What Is Marriage?

And, can you demand virginity of your new French spouse?

Some time back, Scragged asked, "Who Defines Marriage?"  This article led into a series of articles which asked whether women want to get married any more.

It's not at all clear what women want these days, but now another issue has come up - just what, exactly, is marriage?  When someone marries, what can he or she count on?  Does whatever marriage agreement the bride and groom make have any meaning at all beyond themselves?

Throughout history, governments have passed laws which regulate marriage.  Whether this is because society has a reasonable interest in regulating an institution as important a marriage or whether it's just because bureaucrats like to collect fees for issuing licenses isn't clear, but just about every legal system regulates how marriages are done and undone under their jurisdiction.

Religious organizations such as churches have always spoken about marriage.  Although religious influence is fading, many national laws concerning marriage and divorce have strong religious roots.

When religions traditions and secular ideas collide, the results can be tumultuous indeed.  King Henry VIII cut all ties to the Catholic church and founded the Church of England because the Pope wouldn't let him divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boelyn, for example.  The British Parliament passed a law saying that not accepting the king as head of the church was treason in 1534; many Catholics were reluctant to switch their loyalties from the Pope to the king, most famously Sir Thomas More who paid for his qualms with his head.  Disagreements between Protestants and Catholics have roiled British politics from the 1530's to this day.

For another example of religion impacting marital policies, European medical centers report a surge in young ladies seeking to "restore" their virginity by having surgery for hymen repair.  USA Today reports:

Hymen repair, fake virginity certificates and other deceptions, said to be commonplace in some Muslim countries, are practiced in France and elsewhere in Europe, where Muslim girls are more emancipated but still live under rigid codes of family honor.

In many Muslim societies, a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night is regarded as defective, impure, and ends up in the same category as a whore.

In an interview, a French Muslim woman from the northern Paris suburb of Saint Denis, recounted how she was forced to procure a virginity certificate at age 12 "after my mother surprised me with a friend." Although nothing had happened between her and the boy, her suspicious brothers beat her up, she said, requesting anonymity.  By age 19 she had lost her virginity and underwent hymen repair before marrying a man who demanded a virgin.

Not long ago, a French groom made headlines when he dumped his bride back on her mother's doorstep on their wedding night when he found out that she was not, in fact, a virgin as she had claimed.  He went to court and got an order annulling the marriage on the grounds of premarital deception.  BBC reports:

Under the French civil code, a marriage can be annulled if a spouse has lied about an "essential quality" of the relationship - in this case virginity.

The International Herald Tribune commented on the ensuing controversy:

The issue has been particularly charged in France, where there has been a renewed and fierce debate about a prejudice that was supposed to have been buried with the country's sexual revolution 40 years ago: the importance of a woman's virginity.

The marriage was duly annulled, but the French government asked the public prosecutor to appeal the decision "lest it set a precedent where people could legally insist on virginity as a requirement for marriage."  The appeal was granted, and the marriage has been reinstated pending a hearing in September.  If the appeal goes against the groom, he will have to get a divorce, which is not at all the same thing as an annulment.

Is Marriage A Binding Contract?

Now wait a minute.  Suppose, for whatever reason, that a young man feels that his bride's virginity is important to him.  Shouldn't he have the right to ask his prospective bride about her past, as she would have the right to ask him about aspects of his past that are important to her?  Shouldn't couples be expected to tell each other the truth about "essential qualities" of their upcoming marriage, whatever each party might consider to be essential?

French culture at large may have discarded any thought of the importance of a woman's virginity.  That may be OK on the average, but it's clear that a significant number of French citizens, most notably those of Muslim descent, don't feel that way.

If a man feels that virginity is an "essential quality" as defined by French law, and says so in advance, and his bride lies to him about it, why shouldn't he be able to get an annulment under French law?  If virginity isn't essential when a man declares that it is, what is essential?  If a man can't state up front that virginity is essential to him, what can he say?

By way of comparison, employers have traditionally been permitted to hire whomever they please for whatever reason strikes their fancy, but in recent years, there have been more and more attributes placed off-limits to an employer's judgment.  In the United States, it is illegal not to hire someone because of their race, their religion, their ethnic origin, and so on.  Many disabilities are protected, as are the aged; some states even protect lifestyle choices such as drinking or homosexuality.

It would seem bizarre to argue that a person cannot require certain of these attributes of a spouse: it's simple common sense to care about what religion your potential mate prefers and to try to ensure that it's compatible with your own, for example.  If you were a devout Catholic and married someone you thought was a devout Catholic, only to find out afterwards that they were putting you on and had been an atheist all along, wouldn't you feel badly done by?

If the law establishes certain characteristics such as virginity about which you may not ask, and the law works out that if you do ask about a forbidden topic, the other party may lie to you, we're in for a world of hurt.  Setting up Islamic law as a reference point in Western societies is a desperately bad idea; defending liars is every bit as bad.

It's pretty obvious that the wife in the French divorce case knew that her husband-to-be felt very strongly about her virginity; whether or not it was reasonable for him to feel that way, he certainly did and said so up front.  Did she expect to be able to fool him for their entire life together?

Maybe she should run for Congress.  After all, the ability to lie plausibly is highly valued there.

Lee Tydings is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Lee Tydings or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Marriage is different for every couple.

As far as a nation is concerned marriage should be only a financial and legal binding of two people (or more I suppose). My wife is the primary decision maker when it comes to medical treatment I receive while incapacitated, for example.

Anything and everything emotional, cultural, or political should be ignored by the government. Being that marriage is a legal agreement I would think that any lying upfront should be considered a negotiation in bad faith and therefore make the marriage invalid.
July 15, 2008 2:43 PM
You started off asking what is marriage. And then ranted on the Islamic virginity facade. So marriage is about virginity?
July 15, 2008 3:30 PM
[quote]So marriage is about virginity?[/quote]

Let's hope not. If it is, most married couples in the US aren't really married.
July 15, 2008 5:07 PM
France isn't the only country with oddities in their law. This is a story about a man who hired a woman to impersonate his wife. He went to court with the impersonator and asked for a mutually-agreeable divorce. The divorce was granted. The man then told his wife to move out of the house.

"The case exposed the legal loopholes in our system," Kaushik Chanda, lawyer of Saha's real wife, said

July 18, 2008 9:06 AM
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