On my way to the south of France, I stopped overnight in Calais, and the next morning read the local newspaper, La Voix du Nord, at breakfast. At a court in nearby Lille, the paper said, a judge had annulled the marriage of two people who remained anonymous, but whom La Voix called Karima and Youssef (and Le Figaro dubbed Aicha and Noredine in its report of the same story). Youssef is a 30-year-old engineer who had married Karima, a student. Youssef is described as a practicing, though not extremist, Muslim, who wanted a pure wife. On their wedding night, horror of horrors, Youssef was not able to produce the sheet stained with blood to the assembled guests of both families waiting for it. He therefore felt deeply dishonored.
He went to the court seeking an annulment. His lawyer, Xavier Labbée, argued that the issue was not the brides lack of virginity, but the lies that she had told the groom before the marriage. If he had known that she was not a virgin, Labbée argued, Youssef would not have married Karima. Like a dishonest tradesman selling defective goods, she had misrepresented what was on offer. And Karima admitted that she had understood that if her husband knew she was not a virgin, he would not have married her, Labbée said. His client was convinced that he could not construct a solid union based upon a lie. The court accepted Labbées argument and annulled the marriage.
Legal annulments of marriages are increasingly common in France, and one of the grounds on which courts grant them is that a spouse has been misled about an essential quality of the person he or she has married. These might include, for example, drug addiction, a previous divorce, an undisclosed religious persuasion, or a criminal record. The Youssef/Karima matter is the first time, however, that virginity has been legally recognized among such essential qualities.
The vice president of the local council of Muslims said that the case had nothing to do with Islam, since Islam does not require virginity before marriage; it was the brides lying that was legally important. And Labbée emphasized, too, that what was at issue was not religion but custom, which determines the qualities deemed essential. Strictly speaking, they are right. And yet one wonders whether the same court would so readily have annulled the marriage of a couple in which the groom had misrepresented his financial affairs and claimed, say, to be a millionaire, when actually he was indigent.
La Voix du Nord concludes the story with another, more sobering speculation: Will the ruling at Lille fill the consulting rooms of surgeons who specialize in restoring hymens?