In a speech on February 18, French President Emmanuel Macron, in his campaign against what he calls “Islamist separatism”, touched on the issue of “virginity certificates”.
“In the Republic, one cannot require certificates of virginity to get married”, he said.
Across the world, “virginity certificates” can be issued following a doctor’s confirmation that a patient’s hymen is intact, and is sometimes used as a prerequisite for marriage.
Some groups, according to their faith or culture, require that women and girls be “pure” before marriage, and seek such tests as “proof”.
The practice is banned in countries such as Bangladesh, but legal in others such as the United States.
The World Health Organization has affirmed that such “testing” is unscientific, violates human rights, and can have harmful consequences for those who undergo it.
French doctors and Muslim feminists are also against the practice, but some have argued against a ban, saying it could harm women, while others have suggested Macron and his administration are politicising the issue.
On September 6, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said in an interview with Le Parisien that Macron’s forthcoming separatism bill, expected to be put before Parliament next month, would address virginity certificates.
“Some doctors still dare to certify that a woman is a virgin to allow a religious marriage, despite the condemnation of these practices by the Council of the Order of Physicians. We will not only ban it formally, but propose penalisation,” he said.
The next day, Minister Delegate Marlène Schiappa reiterated the plan during an interview with RTL, characterising such tests as a “serious attack on citizenship and the dignity of women”.
The interior ministry last month said doctors who issue virginity certificates would face a penalty of one year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros, according to an AFP report.
At the time of publishing, France’s Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Health had not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
There is little information available on the prevalence of the practice in France, but some doctors have said anecdotally that there is very little demand for such certifications.
A statement co-signed by doctors, administrators, and other advocates published in Libération last month condemned the practice as “barbaric, backward and totally sexist”, adding that it was “happily extremely rare and concerns a tiny number of patients.”
However, the signatories said issuing such certificates could be essential to those who could face violence without them.
“What should shock public opinion is not that the doctor writes such a certificate without any legal value, but that in 2020 the requirement of virginity is still so widespread,” the statement read.
French gynaecologist Ghada Hatem told France Inter that she is asked for such certificates at most three times a year, but suggested that such documents are needed by women who could very well suffer domestic violence without them.
But Israël Nisand, president of the National College of French Gynecologists and Obstetricians, supports a ban and claims to receive requests for virginity certificates once a month. He has said the foundation of the practice is “patriarchy”.
Meanwhile, ANCIC, a French abortion organisation, said in September that Schiappa and Darmanin had the “wrong target by penalising health professionals”.
Some feminist and anti-racist groups say the government is politicising the issue.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Lallab, a feminist and anti-racist organisation “that makes the voices of Muslim women heard”, condemned the practice as “sexist and humiliating” and suggested that it has a low prevalence in France.
But it added: “We do not understand why this completely peripheral issue is at the top of the French political agenda in the defence of women’s rights.”
Nta Rajel, a feminist collective of the North African diaspora, said: “Darmanin himself is the subject of investigations for rape, so the fate of women is not his concern.”
In June, a case against Darmanin dating back to 2018 was reopened when a Paris appeals court declared a previous investigation into allegations he raped a woman had been inadequate. He claims that their contact was consensual and has accused the alleged victim of slander.
Nta Rajel added: “It is obvious that we must fight against this type of practice but it is not by banning certificates that we will help anyone because until now, it is the presence of these certificates that has helped women who need them,” the statement read. “As usual, the issue of women has been exploited for racist ends.”