The law can help chained women

The Domestic Abuse Bill may offer extra protection

January 27, 2021 18:59

I am a proud member of the Orthodox Jewish community and I feel saddened when I see what I believe to be an abuse of halacha - Jewish law. 

One such abuse is the thankfully infrequent refusal of men to grant a get – a religious divorce – to their wives when the marriage has failed. In refusing to do so, a woman becomes an agunah – chained, preventing her from remarrying or having children in accordance with her beliefs. 

get can only be secured if a man initiates it and the woman agrees. As it cannot be initiated by the woman, it is intrinsically biased in favour of the husband and is, sadly, open to abuse.   

This is why I was pleased to see Baroness Altmann, a JLC Vice President table a set of amendments - with cross party support - to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords this week. Lord Palmer, another JLC Vice President on the other side of the House also spoke passionately in favour of the amendments. 

The Bill proposes the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner as well as measures which provide better support for women and children through the family courts and to include updated definitions of domestic abuse. 

Lord Mendelson, in his support of the amendments, cited an example of a woman who has been waiting 20 years for her get and whose estranged husband has left the religious community, so it has no hold over him. This, and the effect of years of emotional and violent abuse during the marriage, continues to blight her life. This is without a doubt a form of coercive control and domestic abuse. 

Of course, the majority of Jewish divorces proceed smoothly allowing women to live their lives once their civil divorce is finalised.   

It is important to note that the amendments in the Bill are not about pressuring religious authorities to make decisions about Jewish divorce. Indeed, I commend Baroness Altmann and others for the their sensitivity in recognising that these are, to quote Baroness Altmann, “difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law”.  

As Lord Mendelsohn also recognised, “religious law is biblical in origin and therefore seen to be immutable”. Changes in practice and interpretation are very hard to achieve.  

This is rather about offering British Jewish women better protection and support against abuse and making sure that unreasonable refusal to grant a get would be recognised as a form of domestic abuse in British law. The amendments do not reduce the court’s existing ability to allow the religious courts to apply halacha.  

I would go further and say that the Beth Din of the United Synagogue should be commended on the efforts it has made to limit the number of chained women. As Lord Polak pointed out, it has been creative and employed powerful tactics such as taking out adverts in the Jewish press that name and shame Jewish men who have refused to give a get. However, these social sanctions – powerful as they may be - have varying degree of effectiveness, which is why the law needs to go further.  

Women in this position must be entitled to the support afforded to other victims of domestic abuse under the Bill. Sustained domestic abuse serves to humiliate, degrade and slowly remove a woman’s sense of self. I am proud of the work of our member Jewish Women’s Aid on this issue. They have long considered get refusal to be a form of abuse and have campaigned on it tirelessly. Most importantly, they have supported the victims.  

The law cannot restore these women’s right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith, but it can provide women with protection through the courts and give them access to a domestic abuse protection order on the grounds of get prevention. The hope is that should this provision become enshrined in law, it will be another tool to preventing such abuse. 

Claudia Mendoza is Co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council



January 27, 2021 18:59

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