We cannot turn a blind eye to these forced marriages

These women could be our sisters and daughters, and they deserve better, writes Jennifer Lipman

February 19, 2021 15:06

As a teenager, I lapped up magazines like Just 17, with their stories of girls surviving terrifying situations. Occasionally, there would be one about someone escaping a forced marriage. It never occurred to me then that this was happening in my community.

A new think tank is clear it is; it was then and it is now. Nahamu, led by the redoubtable Eve Sacks and Yehudis Fletcher, sets out “five markers of forced marriage” within some Charedi communities that “demonstrate both social coercion to marry, and the removal of the young person’s ability to give… free and full consent”. Their paper highlights warning signs like binding engagement contracts with financial penalties, or limited opportunities to meet before the wedding.

Sacks was motivated to highlight this having spoken to too many people who have experienced marriages they lacked power to refuse. She shares one woman’s comment: “I felt forced to give an answer… a yes. Despite my body screaming no.”

There are miserable marriages everywhere, but usually parties have chosen to enter them and have the freedom to walk away. You don’t have to have binged Unorthodox to know that’s not always on offer in strictly Orthodox communities.

In the last year, as most of us have adhered to intrusive rules, it’s been abundantly clear some Charedim do not feel the same duty towards secular requirements. Evidence of illegal minyans was plain during the first lockdown; recently we’ve seen mass weddings. It’s left me apoplectic but not surprised; the operation of illicit schools has been well-documented for years.

For a long time, it’s been easier to look away. After all, drawing attention plays into the hands of antisemites. Yet what happens in Stamford Hill doesn’t always stay there, but has real world repercussions. Lockdown breaches impact the NHS, poor education shuts generations out of the jobs market. And marriages between strangers leads to couples living with incompatibility, loneliness or unhappiness, and, at the worst end, violence and abuse.

That’s why we must pay attention to coerced marriage and whether any teenager can truly consent to a lifetime with a virtual stranger. Jobs today require several interviews; how many youths are denied even that before being allocated a life partner? In the Zoom era, it’s astonishing to think of couples unable to “freely communicate… between the initial meeting and the wedding”.

Nahamu is clear not all arranged marriages are forced, but all forced marriages are arranged. Youngsters, barely beyond childhood, often lacking English and financially reliant on their community, may not be physically thrust up the aisle, but are coerced nonetheless by warnings that refusal would damage a sibling’s prospects or risk their family shunned. And how real a choice can it ever be when they have such limited knowledge of the world beyond the community?

I’m sure, as Charedi spokespeople argue, plenty do build fulfilling marriages. But others leave these communities precisely because they haven’t been able to. How many more suffer in silence?

Nahamu’s paper highlights marital rape (if the marriage isn’t consensual, how can sex be either?). And if forced marriages impact both sexes, their consequences are surely greater for women. This is a world in which men make the rules and control every aspect of a woman’s existence. Men possess physical power, can’t get pregnant unwillingly, and don’t need a Get to remarry.

We should be furious, not least because this is against the law. The problem is enforcement. The community contend that marriages are merely arranged, not coerced, and few “inside” will say otherwise. Yet Nahamu’s research suggests many meet the criteria for being forced.

So what can we do? Discuss this as a live issue that affects our community, now, rather than dismissing it under the veil of matchmade marriages. Listen, and give those who have experienced this a voice. And fight so all young people can access an education that teaches them English, explains their rights, and informs them on sex and relationships. An education that offers choices.

As Sacks tells me, many only realise their marriages were forced with hindsight. In a world where being told you must wed or bring shame on your family is the norm, how can people have the language to understand they have been denied a fundamental right?

If Charedim want shidduchs, fine. But there’s a difference between an introduction and a requirement; between offering someone a choice and ensuring they don’t have one.

As fellow Jews, we aren’t responsible for everything Charedim do, but we do have some obligation to people who could be our daughters, our brothers, but for a twist in the path of our ancestors.

This isn’t happening in the pages of a teen magazine 20 years ago. It’s now, in our community. Saying “they do things differently” just isn’t enough.

February 19, 2021 15:06

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