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France’s New Marriage Laws Could Trigger Islamophobic Abuses

Matthew P. Cavedon

France is enacting sweeping legislation targeting Islamist extremism. Its new “separatism law” aims to ensure that Muslims integrate into the secular community. A number of its provisions, including restrictions on publishing information about public employees and limits on homeschooling, have raised the ire of civil rights activists. These controversies are unsurprising: debates about freedom of speech and educational liberty are commonplace in the Western world. But another measure contained within the law merits more scrutiny than a first glance might suggest. The draft law authorizes prosecutors to examine suspected forced marriages. No one should doubt the importance of ensuring that spouses willingly wed each other. However, public scrutiny of marital decisions must itself be carefully scrutinized. Abuses of similar laws in India show just how quickly efforts to protect marital choice can mutate into a severe restriction on it.

French President Emmanuel Macron has made campaigning against radical Islam one of his administration’s highest priorities, following years and years of deadly Islamist terrorist attacks. This project goes far beyond surveillance of militant groups and increased policing near potential targets. The government’s new separatism law “covers most aspects of French life,” aiming to push Muslims and other citizens more deeply into “the nation’s foundational value of secularism.”

Several provisions focus on family affairs. Doctors who issue virginity certificates will be fined $18,000 and imprisoned for up to a year. Polygamist immigrants will be denied residency permits. As for forced marriages, “NGOs can now contact local officials directly if they have strong suspicions a woman may be being forced into a forced marriage with authorities now able to demand to speak to the couple separately to ensure no pressure is being exerted.” If these interviews do not persuade officials, they “must take the issue to a prosecutor who could forbid the marriage.”

The number of forced marriages in France is something of a mystery, as there “is no publicly available government data on child marriage.” Still, studies indicate that the practice does exist in small numbers, and when it happens, it tends to be between Muslims. The issue is significant enough that France’s foreign department’s website includes a guide on resisting forced marriage while traveling abroad.

France undoubtedly has the right, and the obligation, to enact sound laws ensuring that marriage is voluntary.

Measures like these are important. Forced marriage is a human rights violation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that marriage can only be entered into “with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Coerced marriages are also condemned by other international documents, including many co-sponsored by France. France undoubtedly has the right, and the obligation, to enact sound laws ensuring that marriage is voluntary.

But as the French novelist Albert Camus purportedly said, “The welfare of the people . . . has always been the alibi of tyrants.” Even laws born of the noblest motives can embody inhumanity and bigotry. This is what has happened to a similar anti-coerced marriage endeavor in India. Just like France, India is a proudly free country that claims to value diversity. Just like France, India has sought to prevent Muslims from coercing marriage. Hopefully unlike France, though, India’s efforts have proven remarkably able to violate the rights of the very people they are meant to protect.

India is a Hindu-majority country with a large Muslim minority. No less than anywhere else, it has its share of religious biases, among them Hindu skepticism about Muslims’ regards for women’s rights. One prominent concept in the country is “love jihad,” an “Islamophobic term that implies Muslim men prey on Hindu women to seduce them and marry them with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam.”

Even laws born of the noblest motives can embody inhumanity and bigotry.

People who believe in this trope have legal avenues for questioning Hindu-Muslim matrimony. Under the 1954 Special Marriage Act, interfaith couples wanting to wed must give public notice for 30 days. While the original intent was letting “those with legitimate objections, an existing spouse for instance, to come forward,” the notices “have become a red flag for right-wing activists.” Hardline Hindus have publicized private details about “as many as 120 interfaith couples.” Partners seeking to avoid such scrutiny can always try to elope. But that just runs the risk of disaffected parents filing a groundless rape complaint. So prevalent is this that “it’s impossible to sort out lovers whose parents may have filed fake cases from the actual victims.”

Private abuses like these can surely be guarded against with privacy protections. What is trickier is the threat of public officials putting legitimate couples through the gauntlet of having to prove their love. That has been a problem in India, too. Recently, a state with a Hindu nationalist government passed a law requiring “anyone wishing to convert” from one religion to another to “seek approval from the district authorities,” on pain of being held without bail and sentenced to ten years in prison. This injects bureaucratic examination right into the heart of many interfaith relationships.

India’s legal crusade against “love jihad” has featured many casualties. The most famous internationally might be Hadiya Jahan, a 20-something Hindu college student who converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. Her family claimed that “she was brainwashed as part of an anti-Hindu conspiracy.” They detained her for eleven months. Their petition to a court to annul her marriage succeeded, despite Ms. Jahan’s own testimony that she had wed voluntarily, because the judge found her “weak and vulnerable.” The Indian Supreme Court eventually ordered her released from her father’s custody but, in a patronizing move, it appointed her college dean to serve as her legal guardian. The Court did ultimately uphold the marriage’s validity – only after two hours of deliberating whether to let Ms. Jahan testify. And ordering an investigation by the counterterrorist National Intelligence Agency.

India’s laws are meant to guard against coercion regarding marriage. But in practice, under the shadow of bigotry against Muslim men, they commit that very evil.

There are lessons in this for France. Publicity surrounding alleged coerced marriages can be extremely dangerous for the spouses involved. Frustrated parents and relatives who do not reasonably suspect coerced marriage will nonetheless avail themselves of any law they can. So will bigots. The judgment of government officials cannot substitute for the professed decisions of competent people without making a mockery of personal freedom and women’s emancipation. And an unthinking conviction that Muslim men endanger women will lead to less liberty for Muslims and women alike.

France’s government is assuming a power to ban marriages between consenting adults. Will it abolish marital choice in the name of protecting it? Only time will tell. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “France’s New Marriage Laws Could Trigger Islamophobic Abuses.” Canopy Forum, March 22, 2021.