Middle East

Plight of Jewish 'chained women' trapped in broken marriage

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Media captionShoshana: "I've had no physical contact from a man for 15 years."

In Jewish society, there are estimated to be thousands of women in broken marriages where their husband refuses to give them the necessary religious document enabling a divorce. In some cases, the wife can remain trapped in the situation for years, unable to remarry or move on.

Shoshana is lonely. She has been raising her three children alone for almost 15 years. She is not a widow, she is not divorced, she is what is known in Hebrew as an aguna, or a "chained" woman, because though she wants to, as a Jewish woman, she cannot free herself from her marriage to her husband.

In Judaism, in order for a couple to divorce, the woman needs to ask her husband for a "get", a Jewish divorce. But some husbands refuse.

Shoshana lives in Israel and her husband lives in the United States, and despite a local Jewish Court requiring him to give her a divorce, he has not yet done so.

As a devout Jew, she is forbidden from dating, remarrying or having any sort of relationship with another man until she is divorced.

"A woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce really is held hostage," says Shoshana. "It's the ultimate form of emotional abuse because he's confining her to loneliness."

Shoshana's husband, Aaron, says he is fighting for custody and visitation rights for their now-teenage children.

In an email, he wrote that his wife is refusing to accept a divorce which allows him "any reasonable, guaranteed visitation or custody arrangements" and that he would be willing to give her a divorce that meets his conditions.

He claims that had she not erected "barriers to my having a guaranteed and normative relationship with my children then we would both be remarried (hopefully) by now".

Mutual agreement

Just as a man must give a divorce, a woman must accept one, but today in Israel, there are only one or two men who are considered "chained", compared to over 100 women, according to Rabbi Eliahu Maimon, head of Agunot for the Jewish Court Administration.

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Image caption Under Jewish law, a man must give his agreement before his wife can get divorced

"In Jewish law, marriage is done with the full agreement of both sides, so when you divorce, you also need the agreement of both sides," explains Rabbi Maimon.

"Marriage is a new spiritual reality between a man, a woman, and God. It's holy, and when you want to break that spiritual connection, it has to be done properly."

In ancient times, an aguna was a woman whose husband went off to war and never returned. It was unknown whether he was alive or dead, and the woman could not remarry without proof.

Today those cases are few and far between, and any woman whose husband refuses to appear before a Jewish Court for divorce proceedings is considered an aguna.

In the meantime, Shoshana remains imprisoned inside her marriage. She is now 43 years old, and while when she was younger, she considered the possibility of remarrying and moving on with her life, she fears those days have already passed her by.

"I'm not allowed to date other men, I'm not allowed to spend time alone with other men," she says, or she will be considered "an adulterous woman."

Reforming the law

Shoshana's case is being handled by a lawyer who is also a Rabbinical Court Advisor trained in Jewish law, a woman named Tehilla Cohen, who advocates for agunot in the Jewish court system.

They are waiting for the court to decide whether to adopt methods to force Shoshana's husband to give her a divorce, which often works in Israel, but has no real power over someone who lives abroad.

Image copyright Shoshana
Image caption Campaigners say there are thousands of agunot - or chained - Jewish women

In Israel, once the Jewish Court rules that a man must give his wife a divorce, if he does not comply, they can place civil sanctions on him, including taking away his driving licence, cancelling his credit cards and closing his bank account, fining him, and in extreme cases even putting him in jail, says Rabbi Maimon.

Usually these measures are enough to convince a man to grant his wife a divorce, although there are several men sitting in Israeli prisons today and still adamantly refusing to free their wives.

In Shoshana's case, because her husband resides abroad, a decree from the Jewish Court forcing him to grant her a divorce would only entail him being shunned by his local Jewish community.

Rabbi Maimon says he is currently working on pushing through two new laws to help resolve these issues.

The first would allow the Jewish courts more power over restricting the lives of those men in prison, such as limiting their phone calls and visits.

The other would declare refusing to grant a divorce to be a criminal offence, thereby allowing extradition and dealing with the issue of Israeli husbands running away to other countries for refuge.

Facebook campaign

Women's rights organisations Yad La'isha and Mavoi Satum put the global figure of female agunot in the thousands, claiming that many more Jewish women suffer from custodial and financial extortion by their husbands in order to obtain a divorce.

They mark their struggle every year on International Aguna Day, which falls this year on March 13.

This week, the organisations are holding a meeting about the aguna in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) with the Committee for the Advancement of Women.

There will also be a film festival featuring women and religion, a Facebook campaign to raise awareness, and a rally will be held in central Jerusalem.

The women will all be wearing white masks to illustrate the lack of power they have over their lives.

While Shoshana is not sure if she will ever remarry, she still holds out hope that one day she will be free to decide for herself.

"Somebody in my situation always has hope that maybe someday he'll just decide, maybe something will happen, and it will finally convince him to let me go."