P. is 59 years old and has been chained to her husband for 19 years. For 19 years she has been waiting for her freedom, praying to receive a religious divorce (get), fighting, surviving, dreaming, weeping, begging, and getting on with her life while being shackled to her marriage with iron chains. Nearly two decades, with no light at the end of the tunnel. She was 40 years old when life with her husband became unbearable and she decided to leave home and get divorced. Already then, he told her that he could not live with any other woman, that his heart belongs to her and he will wait for her until she comes back to him. He has been waiting for her return for 19 years; he refuses to let her go, and has violently taken control over her life in an unimaginable fashion while the authorities are powerless to save her.
P. has married off all five of their children, and she now is alone in terrible solitude, without a partner to share her life. She is a religious, observant woman who believes in God. I met P. this week and she told me she feels like the Matriarch Rachel who prayed for a child saying that “If I do not have [a child] I am dead.” “I am like Rachel. If I do not receive my divorce, I am dead. I pray to God that He will release me – to take either him or me, but I can no longer live like this.”
Her story may seem extreme, yet other women also share P’s fate. Yad L’isha is also representing D. in the courts. Her husband has been chaining her for 17 years, refusing to grant her a divorce – although he has remarried and has had additional children. R. fled her violently abusive husband 15 years ago when she was pregnant and has been waiting ever since for her ticket to freedom. M’s husband disappeared 12 years ago and no one knows whether or not he is still alive. A. has spent the last eight years in and out of the religious courts. Her husband attends the hearings but refuses to grant her a divorce, each time giving a different excuse and making her life an ongoing misery.
The youngest client that Yad L’isha represents in the religious courts is only 20 years old. She was married for just two weeks and has been chained for two years. The oldest woman is 74, she lived in a miserable marriage for 40 years and when she wanted to get on with her life, she was blackmailed by her husband and was forced to pay a heavy financial price to win her freedom.
I could continue giving many more examples from the cases that Yad L’isha handles. Each year we represent approximately 150 women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce or who chain them to the marriage. They all yearn for freedom, they are all held captive by their husbands, they are all victims of violence who pay with their body, their soul and their freedom for the evil actions of their husbands.
They are religious and secular, rich and poor, young and old, living in Israel or elsewhere in the world. They are all Jewish, they all married according to Jewish halakha. And they are all imprisoned in a marriage against their will and cannot continue with their lives. The key to their freedom is in the hands of man next to whom they stood under the wedding canopy.
Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we must also remember them. It is our responsibility to send a message throughout the Jewish world that refusal to grant a divorce is also a form of violence, and that a recalcitrant husband is a violent man who must be condemned and expelled from society like any other criminal. On this day – and on every day – we must all join ranks and say no to get-refusal.