Fraidy Reiss founded the organization, Unchained At Last, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women leave forced marriages by providing free legal services, counseling and other kinds of assistance. In her interview with Ma’yan, Fraidy Reiss discusses forced marriages, misogyny in the bet din and alternative ways of approaching the issue of agunot.
R: What made you decide to start the organization?
F: I started it out of my own personal experience. I was in an arranged marriage, raised in Brooklyn, and entered an arranged marriage when I was nineteen- because that is the custom in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in which I was raised. It was a marriage that was abusive from the start, and there was just no real way out for me. It took twelve years until I managed to get out. I finally managed to leave with my two daughters, and I had to rebuild my life from scratch… My family and community completely shunned me. I decided I wanted to help other women who are in a similar situation.
R: What’s the difference between preventing arranged/forced marriage and then, in the end, if they do end up in an arranged/forced marriage, helping them get out?
F: We do, as you said, both help women who are facing a marriage and trying to resist it, and also women who are already in arranged/forced marriage and are trying to get out. But there’s also two different ways that we approach the problem. One is on a person by person basis, so we get the call from somebody who says, “Please help me,” and we do that. But there’s also the bigger picture, where [we handle] the policy change, the law changes, [and we] raise awareness… When it comes to the individual, every single individual is different: if it’s a minor whose parents are trying to force her into marriage, obviously that’s very different from a woman who’s in her forties and has been married for twenty years or twenty five years and has eight children and is trying to leave. For each individual client, obviously there are different needs, so we get them the proper attorneys that they need and social services, emotional support, etc.
R: I know you help women from Muslim communities, from Jewish communities, from every different kind of community. Is there a difference in approach between these different communities?
F: Our approach is client by client, personalized for that client. Oftentimes, almost always, the community that she’s from will dictate partially how we need to respond to it. But it’s not as if we have one set of rules for the Muslim woman and one set of rules for Jewish women… Even within the community, there’s so much variation. For example, in the Muslim community, we have clients who come to us who have very devout and religious parents or family who tried to force them into marriage. Then we have some clients for whom it’s more cultural. In the Orthodox Jewish community, we have clients who are trying to leave the religion at the same time that they’re leaving their marriage. Sometimes they want to remain orthodox or perhaps find some other way to practice Judaism… And remember that we have clients who are not from Jewish or Muslim communities. We have several other [clients from other] religions or purely cultural backgrounds.
R: Does Unchained take into consideration different religious viewpoints?
F: Of course. A lot of our clients are religious so there are different religious viewpoints. Also, once you go to a civil court, there’s a way to work a get into the divorce agreement. To me, this is much better than a woman entering a bet din in where she has such limited rights, especially compared to her estranged husband. It’s such an unfair and unleveled playing field. I always tell women, a bet din is no place for a woman.
R: Would you mind talking a little bit more about the bet din, Jewish civil court, and women in the bet din?
F: Sure… Typically, in an orthodox Jewish bet din there’s a panel of three judges, a woman is not allowed to serve as one of those judges. Those will all be men. A woman in a bet din is not allowed to serve as a lawyer, or a toen, an advocate. A woman’s testimony is not even admissible in a bet din… So we’re already looking at an infrastructure of misogyny… Under orthodox Jewish laws, a man is allowed to divorce his wife, a woman does not have that right. The woman can ask her husband for a get, a Jewish divorce, but she can’t grant one and her husband can just say no, or he can say, “Well, fine. But have your father write me a check for four million dollars…” He can make whatever demands he wants. A woman whose husband won’t grant her a get or a Jewish divorce, either out of spite or because she doesn’t meet whatever demands he placed on her, becomes an Agunah, a chained woman. She’s forever chained to this dead marriage, she cannot move on with her life.
R: Let’s say you have a woman who wants to remain orthodox and is now thrown into this predicament of being an Agunah, a chained woman. How does Unchained At Last help with that and what’s your thoughts on being an Agunah?
F: Our policy at Unchained is we do not help women get a get, a religious divorce. We help women in civil court and my position, when I went through my divorce, I actually refused to accept a get. Because I didn’t want anything to do with this process of religious divorce in the orthodox Jewish community… That was easy for me to do, because I’m no longer orthodox. I’m no longer religious at all. If I am ever crazy enough to remarry, which is really unlikely to happen, it’s not going to be to someone who’s going to say, “Well, let me see your get first.” … I do encourage other women as much as possible, even if they want to get the get, first to go to a civil court where at least there’s a possibility that they’ll have a fair chance of getting a fair divorce settlement.
R: What do you think is the main cause for the perpetuation of arranged/forced marriages across communities?
F: There are so many reasons. I always stress that the parents who are forcing or arranging their children into marriage, often love their children very much and are doing what they believe is in their child’s best interest. It’s tradition, religion, and sometimes there’s a socio-economic factor. Parents think: Well, if I marry you off to someone of means then you’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life. Which is ironic, because forcing someone into marriage, especially at a young age, means that she’s going to be financially dependent the rest of her life. I think a lot of it is just tradition. For example, in my situation, my mother who had a terrible, abusive marriage and was actually divorced from my father, who’s very violent, her marriage was arranged, her parents’ marriage were arranged, and her siblings’ marriages were arranged. All our cousins, neighbors, everybody’s marriages were arranged. It’s just the way it’s done.
R: Obviously, there’s a clear power dynamic in most societies that puts men on top. At the same time, it’s also a structural, systematic thing that everyone is arranged into marriage and forced into marriage. Do you think the men who are arranged into these marriage can be considered victims at times?
F: Oh, absolutely. At Unchained, we focus on women and girls because we had to start somewhere and it’s my personal experience. In the Orthodox Jewish community, the men or the boys who are also being married off are also really young and yes, if you want to call the women and girls victims, then the men are also victims. One of the reasons we focus on women and girls at Unchained is because it’s more likely for a girl or a woman to be forced into marriage, but also, what we find in almost all these communities is that while it’s difficult for a man to leave an arranged/forced marriage, it’s especially difficult for women and girls. There are additional obstacles they face, beyond what the men face if they try to leave.
R: Do you think one of the reasons that people are able to get into these marriages and are susceptible to these kinds of things is because they’re so young at the time?
F: It’s interesting, originally before I started Unchained, I would have said yes to that question, because obviously it’s easier to manipulate a young person who is financially and emotionally dependent on her parents. It’s easy for her parents to say, “Well, you have to do this or else…” The implicit or explicit threat is we’re going to shun you or cut you off and then you’re going to have nowhere to live and no family, no friends, and you’re going to starve to death. [But] what I had found is that in some cultures, the women are not very young when they’re forced into marriage. So for example, in the Indian community, often the women who end up in these arranged marriages are in their mid to late 20s, [and] usually have advanced degrees… Here you have women who are educated in their mid to late 20s, and [they’re still being forced into marriage].
R: What would you consider a successful marriage? Is there such a thing?
F: I’ll be very honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a completely successful marriage- arranged or otherwise. Marriage is problematic. You see very few people who are married, who are truly happy. But I suppose if I had to define what a perfect or successful or functional marriage is… [where] there is an even distribution of power… Unfortunately, we don’t see in a lot of these arranged and forced marriages. The balance of power and mutual respect, and not one party acquiring the other party but two equal partners.