Call to stop forced marriages

Nahamu says that some arranged marriages are tantamount to 'coercion'


A group which campaigns against religious extremism in UK Jewry says that some arranged marriages amount to forced marriage in contravention of British law. 

Nahamu argues that some aspects of the shidduch system, where young men and women are introduced to prospective partners approved by their parents, can “create social pressure and coercion to marry”. 

A position paper sent to the Home Office by the organisation today calls for change, including banning marriages for youth under 18 and outlawing religious weddings where there is no civil marriage. 

The shidduch system has brought “joy and satisfaction” to many Jewish couples, Nahamu acknowledges, and not every arranged marriage is forced. 

It outlines five markers which demonstrate “social coercion to marry, and the removal of the young person’s ability to give the free and full consent that the legislation requires”. 

One indicator of a forced marriage is the limited ability of a young person to opt out of the marriage process. Within Chasidic groups, shidduchim typically begin when young people are 17 to 19. 

A second marker is if the engagement is rushed with the couple only meeting once or twice. 

Other signs are if the couple are not allowed to meet or speak freely after the engagement or until the wedding; and if the families sign a binding engagement agreement which can involve a financial penalty should the marriage fail to go ahead. 

An expectation for a young person to marry the partner they are introduced to, along with lack of awareness of other ways of meeting a future spouse, “makes it impossible to provide the full and free consent as required by the legislation,” Nahamu says. 

In some Charedi communities, all five markers are present in most marriages, in others only one or two markers and then “only in some marriages”, it says. 

As a result of the lack of relationships and sex education in Charedi schools, Chasidic young people are unlikely to have “any meaningful awareness” of what it means to consent, either to a marriage or later to sex. 

Forced marriage should be a topic in compulsory RSE and secondary school pupils should be taught the government’s position that they can “choose who to marry, when to marry and whether to marry at all”. 

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should engage with Charedi leaders and guidance should be drafted in Hebrew and Yiddish to explain the distinction between a legal arranged marriage and a forced one. 

Nahamu also calls for government and Jewish charity support for those at risk of a forced marriage, including for “those who need to leave the community as a result”. 

Yehudis Fletcher, Nahamu founder and co-author of the paper, said, “Many arranged marriages bring love and joy to families, enabling many to build long happy lives together.  

“We want to ensure that everyone partaking in an arranged marriage has the full capacity to consent to it, so that there is no coercion or force. Forced marriage is forbidden under Jewish law and it is a criminal offence in the UK.” 

Co-author Eve Sacks, a board member of Nahamu, said, “Our five markers demonstrate both social coercion to marry, and the removal of the young person’s ability to give the free and full consent to marriage.”  

But Chaya Spitz, chief executive of the Strictly Orthodox charity, the Interlink Foundation, said the incidence of young people in the community being pressurised into marriage was “absolutely abnormal”.

Forced marriage was an “alien concept” in Judaism and consent was required to make the marriage valid, she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on Monday.

“Anyone in the community looking at this document will just baulk and feel it is very far removed from the lived reality of ordinary people,” she said.

She said financial engagement agreements were not used – a claim contested by Ms Fletcher, who told the programme that one had been used for her own sister.

Mrs Spitz, who comes from a Chasidic family on both sides, said,  “After I turned 18, I had discussions with my parents about my aspirations for marriage. It wasn’t about pressure, it was about [being] an educated, independent- thinking young woman, it was about my social norm in my community. It was what I wanted.”

She believed it was not for Ms Fletcher to “decide whether or not we were forced into that because our social norms are different to her social norms. We love our way of life, we derive happiness from it it, we are blessed with faithful and committed marriages, strong nuclear families.”

The programme also heard from Beatrice Webber, a mother of 10 now divorced, who grew up in the Strictly Orthodox community in the UK but was married in the USA, after meeting her future husband three times and speaking him to him for 10 minutes once a fortnight before the wedding.

“The issue of consent is almost non-existent and was non-existent for many, many years for me,” Ms Webber said. “There’s very little room for consent, it’s not considered a priority.”

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