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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Virginité, ce mot obscène

by Geneviève Brisac

That Obscene Word, Virginity

Translated Monday 9 June 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The annulment of a marriage by a Lille court [1] has triggered a spate of reactions.

In the train that was carrying me away, I took out my pile of newspapers with relish. One takes a special pleasure in reading papers on a train. I believe that pleasure reveals how much we regret not finding the time, not having the leisure in which to read them, as a rule. From there to the origin of the crisis of the press, it is only a short step of course, but that is not our theme.

The rain was lashing against the window panes. Thunder. I’ve just read how a marriage had been annulled at the husband’s request: his betrothed had lied to him. Lightning. Poor man, he could not consider living with a person whom he could not longer trust. He believed he was marrying a virgin, and lo, she was not.

I read the article again out loud to take the meaning in, and to share my amazement with the friend I was travelling with. I did not feel indignant at first, nor even really angry. I was dumbfounded, anaesthetized. I almost wanted to laugh. That was simply too much. My friend held her head in her hands. She looked scared.

Sex and the City is on in our movie theatres. And in our courts they argue over a bride’s virginity .Our world is heading for disaster, being pulled in opposite directions, a prey to a fatal schizophrenia,” she said in a blank voice.

“So we are still in the Middle Ages,” I said. “And there are still men - our brothers, equals, colleagues - to be obsessed with defloration and hymen. How obscene these words are: virginity, hymen, defloration, and their train of woes, murders, humiliations!”

Being quite learned, my friend went even further: weren’t the red-stained sheets that used to be displayed at the windows on the morning after a symbol of the way a woman’s intimate life became tribal property?"

We were…We simply did not know where we were.

“For beyond the grounds the judge gave for the decision," I argued, "it’s obviously the question of virginity, and not the lie, that motivated the man’s impatience to be unmarried, and motivated the judge’s decision. If the groom’s betrothed had lied to him in certifying that she was left-handed, or funny, or that she could read ancient Greek, it would not have been a sufficient ground for annulling the marriage."

Well, we thought it would not. That was not something we felt we wanted to laugh about.

“But if it’s their religion…,” someone in the coach said good-naturedly, indulgently.

I gasped for breath. Not again! Why must religion be brought in again! Religion has nothing to do in our town-halls and in our courts. “No religion,” my friend said, and I nodded vehemently in support. “It is my firm conviction that no god can possibly care about the virginity of his creatures. The slave-owners of yore could, our medieval ancestors could, too. Bourgeois families in the 19th century could. But not us. Not now.”

Once more, I felt proud of her.

“It could have been the other way round,” another person ventured. “It could have been a woman who wanted her marriage annulled because she discovered that her fiancé was not a virgin.”

We looked at her in astonishment. She was a young lady. She looked really sorry for the groom who had been wrongly deceived. There was about her that air of ignorant modernity that will be seen on every street corner. Innocent. And therefore unaware of the real fate of hundreds of thousands of women around her. A typical case of that amnesiac, a-political modernity which makes it possible for that kind of judgment to be delivered - as was the case in Lille. Completely outside history.

“No, unfortunately, it never could have been the other way round, the reverse has never happened, not in any place, not ever,” I said, somewhat grandiloquently. I felt my flesh creep as I spoke. “They would have us believe that all it’s about is a lie between equals, that today’s men and women contract alliances on equal terms. They would have us believe that for all women, everywhere, the days of oppression are over - of conjugal violence, of arranged marriages, of unequal rights and duties, of the exchange of women, of the appropriation of their wombs.

“That story,” my friend concluded as the train entered the station, “like many similar stories, shows that none of women’s conquests is ever definitive. No right, no advancement. No freedom. But we will fight back. For we are angry.”

Geneviève Brizac, writer and pblisher, won the Prix Femina in 1996. Her last published book was 52, ou la seconde vie (52, or Life After), Editions de l’Olivier, 2006

Translator’s note:

[1] The annulment was pronounced on the ground that the husband had been deceived in respect of an "essential quality" of his bride.

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