A woman > her hymen

A French court denies a marriage annulment on the grounds that virginity is not an "essential quality" of a woman.

Published November 18, 2008 10:30PM (EST)

A French appeals court went against the wealth of worldwide cultural evidence to the contrary and ruled on Monday that -- you might want to sit down -- virginity is not an "essential quality" of a woman. What? A woman amounts to more than her hymen? Her sexual past does not define her as good or evil, pure or defiled? I can only imagine what historically recognized truth the courts will strike down next!

My self-righteous sarcasm aside, the ruling could be significant for the legal rights of women, particularly Muslims, in France. It reverses a lower court decision to annul the French Muslim couple's marriage after the humiliated husband was unable to present a bloodied bed sheet to the collected guests on their wedding night. That is hardly proof of her "impurity" -- hymens tear during all sorts of wholesome, non-sexual activities, and sometimes remain intact even after sex -- but, if the popularity of hymenoplasties among European Muslims is any indication, it still matters. Regardless, the woman later admitted to having lied about her virginity, and her husband felt the deception warranted an annulment (rendering the marriage invalid) instead of a divorce.

In France, only a couple dozen annulments are granted a year, and only in cases where a spouse misrepresents an "essential quality" of their identity or character, according to the Globe and Mail. For example, an annulment might be granted if a husband lies about a criminal record, or a wife conceals a past marriage. Previously, lying about one's virginity had never been considered grounds for an annulment. The lower court judge, however, found that, as far as her husband's cultural beliefs are concerned, the bride had misrepresented an essential part of her character. Indeed, she admitted to knowing that he would not have married her, had he known about her sexual past.

But many women's rights activists argued that the lower court ruling would have set a dangerous precedent, potentially legitimizing virginity as a legal pre-condition to marriage. Of course, virginity cannot be proven, so for an annulment to take place on those grounds, a woman would have to admit to having had premarital sex -- or would she? Might the ruling essentially mandate hymenoplasties -- legally, rather than just culturally -- within certain French communities? And where might the state draw the line when it comes to personal definitions of the "essential qualities" of personhood? As one activist suggested, might a judge rule that, within certain cultures, genital mutilation is so central to a woman's character that lying about it renders a marriage invalid?

For those reasons, I celebrate the appeals court's ruling (and, dear lord, hope the couple initiates a divorce). You do have to wonder, though, how this high-profile case might influence the rising rate of hymenoplasties among European Muslims.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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