A French reality TV series has been condemned by the government over its treatment of so-called “handkerchief ceremonies” in which young brides are supposed to prove their virginity.
The Minister for Citizenship Marlène Schiappa has written to the country’s broadcast watchdog the CSA, saying she was “outraged” by Incredible Gypsy Weddings uncritical handling of the rite, which sees the bride being examined by female relatives just before the marriage takes place.
Inspired by Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, the French series on the free-to-view TFX channel follows the courtship and marriage traditions of the Catalan gitan community living in the southern town of Perpignan.
In an edition broadcast in February, viewers saw, amid the preparations for a lavish wedding, the bed on which the ceremony was due to take place.
The commentary then ran: “On this bed a woman with special training tests the resistance of Naomi’s hymen with a delicate tissue. The ceremony of the handkerchief is ancestral and inescapable. If Naomi has had sexual relations, the wedding will be cancelled.”
In other scenes, women from the community explained why it was important. “It is for the family of the boy,” said one. “So that they know he has a taken a beautiful woman who is a virgin.”
“Since she was a baby she’s been brought up to know that she has to have the ceremony, to get all her dresses, to get her wedding,” said another.
Asked if men should not have similar questions asked of them, another replied: “That’s not how it is done. We start from the principle that if a young man doesn’t go out to party and see other girls before he gets married, then afterwards he’ll miss it. It’s an experience he has to have.”
Ms Schiappa said in her letter she was incensed at the unquestioning tone of the programme.
“The whole institution of our Republican marriage was trampled underfoot, without any proper commentary,” she said.
She said the sequences were “all the more revolting” because the National Assembly had only just voted for a law “banning virginity tests and assuring the consent of both partners to a marriage”.
A clause in France’s Separatism Law – which is currently before the Senate – makes it illegal for doctors to issue virginity certificates. The article is aimed primarily at France’s Muslim community, where some families insist on proof of virginity before marriage. The extent of the practice is disputed.
In the text voted by the Assembly, doctors who issue certificates would risk a year in jail and a €15,000 fine (£12,800; $17,600). Non-medical professionals who carry out virginity tests, even with the consent of the woman, would risk being charged with rape.
The World Health Organization says the practice of inspecting the hymen visually or with fingers cannot prove whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse or not. It is also a violation of their human rights, the organisation says.
Ms Schiappa has complained before of sexism on French television. Last year, as minister for sexual equality, she commissioned a report that criticised reality TV for perpetuating stereotypes.
“Reality TV programmes emphasise the hyper-femininity of women candidates and the ultra-masculinity of the men. From this dichotomy stems a vision of relations between men and women that is stereotyped and unequal,” the report said.
She has also complained about popular French wedding TV shows such as Four Marriages for a Honeymoon, in which couples are judged against each other for the quality of their weddings, and Married at First Sight where a couple are married within hours of meeting each other and the cameras follow their marital progress.