin on his first marriage. Yet both biology and cultural factors conspire to make it a requirement that it is only enforced for women. Consequently the virginity as blood on sheets requirement becomes a means to discriminate between men and women. It is this discrimination that is unacceptable, as well as the use of a woman’s sexuality as a means to demean her.
Of course in countries that apply strict Islamic codes both men and women are required not to engage in extramarital sex.
But this is not the case in France, and consequently what happens on a wedding night should not be the business of anyone but the bride and groom. This in no way impedes people whose religious beliefs prohibit them from extramarital sex to live in accordance with those beliefs. Not is holding those beliefs and upholding them in any way incompatible with living in a secular state such as France.
Nor are devout Muslims the only religious community to believe that sex should be kept to the confines of marriage. There is no need to be outraged, but there is a need to live and let live. Sex lives are by definition a private and personal matter.