The French government seeks to appeal a decision to annul a marriage following claims that the wife was not a virgin, but the Muslim couple themselves are annoyed.
It turns out that before the wedding the husband asked his future wife (both Muslim) to swear that she was a virgin, and she did. But on the wedding night he discovered she was not. So he sued demanding the cancellation of the marriage contract, and the court ruled in his favour.
Politicians, feminists and human rights activists denounced the verdict, handed down last month but reported in the national press only last week, as an affront to the legal equality of men and women and a violation of a woman's privacy.
"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.
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.
Fadela Amara, state secretary for urban affairs, called it "a real fatwa against women's liberation" and said it seemed more like "a ruling handed down in Kandahar."
Muslims make up about eight per cent 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 said on 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 "honour killings", she said the wife in this case "did not have the freedom not to lie ... she lied in self-defence."
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.
Justice Minister Rachida Dati first defended the ruling but ordered an appeal on Monday.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the case could go to France's highest appeals court, while Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot argued it was for parliament to debate and legislate.
But the couple do not seem to be amused over the raging debate. The lawyer for the wife said she was furious and did not want a new trial. "She told me: I refuse this. I don't agree with this appeal," Charles-Edouard Mauger told Europe 1 radio.
"I have to get on with my life," he quoted her as saying. "I don't know who decided that they would think for me. I haven't asked for anything. It feels like I'm hallucinating."
The lawyer for the husband expressed his surprise that the case would be reopened.
"First the Justice Ministry said the ruling conformed to the law, now it's appealing it," Xavier Labbee told RMC radio. "It's a contradiction, probably due to the uproar in the media."
Premier Fillon said France could not let the ruling make virginity a "key element in consent to marry." If the appeal failed, he said, the government would take it to the highest appeals court "so this ruling does not create a precedent for all judges."
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