When Fraidy Reiss thinks back to her childhood in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, she recalls dreaming of only one thing: marrying young and having as many children as possible. As she came of age in the mid-1990s, her excitement built, and at a set-up arranged by her mother and another family member, she was introduced to a man they’d selected as a suitable mate. “The first time I met him I did not like him,” she says. “He was huge, very overweight, but I’d been taught that appearance didn’t matter.” On the plus side, she noticed that he had a lot of energy and was often fun. Reiss was 19 and had never been alone with a male she wasn’t related to, so when an early date devolved into a fistfight between her intended and a guy he thought was looking at her, she took it in stride. “I thought his behavior was normal,” she shrugs. “I thought it was great that he wanted to protect me.”
They married shortly thereafter. A week later, he put his fist through a wall, a trend that continued throughout their 11-year union. “He was always telling me that he was going to kill me,” she continues. “As he was threatening me, he’d be breaking things, including the furniture in the house.” Appeals to local rabbis went nowhere, but as the years mounted and the threats escalated, Reiss knew that she had to leave. Somehow, she found a therapist from outside her religious community – something she said was considered a sin – and paid, in cash, from money she’d siphoned from the household expense account.
“The therapist asked me if I’d ever heard of domestic violence or if I knew that I could get a restraining order,” she recalls. These informational seeds continued to germinate until her ex kicked in the front door of their home. “My older daughter was in school. But I grabbed my younger one, got into the family car, and drove away,” she says. She never returned.
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Reiss eventually got a college degree, found a job and left the insular Orthodox world of her youth. What’s more, she started a group called Unchained At Last in late 2011 to help women in New York and New Jersey who want out of arranged marriages. In their first year, Unchained has provided free legal and social-service assistance – as well as mentoring and peer counseling – to more than 40 women from Orthodox, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities.
Heather M. Heiman, project manager of the Forced Marriage Initiative of the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based advocacy group, admits that no one really knows how pervasive forced marriages are in the United States. What’s more, the line between forced and arranged is often fuzzy and straddles a host of related issues including child marriage, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and cultural and religious autonomy.
Nonetheless, she reports that the United Nations has declared forced marriage to be a violation of human rights. In addition, lawmakers in the United Kingdom have taken steps to stop the practice, passing the Forced Marriage Act of 2007 to enable victims to apply for a Court Order of Protection; a police unit has also been established to focus exclusively on this population. Three years after the UK law was passed, the US State Department tentatively entered the fray, acknowledging the problem of forced marriage as “one entered into without full consent and under duress where the individual has no right to choose a partner or ability to say no.”
The question is what to do about it, especially since the United States has 50 different policies for seeking services, getting protection orders and consenting to matrimony.
“Forced marriage is an increasingly hidden issue in this country,” Heiman says. “But it isn’t new. We have the term shotgun wedding. Where do you think that comes from?” To shed light on the issue, Heiman says that Tahirih launched an investigation – the findings were released in 2012 – that queried providers of legal services, educators, community organizations, and social service and health care agencies about their clients. “We used the snowball method and got responses from 47 states and Guam. What we found is that forced marriages occur everywhere, hitting people of all social classes and ethnic and religious backgrounds.”
These findings led Tahirih to create a national working group of organizations which meets regularly to discuss policy issues and formulate recommendations, encourage dialogue between groups, and share best practices. “We look at what has and what has not worked in other countries,” Heinman adds. “The UK is a decade ahead of the US on this. We know that Forced Marriage Protection Orders there have proved life-saving for women. First and foremost, we’re pushing US government entities, including the State Department and Health and Human Services, to take these situations seriously and not be dismissive. We want them to intervene if a US citizen complains that she is being taken overseas for a forced marriage or comes to a domestic violence shelter. We want these agencies to see that this is not a problem happening somewhere else, but is a domestic issue.”
At the same time, it all comes back to what one means by “forced.”
Lani Santo is the executive director of Footsteps, a New York City group that assists Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who want to transition into secular society, and she is a member of the advisory counsel of Unchained at Last. “In the Orthodox or Hasidic communities, no one is technically forced into a marriage,” says Santo. “That is, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head. But if you do not follow through on a marriage, you are not fulfilling your expected role, and the consequences can be devastating. What this means is that you are, in fact, forced in terms of societal pressure. You are also putting the marriage prospects of your siblings at risk if you reject a prospect. You can lose all your social and family supports if you say no.”
Not surprisingly, she continues, there are a relatively large number of arranged marriages where the partners make it work. “Many people are truly happy with the life plan laid before them and love the communal element of their everyday lives. If they don’t feel a need to assert strong opinions, they can usually stay married. Others give in, rather than break up their families. Problems arise when someone is intellectually curious, has questions or is highly individualistic. If they question community values, have issues around their sexual identity, or have been abused or know someone who has been abused, they may need to speak out or leave.”
Fariba [a pseudonym] has no intention of speaking out. The oldest of five US-born children, she says that in a year or two, when she is 21 or 22, her parents will find a mate for her. “They want me to focus on my education first,” she says, “and get a bachelors degree. Then, they’ll look for a guy who respects women, is nice and has the same religious beliefs as we do. In Pakistani culture, we say that love comes after marriage and that religion, faith in God, is the most important bond. My parents know better than me what will work. Of course I will see the guy beforehand and can say ‘no’ if I don’t like him, but if my family has chosen him, I have to trust that it will be okay. My mother met my dad on the day of her wedding. Their marriage is based on compromise. It’s the way our culture works.”
Chana Klein [a pseudonym] met her husband 35 years ago, after someone told her father that he knew a young man he believed would be a good match for her. He was right. Chana and her mate are now the parents of two and grandparents of five; nonetheless, she is critical of what she calls the Orthodox community’s “hit-and-miss solution to dating and marriage” and is adamant that dating arrangements -whether using a professional matchmaker or through friends who suggest an introduction – is deeply flawed. Part of the problem, she says, rests with changed community norms. “My husband and I dated from December 1978 to May 1979, then got engaged, and our engagement lasted for almost a year. Today’s allowed dating period is much shorter, and the engagement period has gone from six months or longer to six weeks.” Although both of Klein’s sons are happily married to women they were set up with, she knows this is as much luck as design. “People seem to think it’s unfair to make the couple wait,” she adds. “The upshot is that the two don’t know each other very well when they marry – which has meant that the community has had no choice but to learn to tolerate divorce.”
They’ve also seen numerous groups – like Unchained and Footsteps – spring up to assist those who can no longer abide the strictures that are imposed. Similar developments have been noted in Muslim and Hindu communities.
Zohra, who asked that her surname not be used in this report, is an unmarried 30-something teacher who was born in Afghanistan. She says that while most Afghani parents still work diligently to find a match for their children, the imperative to marry has weakened – and not only for their Americanized children. “If a daughter is independent and doesn’t need a husband, there is no pressure. My aunt didn’t marry until she was 40 years old because she was a well-respected seamstress in Saudi who was supporting her entire family after they fled the Soviet-Afghan war. She eventually married someone younger, of her own choice. The war in Afghanistan – and life here in the US – has drastically altered the marriage scene, marriage age and the role of women,” she told me.
And Zohra is not an anomaly. Shaheen (like Zohra, she asked that only her first name be used) came to the United States from Pakistan in the late 1970s when she was seven. Even as a grade schooler, she was taught to be “obedient, helpful in the kitchen and quiet so that I would later be considered a good catch for marriage.” By the time she was 17 or 18, she says, her name was circulating the community and her parents told her of several marriage proposals that had come their way. She rejected all of them. “I was in college from 1990 to 1994 and I guess I caught a lucky break. My parents had absorbed some of the cultural values of America and no longer wanted me to marry young.” Growing up in the United States had opened all of their eyes to new ways of life, she continues. “My parents, cousins, uncles, everyone in my family had had an arranged marriage, and all of them were unhappy. Growing up in the States and seeing people express affection and choose who they wanted to be with made absolute sense to me. It was what I wanted. The idea of marrying someone I didn’t know and then having to be intimate with him horrified me. It felt like a death sentence.”
Shaheen stayed in school, completing her undergraduate studies, getting a masters degree and finally enrolling in law school. She eventually left home and a year after began living with her boyfriend, a non-Pakistani she’d met several years earlier. “I know it sounds hokey, but as much as my parents tried to hold onto the old ways, they loved me more than they loved tradition. Sure, there were periods when it was hard, painful even, but my family loves my husband and treats him like a treasure. His family has been equally accepting of our relationship.”
That said, Shaheen admits that not everyone has blessed their union and says that the community she knows continues to promote restrictive social norms, especially for women and girls. “The guilt can be really powerful,” she concedes. “The idea of a good, dutiful daughter is rooted in obedience to parents who have supposedly given up everything for the sake of the children. The implied question is, ‘How can you dirty their name by being so disobedient and selfish and choosing your own path?'”
It’s a question Unchained at Last’s Fraidy Reiss understands well. “I knew when I chose to leave, get a divorce and become educated that I was making a huge sacrifice,” she says. “I have two brothers, three sisters and two parents, none of whom will talk to me anymore. I have also not heard a word from my hundreds of cousins, aunts, uncles and former friends. It’s a shame I had to make this choice, but it was worth it. I’ve never doubted the decision to leave.”
For others, it’s not about opposing arranged/forced marriages per se, but protesting the lack of choices in individual women’s lives. Kavitha Rajagopalan, a member of Unchained’s executive board, says that she has many relatives and friends who are happy in their arranged marriages. “I have a lot of cousins who are very happy in their arranged marriages. Everything is good and they have beautiful kids. I have no argument with that; my argument is with the lack of agency within the arrangement,” she says. “Women have less freedom, less control over how long they’ll take to make a decision, what role they’ll play in the community, or whether they’ll work outside the home or not. Our gender relations are still so traumatic.”
Advocates stress that it is high time to end that trauma, and give women and men, girls and boys, a voice in the decisions that will impact their lives. Chana, Fraidy, Shaheen and Zohra consider themselves lucky – but they agree that when and whether to marry should not be a matter of good or bad fortune. “The community knows that many arranged marriages leave both parts of the couple feeling isolated and unhappy,” Shaheen concludes. And while she concedes that some arrangements work well, she still favors giving individuals the right to choose the who, what, when and where of their intimate lives.
Many US-based organizations have been developed to support women – and men – who do not wish to enter into arranged/forced marriages. Additional groups not mentioned in this article include Girls Not Brides and Ganga Shakti.