(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This week was marked by the powerful convergence of two important days: International Women’s Day, which is observed each year on March 8, and International Aguna Day, commemorated annually on the Fast of Esther, which this year fell yesterday.
International Women’s Day is the Independence Day of all modern females. It is an opportunity to celebrate the breakthroughs and accomplishments of women in the social, economic and political spheres, and an opportunity to celebrate black feminism, religious feminism and all the “feminisms” that sprouted and nurtured millions of women worldwide.
It is a day of deliberately turning a blind eye to all else, of consciously choosing to enjoy our achievements while momentarily dismissing the ongoing challenges because we, too, must take a break once a year from the inequality that still exists and cries out to the heavens. It is a day to examine the road we have already traveled without stopping to ask whether we have gone too far or whether there is still much farther for us to tread.
We have merited to live in a time of redemption, to see the cracks in the glass ceiling with our own eyes, to fulfill our natural and moral right to a life of equal rights and mutual respect. International Women’s Day is Independence Day, with fireworks dancing in our heart and a silent “Hallel,” a song of praise, singing in our soul, an opportunity to view the world in pink and fan the spark of hope for a better future.
But this year, we fall unceremoniously from the heights of success to the nadir of rock bottom. Independence Day has not even finished as “Remembrance Day” sets in – for International Aguna Day is the Remembrance Day of all Jewish women, who on this day remember their sisters being held in the chains of abusive or unviable marriages.
As the grand day of celebration departs, we are flung to the depths and crash on the steps of the rabbinate in a rattling transition that highlights the injustice, the lack of fairness, the cynical use of Jewish law, and the unfathomable price women must pay – simply because they are Jewish women. For on International Aguna Day, it does not matter how much freedom you have as a woman in the secular world – you can be a pilot or the prime minister; you can learn Gemara or read from the Torah; you can be a surgeon, a teacher or the attorney-general; but you cannot release yourself of your own free will from the bonds of marriage.
Approximately 3,000 women each year join the circle of agunot
get. The minority are agunot whose husbands have disappeared and whose whereabouts are unknown; the majority are women whose marriage has dissolved, who have no connection whatsoever to their spouse – and yet the spouse is chaining them intentionally, stubbornly and cruelly, refusing to grant them a Jewish writ of divorce.
Some of the husbands will articulate the actual words, “I will never give you a get,” while others promise the get to their wife only “on the day you will no longer be able to bear children” out of a vicious desire to promise themselves ongoing control over their wife’s life and body. Some men use their upper hand in the negotiations to bargain, extorting all manner of things in exchange for their wife’s freedom. And then there are those who insist solemnly that they want shalom bayit, a peaceful reconciliation.
Yad L’isha has one such client whose husband has maintained this assertion now for 17 years (!). Thus, his wife remains chained to him against her will, living a life of dismal solitude and despair.
International Aguna Day has been chosen as the day on which we identify with all chained women who, like Queen Esther, are trapped in a marriage they do not desire. Like Esther, many of them live in fear, stripped of freedom and bereft of independence.
International Aguna Day is a public appeal to the entire Jewish people to remember the agunot, to acknowledge the phenomenon, to root out get-refusers and to unequivocally condemn them and their behavior. This is the day to say there is no room in our society for this kind of violent, unethical behavior and to collectively, plainly state in our loudest possible voice: No to get-refusal!
We have successfully cracked the glass ceiling. Our next objective must be to pierce the ceiling of concrete that hangs over the heads of Jewish women who want nothing more than to extricate themselves from marriage with dignity.
The author is the director of Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center for Agunot and Mesuravot Get, a division of Ohr Torah Stone.