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Agunah Day: Stepping out from behind the mask

On this day for wives left in painful limbo by recalcitrant husbands, it's time to look these women in the eye

Agunot (women denied a religious writ of divorce) whisper about their experiences. They’re mentioned by initials in articles, photographed from behind to obscure their faces, talked about with pseudonyms in the press.

To be a noble victim, one must be silent. To deserve our sympathy, one must suffer alone. For agunot, simply talking about your experience becomes a political act. Not living your life in secrecy becomes a statement.

This creates a situation where the ones who speak about agunot, the ones who get to define agunot’s experiences for others, are not the agunot themselves. These women, who are already relegated to an extremely passive role in their own lives as their freedom lies in the hands of another, now become the audience as someone else narrates their own stories.

The voice of the agunah has become irrelevant or even lost. It’s time to change the conversation.

Today, for International Agunah Day, Chochmat Nashim launched a visibility campaign, highlighting agunot and former agunot. We asked these women to take selfies holding signs that note the number of years they were denied a get (Jewish writ of divorce), their location and the hashtag #NoMoreChains. The aim of this campaign is to recognize their first-person narratives as valid, relevant and not shameful. The campaign literally puts faces to the stories and humanizes the statistics. The photos also showcase the diversity of agunot in age, location, religious observance and communal affiliation to underscore the fact that the agunah problem is pervasive in all segments of the Jewish world.

As soon as we began seeking out women to take selfies for the campaign, though, we were met with an overwhelming number of questions from women who were unsure of their status. Many women questioned whether their suffering had been “enough” to count. Had they waited enough years? Had there been enough rabbinic endorsement of their particular need for a get? For those whose husbands had put a price on the get, where was the line between settlement and extortion? How much abuse were they expected to accept before they qualified as victims?

There is a common denominator underlying all these questions. As women going through the religious divorce process, when do we start deserving justice? Is justice only attainable to those who have filled a sufficient quota of suffering? Are women automatically entitled to legal protection and rights, or are we only awarded those privileges when we’ve become downtrodden enough for others to swoop in and save us out of pity? Are we allowed to call our situation unjust only when others have determined that for us?

This line of thinking is inadvertently encouraged by the fact that the most prominent news stories about agunot have focused on extreme examples, ones most likely to seem morally indisputable—cases involving brutal abuse, decades of waiting or outrageous extortion. These stories underscore the cruelty of the party denying the get and reveal the extent to which the Jewish divorce process is open to potential abuse. But this is not to suggest that only egregious stories of abuse warrant outcry and deem a woman worthy of her get. Suffering does not prove the worthiness of a woman. A woman who wants out of a dead marriage deserves her get unconditionally. She does not need to pay for her get in suffering nor earn her justice through victimization. The virtue of her humanness should be enough to secure her integrity and right to demand her freedom.

Similarly, we unintentionally disempower agunot when we appeal to the sympathy of others using the line, “What if she were your own mother, sister or daughter?” Yes, agunot are nearly always the mother, sister or daughter of people who love them and who cannot bear to see them suffer. But their value does not lie in their relationship to you or anyone else. That is not why their suffering is wrong, nor is it why they deserve to be free. Women are valuable because they are human beings. The “mother, sister, daughter” line attempts to personalize their plight but actually undermines its own cause. Framing agunot as extensions of other people ignores their value as humans in their own right.

This Agunah Day, we’re shifting the conversation. Let’s recognize that agunot are people with their own experiences, rights and inherent value. Let’s acknowledge that every agunah story is as unique as the person who lives it. Let’s recognize that agunot are entitled to freedom and integrity irrespective of others’ validation of their suffering.

This Agunah Day, I join about a dozen other women in making a very private experience public.

Enough with the noble, silent victim role. Here’s to open conversation, demanding justice as a right — not a favor — and the freedom to take ownership of our own stories.

About the Author
Rachel Stomel is a literary translator, graphic designer and slam poet. She is passionate about social justice in the Jewish community, with a special focus on women’s rights and issues of religion and state.
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