Two news items appearing in Reuters this week reveal, again, that thousands of modern women continue to suffer under harsh social chains forged by men of a medieval — perhaps prehistoric — mindset. One of these stories is from Iraq and the other — to my amazement — originates in the United States.
First, Iraq: On March 8, a number of brave Iraqi women took the bold step of mounting a very visible public protest in the streets of Baghdad. They were crying out against a law approved by the Iraqi cabinet Feb. 25. This law, referred to as the Ja’afari Law, would legislatively establish the age of nine as the legal age for a girl to be eligible for marriage. It would legislatively recognize the husband’s right to sexual relations whenever he pleased. It would provide that fathers have custody of all the couple’s children two years of age or older.
The Ja’afari Law was named after an eighth century Muslim theologian and will now proceed to the 21st century Iraqi Parliament where, hopefully, it will never see the light of day.
Currently, Iraqi personal rights are governed by legislation known as “the personal status law.” According to Reuters, this law has often been called “the most progressive in the Middle East.” But fundamentalist jurists insist they have a religious right to decide — for once and for all — that females reach the age of puberty at age nine. According to Hanaa Eduar, a prominent Iraqi human rights activist, “We believe that this is a crime against humanity… It would deprive a girl of her right to live a normal childhood.”
Sadly, we are accustomed to hearing instances of laws and practices in the Middle East that keep women subservient to the wills of husbands, brothers and fathers. Any suggestion that oppression of this kind would be tolerated in the United States would be met with outrage. But the next story, originating in New York, suggests there is a parallel judicial system at work in the United States which shares some of the oppressive cruelty of the law proposed in Iraq. Where the Iraqi law would deprive little girls of their right to a normal childhood, an Orthodox Jewish law currently binding many American women may deprive them of their right to live like normal adults.
On March 11, Reuters reported two brothers, Avrahom and Moshe Goldstein pled guilty to federal charges of traveling in interstate commerce to commit extortion. According to the charges, these men and others offered their services to Orthodox Jewish women who couldn’t persuade their husbands to agree to a divorce. The Goldstein brothers, whose accomplices included a couple of rabbis, would accept a $5,000 down payment to start the “persuasion” process. Once the reluctant husbands were “convinced” to agree to a divorce, the wives were expected to pay the Goldstein’s an additional $50,000.
In researching this story, I discovered that these unfortunate Orthodox wives, known as “agunot” or “chained women” under Jewish law may be held, against their will, in a loveless, abusive relationship at the whim of a stubborn or vengeful husband.
Under Orthodox Jewish law, a woman cannot be divorced from her husband unless he agrees to give her a document known as a “let.” If the husband refuses, the wife is forbidden to marry or even date another man without being guilty of adultery. In the United States, there are documented instances where husbands withhold the “let” unless the wife waives her right to some or all of her share of the couple’s property. Evidently, there are enough instances of extortion along these lines to tempt the Goldstein brothers and others to engage in commerce to “persuade” these reluctant husband’s to agree to sign the “let.”
To my amazement, there are thousands of “agunot” worldwide who are deprived of any chance to enter into a caring and satisfying relationship because the Jewish Orthodox husband either can’t or won’t execute the “let.” In fact, March 13 was International Aguna Day which several women’s groups observe to draw attention to the plight of these women who are virtual captives in these unfair relationships.
Any Orthodox Jewish woman who chooses to invoke the divorce laws of her state as protection against an uncaring, abusive or vengeful husband must do so at the risk of being labeled an adulteress by her Jewish community. Any children born of a subsequent marriage would, in the eyes of the Orthodox Jewish community, be illegitimate.
Unfortunately, there are too many instances where the legitimate rights of girls and women are sacrificed on the altar of stony-hearted theology.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.