Saturday, December 27, 2008

Islam, Europe, women, sex and modernity

A fascinating article in The Washington Post about a controversy in France over the annulment of a young Muslim couple's marriage, obtained by the husband on the grounds that the wife was not a virgin. After news got out that the French courts approved the annulment, political activists and commentators were incensed.

From the left and right came a barrage of criticism, suggesting that the decision had given French legal sanction to a Muslim's demand that his bride be a virgin. Elizabeth Badinter, a longtime women's rights campaigner, said she felt "shame" that such a court ruling could be handed down in France.

"This ends up simply pushing many young Muslim girls into hospitals to have their hymen reconstituted," she said.

Laurence Rossignel of the Socialist Party's secretariat for women's rights qualified the decision as "amazing."

"It violates the constitutional principles of equality between men and women and of nondiscrimination, because it cannot be rendered except against a woman," she added. "It makes a mockery of the rights of women over their own bodies and to live their sexuality freely, the way men do."


Under pressure, the Justice Ministry -- headed by Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants (and an unmarried mother-to-be) -- reversed the annulment, effectively remarrying the couple. They will now have to seek a divorce (complicated by the fact that the husband has remarried).

The groom's lawyer thinks the "politically correct" journalists and protesters have invaded the couple's private life to the detriment of both the man and the woman (the wife also wanted the annulment). There may be some truth to the charge that those who made the case public were more concerned with abstract women's rights and liberal values than with the welfare of this particular woman; on the other hand, there is a solid argument to be made that European law should not be enshrining the idea that a man can repudiate his wife for not being a virgin at marriage.

What I find interesting, though, is something else. This is not a conflict between Islamic and Christian culture so much as it is a conflict between traditional and modern culture. Not that long ago, virginity was as much of a requirement in a bride in European societies. There are, indeed, many people in the West (and perhaps especially in the United States) today who are nostalgic for those old-fashioned values, at least in moderate forms. I can think of quite a few American conservatives who would vehemently disagree with the notion that women have a right to "live their sexuality freely, the way men do."

Should everyone who lives in modern societies be required to assimilate to modern values? No, of course not. They should, however, be required to understand that the virtues they cherish cannot be imposed by law or by force. Though, in this case, the annulment may have been unobjectionable since the wife agreed to it.

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