Friday, 6 June 2008

breach of contract?

i read this news yesterday, about the annulment of a marriage in the south of france on the grounds that the bride was not, as she had claimed, a virgin. the reaction around the western world appears to be one of general outrage. but i'm not sure that is really helpful.

my first thought was for the couple themselves. the groom is obviously at the stage where he has no respect for his wife. the wife has been shamed and does not want to stay in the marriage. let's ignore the wider issues for the moment, and think of the consequences of the appeal of this decision.

this couple clearly do not want to be with each other, and since they both oppose the appeal, i would conclude that neither of them wants a divorce on their "record". but should the annulment be reversed, they would immediately file for divorce. i'm not sure what would have been gained. possibly only the wording of the initial ruling itself, which saw this as an act of misrepresentation, and therefore presumably a breach of contract. but i can't imagine that anyone seriously thinks this marriage should continue.

the wider issue of course is whether it is acceptable to expect virginity prior to marriage. if a person believes that sex outside of marriage is wrong, then it would follow that they would want a partner who holds the same belief, and and has practiced it. for example, i have a hindu friend whose husband told her he was a virgin when he married her. some time into the marriage, he came out with the truth. it was something that she found she couldn't forgive, and although it certainly wasn't the sole reason for their very messy divorce, it was a large factor in her mind.

it boils down to the fact that there is no way to prove whether or not a man in a virgin. this is a situation where we women are let down by our biology. since virginity can be proven for a woman (although not in all casees), we are left with gross discrimination that has wider consequences.

i've heard of customs where the bloodied sheet is passed around as a trophy on the wedding night, while the bride's father rejoices in this proof of his daughter's virginity. absolutely gross and apparently what was supposed to happen in this case. the result, the article i've linked to shows, is not pretty:

The case has also highlighted the plight of young Muslim women, many of whom go as far as to have their hymens repaired in surgery to evade the shame of a Ms Y. Fake virginity certificates and tricks like vials of spilled blood on the wedding night are also not uncommon.

as an aside, i would suggest that this kind of thing isn't limited to muslim women. but the lengths women are going to in order to falsely prove their chastity is appalling. many would be doing so because of fear of violence or even death. the misrepresentation of this bride may have been less for the sake of her husband, and more out of fear of her own family. maybe she had been hoping that her husband would be more understanding than her parents. who knows?

there really are only two options to this situation. either we push for these women to practice abstinence, or we push for everyone to accept that virginity should not be a condition for marriage. if we push for the former, not only is there the whole issue of women who don't bleed when they lose their virginity and women who have been sexually abused/raped; but there is still the issue of double standards because we should expect the same from men but can't hold them to it. not to mention, the faking of virginity and the abuse of women who haven't managed to fake it.

the latter is the option that has been pretty much adopted in the west. in time, no doubt it will be adopted in the east as well. i wonder why that thought doesn't fill me with joy. perhaps it's the loss of notions of innocence and purity. the succumbing to the instant gratification world, where everything has to be here and now. i can't seem to adequately explain it, but it seems to me that something important will be gone.

unfortunately, there is no middle ground between these two options. and in the meantime, there is this poor woman who has been thrust in the spotlight against her will, who wants her marriage annulled, and whose voice seems to be totally drowned out. against her will, she's to be made a martyr in the cause of liberty, fraternity and equality. i hope it's worth it.


Anna McM said...

This is such a tricky issue. On one hand, it's tempting to say that Western standards of sexual behaviour should be allowed to take over the world, but that doesn't seem like a very satisfactory answer either.

It reminds me of something I read a long time ago in a feminist theory paper, about whether Madonna should be considered a feminist icon. The argument was that for some middle-class women, the idea of being sexually free could be liberating, but for others - women with religious beliefs, women already portrayed as sexually available (like black single mums in the US) - it wasn't liberating at all.

I'd love to know what you think of these arguments stargazer!

stargazer said...

hmmm, i really don't see madonna as a feminist icon at all. the problem with sexual liberation in the western context is that it seems to me to make women more vulnerable. they're more likely to be used and dumped, they're more likely to be taken advantage of.

see, in a muslim context, islamic law requires a husband to sexually satisfy his wife. it's one of her rights in a marital relationship. so in that sense, muslim women weren't (theoretically) sexually repressed. another thing in islam is that sex isn't dirty or evil. in fact, as long as it is in the confines of a marital relationship, it's actually an act of worship ie you get bonus points for having sex!

so in that sense, muslim women have never had that victorian (and possibly earlier) oppression of sex being a duty to your husband, only for the purposes of procreation, and hence not an activity to be enjoyed in its own right. also, in islam, celibacy is not allowed ie no male or female is allowed to deny themselves sex for religious reasons. to get married, in islam, is to complete half of your religion.

the only other religion i know vaguely about is hinduism. now these guys developed the kama sutra, so i don't think sexual repression was that much a problem for them either. at least not in theory!

hence, madonna as an icon of sexual liberation is pretty meaningless. i can understand the need western women had for sexual liberation, given that you had no laws to say an orgasm is your God-given right. but it just doesn't translate across cultures.

mspoinsettia said...

It is extremely messed up that concern over legal precedent is taking precedence over this woman's wishes.

On another tangent I wonder whether the whole taboo regarding sex before marriage in Western cultures was ever a cultural thing so much as a class thing. In much the same way as only wealthy women were rigidly confined to the domestic sphere since workingclass women have always worked (but nevertheless been confined to limited roles), I wonder if sexual purity was less important to working class women, whose potential partners had less economic power to wield in choosing a mate and possibly different 'cultural' ideas about what made a suitable wife (i.e. ability to help keep family economic unit going might be valued more than intangible ideas of purity). I'm not suggesting that sexual purity was a non-issue for working classes but that it may have been more flexible. I'm no historian so this is just out-loud wondering...

Anna McM said...

I think that's a really important point, mspoinsettia. Sexual purity has a lot to do with securing inheritance lines as well - ie a man making sure the children who inherited his property/title/whatever were in fact his. It reminds me of before Charles and Di were married, and she had to undergo examination to ensure she was a virgin. Yucky yucky yuck yuck.