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What is a Virgin?

[Female anatomy. Image from unknown archive] [Female anatomy. Image from unknown archive]

* What follows is a germ of a longer and more detailed piece. The names, dates and places related to this court case have been omitted in order to protect the anonymity of the plaintiffs.

In recent years, the Lebanese Druze Court of Appeals adjudicated a particularly ugly divorce. The case concerned a young couple who had recently been married and divorced by the Druze Court of First Instance, which had found both members of the couple equally responsible for the failure of their marriage. Undeterred, the wife and husband have filed separate appeals at the Druze Court of Appeals, but for opposing reasons. The husband has sought to overturn the ruling, which grants favorable terms of divorce to his wife, arguing that his wife is at fault for the divorce and thus should not benefit from alimony or financial settlement. The wife seeks to modify the ruling to increase the alimony owed her and wishes to be declared innocent of any wrongdoing. Under Lebanese Druze personal status law, neither the wife nor the husband has the right to initiate a divorce. Rather, either plaintiff can present their reasons for wanting a divorce to the judge, who reserves the right to grant or refuse their petition.

Reading through court decisions, lawyers' briefs to the court, transcripts of sworn testimony, and letters from doctors, university deans, and translators offered as evidence, one is convinced that this was indeed an unhappy union. The trouble began even before they were married when the man wanted to end the engagement because his wife-to-be had persisted in wearing what the court is told was “revealing” clothing. On the wedding night, the husband allegedly made his wife wait in the lobby at a chic Beirut hotel for three hours after the wedding party because he did not want to pay for an extra night's stay. On that same night, the husband allegedly could not perform sexually and flew into a violent rage. Afterward the couple did not have sexual intercourse for thirty-five days because she was allegedly afraid that it would hurt too much. After weeks of waiting, the husband forced himself on her and engaged in what we are told were unnatural acts (later alleged to be fingering). The day after that, the wife asked the husband to make an appointment for her with a female gynecologist (he claims that in fact he begged her to make the appointment) to help her with the pain she was experiencing when trying to have intercourse.

The doctor's examination of the wife is the crucial piece of evidence in the divorce case. On the day of the appointment, the female doctor was away delivering a baby and her male colleague was seeing to her other patients. At first, the wife refused to allow the male doctor to examine her and when she finally consented to her husband's demand, she insisted that he only be allowed to examine her from “the outside,” not “the inside.” The doctor states in his report that there is a tear of unknown origin on her hymen, adding that because a woman's hymen is partially intact until childbirth, there is no medical evidence that could state with certainty that she is not a virgin, using the French term “pas de defloration.” This term would become the subject of judicial and lawyerly investigation in the court-case.

Apparently, the husband was horrified that his wife had a tear on her hymen and believed that the reason they had not yet consented to intercourse was that she wanted to hide the fact that she was not a virgin. After the medical examination, the couple began to have what they both describe as a normal sex life. In his testimony, the husband states that when they first had sexual intercourse, he became further convinced that his wife was not a virgin because there was no “evidence” of a hymen. Enraged, he shouted at her that “he might as well have married an American girl,” in reference to the fact that he had been living in the United States for years when he met his wife in her home village in Lebanon. The judges at the Druze Court of Appeals repeat this sentence no less than three times, apparently sharing the husband's disappointment with his wife who, by allegedly engaging in premarital sex, might as well have been “an American.”

The question of the wife's virginity soon overshadows other evidence of marital discontent. Allegations of spousal abuse (buttressed by the fact that the husband had been kicked out of an American university because of violence) are not given much legal weight. The court also leaves the wife's allegation that the husband and his lawyer had engaged in witness tampering unaddressed. Instead, the judges focus on whether or not the wife was a virgin at the time of the wedding and on her refusal to engage in sexual intercourse with her husband for the first month after their marriage. They write that it is a shame that a man at the height of his sexual powers would be forced to use his finger; according to Druze traditions and customs any man who discovers that his wife had engaged in premarital sex has the right to spurn her. Furthermore, while the Druze Court of First Instance finds it suspicious that the husband did not mention the fact that his wife was not a virgin until very late in the court case, the Druze High Court of Appeals believes that the fact that he waited to bring this fact up is evidence of his desire to protect her reputation, a further testament to his respectability. With the husband, they also suggest that the wife had had an inappropriate relationship with a friend of hers while attending college. They point to a letter from the dean of said University, which reports a grade given to the wife and her male research partner/friend years ago, as evidence of that inappropriate relationship. The wife and her lawyer argue that the only reason the husband is even discussing this friendship is because the man in question is Shiite, and the man's lawyer is hoping to play on the gendered and sectarian prejudices (a Druze woman having a relationship with a Shiite man) of the court.

The judges vote, two to one, and find that the wife “fooled” her husband and cheated him into marrying her under false pretenses. Thus the wife is at fault for the divorce, and the financial settlement given by the Court of First Instance is revoked. A powerfully and passionately written opinion by the dissenting judge is appended to the case. In his dissenting opinion, the judge argues that the court relied on unverifiable evidence in reaching their decision, and that in vaguely relying on “Druze `urf” (Druze knowl to reach their decision his fellow judges had broken Lebanese law which demands that rulings be grounded upon legal citations. Furthermore, the dissenting judge states that the ruling is legally weak because it grants the wife “half” of her rights, as if the rights bestowed by Islamic law can be meted out in parts.

Had the case ended at the Druze High Court of Appeals, the average reader might be tempted to write it off as further evidence of the rigid and patriarchal nature of shari`a, personal status, or even of Islam and/or any religion more generally. However, the case does not end here. The now ex-wife and her lawyer appeal the ruling to the Council of General Oversight at the Court of Cassation, a civil court that has limited jurisdiction over the Lebanese legal system, including the personal status courts.

In their arguments to the Council of General Oversight, the ex-wife and her lawyer allege judicial misconduct at the personal status courts. They write that in relying on `urf without linking it to a citation the Druze judges denied the wife her legally protected right to defend herself by studying the text in question. They further allege that there is no such legal tradition in Druze personal status law, and that according to said law Hanafi (sunni) ijtihad is supposed to be reviewed in cases dealing with subjects that the law does not mention directly. In this way, the lawyer alleges that the judges broke Lebanese civil laws by not following Druze personal status laws. They also broke Lebanese law by not taking the opinion of the Attorney General's office, of which a representative is present in every Lebanese shari‘a (but not Christian) court. This representative is supposed to ensure that the rights of both parties to a fair and impartial trial are upheld and the civil laws that determine proper court proceedings are followed.

The lawyer also argues that the judges had relied on evidence submitted after the period for argumentation had ended, effectively making it impossible for the wife to respond to or explain the letter sent by the dean of the university she had attended. Thus the judges broke Lebanese law by denying the wife the right to defend herself properly and by entering evidence into the record after the period of argumentation was officially over. Furthermore, they argue that because the court's recorder had hand copied much of the legal testimony falsely, changing and or/misspelling words, the judges relied on false evidence in reaching their decision. The lawyer dwells on the fact that the term “pas de defloration” (in context meaning no evidence of non-virginity) found in the lawyer's briefs, the doctor's testimony, and the Druze Court of First Instance ruling, was changed to “paste defloration” in the Druze Court of Appeals ruling.

For a researcher, a court ruling is perhaps the least interesting or important part of a case file. Alienated from the consequences of winning or losing a case, a researcher can dwell on dissenting opinions, judges' notes, evidence, or the three official translations of the term “pas de defloration” which were presented to the court. A researcher can be in awe of a female plaintiff's insistence that the judges who sit on the Druze Court of Appeals broke Lebanese and Druze personal status law, just as she can laugh at the recurrence of the sentence, “I might as well have married an American.” As readers, we can parse through the bowels of a failed marriage and find in them evidence of the way the Lebanese legal system functions and of how it is supposed to function. We can highlight the fact that while the question of virginity forms the majority of arguments presented to Druze personal status courts, the question of legal proceedings, the rights of the plaintiff, and the defense of the “public good” are foregrounded in the appeal to The Council of General Oversight. Our lives are not changed by what these judges decide, nor must we transform our bodies, memories, words, and emotions into an evidentiary terrain.[1] For us, the question “What is a Virgin” is an opportunity to think about the ways in which virginity is constructed socially, medically, and legally. Virginity is also always already constructed in relation to the female body and, in particular, to female genitalia. The answer to the “problem” of the wife's virginity will not determine whether we lose financial and social standing or if we will relieve ourselves of financial responsibility to an ex-spouse.

For a researcher, this case demonstrates the complex ways in which personal status and civil courts in Lebanon are institutionally linked. It also demonstrates that any marriage contract--religious, civil, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish--is a legal regime that determines the rights and duties of each party. When the contract is broken, these rights and duties will be interrogated and enforced by “impartial” judges wearing suits, turbans, or crosses. Sometimes, as in the case outlined in this article, these rights and duties are interrogated by three sets of judges, two wearing turbans and one wearing suits covered by the robes that form the uniform of the Lebanese judiciary. In this way, perhaps what this case reveals most is not the gendered construction and weighting of virginity, but rather the ways in which common understandings of the terms “secular,” “religious,” or “sectarian” fail to capture either the essence or the workings of the Lebanese legal system and the Lebanese state.

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[1] The dissolution of any relationship does give birth to this transformation of words, bodies, and emotions into evidence used to score points by both members of a former couple, but only in the context of a marriage contract will this evidence have legal import.

3 comments for "What is a Virgin?"

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fantastic.

RS wrote on October 16, 2011 at 02:20 PM
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This proves that Lebanon is still a backward society even though we try to convince ourselves that it's not.

L wrote on November 07, 2011 at 02:43 AM
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also fascinating to look at the complicit/ness of the medical system in supporting misinformation re "female virginity" not to mention its complacency when it comes to changing the discourse on female bodies and sexuality

rsk wrote on November 18, 2011 at 02:44 PM

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