The annulment of a young Muslim couple’s marriage because the bride was not a virgin has caused anger in France, prompting President Sarkozy’s party to call for a change in the law.
The decision by a court in Lille was condemned by the Government, media, feminists and civil rights organisations after it was reported in a legal journal on Thursday. Patrick Devedjian, leader of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement, said it was unacceptable that the law could be used for religious reasons to repudiate a bride. It must be modified “to put an end to this extremely disturbing situation”, he said.
The case, which had previously gone unreported, involved an engineer in his 30s, named as Mr X, who married Ms Y, a student nurse in her 20s, in 2006. The wedding night party was still under way at the family’s home in Roubaix when the groom came down from the bedroom complaining that his bride was not a virgin. He could not display the blood-stained sheet that is traditionally exhibited as proof of the bride’s “purity”.
Mr X went to court the following morning and was granted a annulment on the grounds that his bride had deceived him on “one of the essential elements” of the marriage. In disgrace with both families, she acknowledged that she had led her groom to believe that she was a virgin when she had already had sexual intercourse. She did not oppose the annulment.
Critics ran out of superlatives to condemn what they depicted as a dangerous aberration. Vale’rie Le’tard, Minister for Women’s Rights, said that she was “shocked to see that today in France the civil law can be used to diminish the status of women”.
Elisabeth Badinter, a philosopher and pioneer of women’s legal rights, said that she felt shame for the French justice system. “The sexuality of women in France is a private and free matter,” she said. “The annulment will just serve to send young Muslim girls running to hospitals to have their hymens restored.”
Although officially discouraged, the 30-minute operation is in increasing demand from Muslim women who fear the consequences of being unable to prove their virginity on their wedding night. Numerous agencies offer services for surgery trips to north African nations. One is offering a “hymenoplasty trip” to Tunis for ‚¬1,250 (?980). Internet sites and blogs are full of would-be brides in fear of the test of “the blood-soaked sheet”.
While ministers fulminated against the Lille decision, a different stand was taken by Rachida Dati, the Justice Minister, who has Moroccan and Tunisian parents. The law had, she said, protected the bride. “Annulling a marriage is a way of protecting the person who perhaps wants to undo a marriage. I think this young girl wanted . . . to separate quite quickly. The law is there to protect vulnerable people,” Ms Dati said.
The annulment was defended by Xavier Labbe’e, the lawyer who acted for Ms Y. The decision was justified by the bride’s deception, not her sexual history, he argued. “Quite simply it is about a lie,” he said. “Religion did not motivate the decision . . . but it is true that religious convictions played a role.”
Requests for annulments have risen sharply to nearly 2,000 a year in France, but experts could recall no case involving non-virginity.