PARIS (Reuters) - France plunged into a heated debate about its marriage laws on Friday after learning that a court had annulled the union of two Muslims because the husband said the wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be.
Politicians, feminists and human rights activists denounced the verdict, handed down last month but only reported in the national press on Thursday, as an affront to the legal equality of men and women and a violation of a woman’s privacy.
The hoodwinked husband’s lawyer responded just as forcibly that civil marriage was a legal contract. The court invalidated this one because the wife had lied about what French law calls an “essential quality” of a contracting party, he said.
Concerns about traditional Muslim views creeping into secular French law hung over the debate, but the strictly legal basis of the verdict forced critics to ask how two principles -- contract fraud and sexual equality -- could be reconciled.
“It is profoundly shocking that, in our country, a marriage can be annulled on the basis of non-virginity before the marriage,” Frederic Lefebvre, spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing UMP party, said in a statement.
Prominent feminist Elisabeth Badinter said the courts should defend Muslim women, not pressure them. “The end result will be that some Muslim girls will rush to hospitals to have their hymens sewn back together again,” she told France Inter radio.
Muslims make up about eight percent of the population in France, which has vigorously defended its secular system against their occasional religious demands by banning Islamic headscarves in the civil service and in state schools.
Xavier Labbee, the husband’s lawyer, denied that religion had anything to do with the verdict. “The law says that when there is an error concerning essential qualities of one of the spouses, an annulment can be sought,” he told LCI television.
The same clause has been used in French courts to annul marriages in which one person discovered only afterwards that the other had concealed a divorce or had a physical or mental disability that made a normal sexual life impossible.
The rector of a large mosque in the northern city of Lille, where the case was tried, also denied Islam played any role.
In Islam, Amar Lafsar said, “virginity is not a necessary condition for marriage.” The religion preached chastity before marriage but Muslims could heed or ignore the message.
“They’re free,” he told RTL radio. “They’re in a country of law and liberty. Each is free to respond or not to the message.”
Badinter said the verdict ignored the fact some traditional Muslim families shunned sexually active single daughters.
Recalling some young women were even murdered in so-called “honor killings”, she said the wife in this case “did not have the freedom not to lie ... she lied in self-defense.”
Laurence Rossignol, women’s rights spokeswoman for the opposition Socialist Party, called the verdict unconstitutional.
“If the civil code could produce such a decision, we have to change it urgently,” she said in a statement.
Lefebvre suggested an appeals court review the verdict. “We are certainly not going to ask the wife to appeal, because if the verdict is annulled and the marriage is validated, that would probably not be good news for her,” he said.