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September 25th, 2008
Faking Virginity: France and Islam Spar Yet Again

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, and striking a balance between Islamic traditions and secular French values isn’t always simple. In 2004, in the wake of a ban on wearing headscarves in public schools, WIDE ANGLE’s Young, Muslim, and French explored these tensions in a racially diverse suburb of Paris.

This year, public debate in France has turned to a controversial court ruling annulling a marriage between two Muslims over the false pretense of chastity. The groom, a 30-something French engineer who converted to Islam, learned on their wedding night that his bride, a Moroccan-born nursing student, had lied about her virginity. The very next day he filed for an annulment, and won his case in April 2008.

The story broke in the center-left French newspaper Libération the following month, and a massive outcry raged as politicians on both the left and the right condemned the court ruling for undermining women’s rights and blurring the boundaries between religion and the secular sphere.

Members of the French Muslim community, on the other hand, denounced the hoopla as the latest example of French Islamophobia, as argued by this French blogger on the Muslim website Oumma.com. “What was the real issue,” he asks, “the relationship between the sexes or the place of religion – especially Muslim – in the Republic?”

France’s Muslim-born Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who herself had a marriage annulled in her early twenties, at first backed the ruling by a Lille court, insisting it was legally sound, based on a breach of trust between the couple, not on the issue of virginity itself.

But Dati’s resolve was met by a barrage of outrage, including a petition written by some 150 European Union parliament members denouncing the ruling as a dangerous precedent.

This controversy comes amidst reports of a rise in the number of Muslim women in France and elsewhere in the West who are procuring fake virginity certificates or undergoing plastic surgery to reconstruct their hymens, to adhere to their families’ strict codes of honor.

Dati finally ordered an appeal, against the wishes of both spouses in the case. The prosecution made its case earlier this week in front of the appeals court, arguing that the original verdict should be overturned because making virginity a pre-condition for marriage discriminates against women.

A final decision is expected on November 17.

Check back here to read about how the verdict is received.

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