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This is part two of a four-part series. Click at right for the other parts.
Fraidy Reiss had been married only a week when she realized she was trapped in a nightmare. That morning, her husband flew into a rage after waking up late and punched his fist through a wall of Sheetrock in their apartment. He was twice her size. She was 19.
And she wondered, “If he could do that to the wall, what could he do to me?”
Nearly two decades later, Reiss recounted her experience for a recent World Policy Institute salon on forced marriage in the United States. Now 37, Reiss told the participants: “I was in fear of my life.”
Reiss grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and her marriage was arranged by a matchmaker, as is the custom, while she was still a teenager. Birth control is forbidden in the Orthodox world, so she soon had two daughters. Although the marriage was not technically forced, Reiss said she felt under intense societal and familial pressure to enter into it. Soon after the wall-punching incident, when her husband began threatening her and she reached out to the community for support, the same pressures were doubled up to stop her from leaving.
“There was no help, no understanding of domestic violence and no encouragement to get out,” she said. “My daughters and I were on our own.”
The violence got worse until eventually she could take it no more and, in a gesture of defiance toward the religious community that had failed her, she bundled her two daughters into a car and drove away on the Sabbath.
The intense and lonely struggle that followed to get a divorce and custody of her children prompted her to found Unchained at Last, a group dedicated to helping other women un-arrange their marriages and rearrange their lives.
It’s not entirely clear how prevalent arranged marriages are in the United States or how frequently marriages that are arranged cross the line into being forced. A 2011 survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center (TJC), a Virginia-based advocacy group, identified nearly 3,000 cases of forced marriage in the previous two years among immigrant communities from 56 different countries.
Unlike in the United Kingdom, however, which passed the Forced Marriage Act in 2008, the United States has no corresponding law to protect women. Advocates say that excessive cultural sensitivity plays an enabling role as well. “With respect to forced marriage in the U.S. today, we’re back where we were with domestic violence 30 years ago,” said Jeanne Smoot, the TJC’s director of public policy, “just as the problem was hidden from view because it was considered a private family matter, forced marriage hides behind a cultural and religious curtain.”
Many of the nearly 70 clients that Unchained is serving in New York and New Jersey are from Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, and the majority are from the Orthodox Jewish community that Reiss had to flee. (“When Orthodox women complain to rabbis about their marriages, they warn them about me,” she said, laughing. “The next day they are on the phone!”)
While the women’s backgrounds vary, they share many traits. They usually were married as teenagers, have had little access to education, have not been allowed to work and are at the mercy of their communities and the husbands who were set up to dominate them. Most are victims of domestic violence.
Navigating legal system
“I had no idea how things were going to turn out, no idea how to navigate the legal system, no idea how to survive,” said one of Unchained’s clients, Sarah Altman (a pseudonym), recalling the terror of having to flee to a domestic-violence shelter with her children and less than $20 in her pocket. Her biggest concern, after having been shunned by her family and community, was losing custody of her children.
Marc Lieberstein, a New York-based attorney who offers his services pro bono to Unchained’s clients, said custody can be an especially tricky issue for women leaving arranged marriages. “The courts have to consider what’s in the best interest of the child,” he said, “in a case where a mother has to leave a community or a religion, a judge may decide it’s better for the child to stay with the extended family.”
Altman is still waiting for her divorce and custody arrangement to be finalized, partly because of complications of religious law. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a woman cannot commence a divorce action, and even if she manages to obtain a divorce in a civil court, it has to be approved by the Beth Din, a rabbinical court system. Her husband then has to sign a get, a religious decree, before the divorce it is recognized by her community and family, and they are not always willing to do so.
In some cases, religious law can work in a woman’s favor. Arranged marriages are commonplace in Muslim communities, but it is strictly forbidden in Islam to force a woman into marriage.
“Before a woman gets married, the imam has to take her aside and ask if she is being forced,” said Shehnaz Abdeljaber, a Palestinian-American who is president of the board at Unchained. Abdeljaber’s family arranged a marriage to her cousin when she was just 18. When she told her father that if she went through with the marriage, it would be forced, he relented, and she was allowed to break off the engagement.
Not all families in Muslim and other communities are as considerate, however, and many girls who resist marriages are subject to violence and even death threats. Almost half the respondents to the TJC survey reported that forced-marriage victims had been subjected to physical violence, and 13 respondents reported murder attempts.
Unchained is advocating for new laws to protect women from being coerced into marriages, as well as for changes to existing laws such as those surrounding minimum marriage age, and to religious laws that are sometimes enforceable in civil court. In many states, girls as young as 16 can be married, as long as there is parental or judicial consent, and in three states — California, Delaware and Mississippi — there is no minimum age limit whatsoever. Unchained has introduced its first legislative proposal to the New Jersey Legislature to make it easier for domestic-violence victims to get a final restraining order against their abusers. In the meantime, building a community to replace the one the women have lost is a priority.
“When I left my marriage, my family sat shiva for me,” Reiss said, referring to the Jewish mourning ritual after a person has died. “I know how painful it is to lose everyone you know and love.”