Thursday, June 5, 2008

On prenuptials, Islam and virginity

A French court has annulled a couple's marriage because the wife claimed - falsely - to be a virgin. The man and woman are Muslim, so of course it has become a narrative about Islam. Here is the most hilarious part:

Critics ran out of superlatives to condemn what they depicted as a dangerous aberration.
Ran out of superlatives? Really? I was not aware that hyperbole was an appropriate part of journalistic style. I guess that is why I am not a journalist.

On the more pressing issues in this story, I certainly find things more complicated. Is this a breach of contract issue? A lawyer-friend described it to me as potentially fraud - the bride's failure to accurately represent herself gets the groom out of his agreement with her. If, for example, the groom had lied and said he had ten times the assets he actually had, would the annulment be so offensive? And let's not be naive ... virginity is currency for a woman in many cases. Is it a bad precedent for a judge to hold individuals accountable to the claims they make in a prenuptial agreement, or nikah, or whatever?

In cases like this, I tend to think that the law is a remedy of last resort. Sure, the judge may thing that caring whether a woman is a virgin when you marry her is silly/sexist/antiquated. But should his opinion on the relative importance of that particular stipulation have any bearing on the right of both signatories to the marriage contract to have recourse if the other party lies? This quote from the article seems to think that his decision is a blow to women's rights:

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.”

It is possible that young Muslim girls will continue to run to hospitals to have their hymens restored in slightly greater numbers due to fear in the wake of this decision. However, it isn't the court that is the prime mover in that case. French police are certainly not going around and investigating young women's hymens. It is their husbands who make this demand and who are in the position to act if this demand is not met. As long as virginity is valued, men will find a way to guarantee it from their brides in unpleasant ways. The solution is not for the court to force this man to divorce his wife rather than to annul the (clearly unhappy) marriage - it is for the community/mothers/fathers/government/mosque/whomever it takes to elevate women to a level where their hymens are not the most important thing about them.

And, though of course my heart goes out to this woman, if she were a friend of mine I would certainly tell her she is better off without this jerk.

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