Int'l Agunot Day: 'I want women to know it's not a mitzva to suffer in silence'

Rights group marches to the Knesset today to raise the plight of hundreds of agunot.

aguna 88 (photo credit: )
aguna 88
(photo credit: )
Four days before International Aguna Day is marked worldwide and nine years after first filing for a get - or writ of divorce - from her long-time spouse, Zehava (not her real name) was celebrating Tuesday after hearing the day before that the Rabbinic Courts had finally forced her estranged husband to dissolve their marriage. "They should have done this a long time ago," she told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday, adding, "Words can't express how I feel right now. It still doesn't feel real." Zehava said she was just happy that someone in the rabbinate had finally taken the time to read her case through properly and recognize the pain suffered for many years by her and her two children. According to Jewish law, a woman cannot remarry until her husband agrees to give her a get. Women waiting for an intransigent husband to give a get are known as agunot, or "chained" women. If agunot do marry without receiving a get from their previous husbands, the children born of the second marriage are considered illegitimate, or mamzerim, and are forbidden to marry. The International Coalition of Aguna Rights (ICAR), which represents an affiliation of 27 organizations working to find a solution to the problem of women whose husbands are unable or unwilling to grant them a Jewish divorce, estimate that hundreds of women in Israel are currently caught in such limbo. Activists for aguna rights will march at noon on Wednesday from the rabbinical courts in downtown Jerusalem to the Knesset to raise awareness about the issue. International Aguna Day is marked annually on Ta'anit Esther, 13 Adar-Bet according to the Hebrew calendar. In her interview with the Post, Zehava described how she had put up with years of physical, verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, and how even after filing for a divorce in 1999, he kept insisting to the rabbinic judges that the couple could rebuild their relationship and work on 'shalom bayit' [domestic reconciliation]. "For the first 20 years I did keep forgiving him and going back to him," she said. "I suffered his abuse in silence and he never thought that I would ever stand up to him. When I finally filed for a divorce, he was shocked and begged for my forgiveness. He claimed he wanted us to try and work things out." But Zehava refused and continued to press on with the divorce proceedings. For the first four years, however, she was forced to continue living in the same house as her husband. He only agreed to move out after she bought out his share of the property in 2003. "I would walk the streets after work so that I would not have to go home, and on Shabbat and festivals I would go to friend's houses," she recalled to the Post. In 2006, the rabbinate decided that the case could not be solved and closed the couple's file, leaving Zehava still married but separated. That was when she turned to non-profit organization Yad La'Isha, one of the ICAR affiliates, which provided her with legal counsel to re-open the case and finally put an end to her suffering this week. "I want all women to know that it is not a mitzva to suffer in silence," said Zehava. "I urge them to speak out and seek help any way they can." "Women go into a marriage of their own free will and they should be allowed to leave a marriage in the same way," said Robyn Shames, executive director of ICAR, who is also familiar with Zehava's case. Shames said that Wednesday's demonstration would hopefully, among other things, encourage the legislature to push through a bill on the division of property between divorcing couples that has already passed its first reading in the Knesset and is an important step to affording agunot women and those refused a divorce their freedom. She also said that the public had to be made aware that they should not accept individuals who refuse to give their partners a divorce. "We do not have exact figures on how many women are agunot or have been refused a get by their husbands, but this is a potential problem for any woman who enters a marriage," she said. In January, figures published by the rabbinic courts showed that a total of 9,765 couples had divorced in 2007 and the rabbinic courts claim that they are now imposing more sanctions against husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, such as the cancellation of drivers' licenses and exit visas, or even prison sentences. In 2007, 23 men were incarcerated for refusing to give a get, compared to nine in 2006.