A reader points to this AP article:
The bride said she was a virgin. When her new husband discovered that was a lie, he went to court to annul the marriage — and a French judge agreed.
The ruling ending the Muslim couple's union has stunned France and raised concerns the country's much-cherished secular values are losing ground to religious traditions from its fast-growing immigrant communities....
In its ruling, the court concluded the woman had misrepresented herself as a virgin and that, in this particular marriage, virginity was a prerequisite.
But in treating the case as a breach of contract, the ruling was decried by critics who said it undermined decades of progress in women's rights. Marriage, they said, was reduced to the status of a commercial transaction in which women could be discarded by husbands claiming to have discovered hidden defects in them.
The court decision "is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women. We are returning to the past," said Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, the daughter of immigrants from Muslim North Africa, using the Arabic term for a religious decree....
In its judgment, the tribunal said the 2006 marriage had been ended based on "an error in the essential qualities" of the bride, "who had presented herself as single and chaste." ...
Article 180 of the Civil Code states that when a couple enters into a marriage, if the "essential qualities" of a spouse are misrepresented, then "the other spouse can seek the nullity of the marriage." Past examples of marriages that were annulled include a husband found to be impotent and a wife who was a prostitute, according to attorney Xavier Labbee....
[The man's lawyer] said both the man and the woman "understand that annulling the marriage is preferable to divorce because it wipes the slate clean (of) what you want to forget, but divorce wipes away nothing."
Indeed, the court ruling states that the woman "acquiesced" to the demand for an annulment "based on a lie concerning her virginity." ...
Here's my very quick thought: In principle, it seems to me that a spouse should be free to divorce the other spouse when the marriage was based on a lie. I think it's silly to care about whether one's bride was a virgin, but people are entitled to care about qualities that I think are irrelevant, as well as the indubitably relevant quality of truthfulness. Given this, it seems to me not very important whether this is called a divorce or an annulment, especially given that as I understand it French law generally allows no-fault divorce, at least when there's mutual consent.
Now I would be troubled if the law saw lack of virginity as a quality that is "essential" but other things as qualities that aren't "essential." That would be an endorsement by the legal system of the unsound view that virginity is extraordinarily important in a wife. I would also be troubled if the law encourages disputes about exactly what was said by one spouse to the other, since I suspect this would lead to lots of lying and not much truth-finding.
But if the couple agrees about the facts, and agrees that, to quote the AP's paraphrase of the court ruling, "in this particular marriage, virginity was a prerequisite," then allowing the annulment seems to me fine. In fact, it's better for the court to focus on what was essential to the parties rather than to select which qualities are "objectively" essential and which aren't objectively essential. I'm a big believer in decisionmaking using objective standards in lots of situations — but two people's decision about what's important to them about a spouse doesn't strike me as a situation that calls for such objective standards. And, I stress again, if the parties could have gotten divorced in any event, why the strong objection to letting them get an annulment instead?
Now I understand that there is a lot of insistence on virginity in many Muslim families (and some non-Muslim ones, though my sense is that in France this insistence is likely much less common among the non-Muslim population). As I said before, I think this is a bad basis for choosing a spouse, and I suspect that a cultural acceptance of this basis leads to all sorts of emotional pain. On top of that, my guess is that the virginity rule is definitely not applied in a sex-neutral way, which makes it even more improper in my view.
But, as I said, people are entitled to choose their spouses based on any reason at all, and to my knowledge French law allows them to agree to divorce based on any reason at all (again, at least if both agree). Saying that they may also annul the marriage based on any misrepresentation that they saw as material strikes me as no different: It's an accommodation of people's choices about whom to have a tremendously important relationship with, and we should generally accommodate those choices even when we think they are partly unwise — I say partly because while the insistence on virginity strikes me as unsound, the concern about the lie strikes me as much more proper — or reinforce unsound community attitudes.
At the same time, I should note that this is just a general principles judgment, coupled with the limited information about French law and the decision given in this story. It may well be that there are important legal details that I'm missing that would indeed justify the outcry.
UPDATE: Bruce Adelstein at Three Jews, Four Opinions discusses a Jewish Law approach to law and virginity.