As a former member of the Charedi community as well as founder of GesherEU, a charity which supports those who leave the Charedicommunity, I would like to address the issue of forced marriages. I have no doubt and will agree that arranged marriages within the Charedi community are not arranged. They are forced.
I grew up in the Chasidic community in Stamford Hill. I was barely 20 years old when my parents arranged for me to meet a young man with the intention for us to marry. I met my prospective husband on a Sunday night for the first time and agreed to marry him 24 hours later. I had met him for a total of three times. I was 20 years old and no different to any Charedi girl my age. I was doing what all the girls in my community did – meet a young man for a few hours and then expected to decide whether I wanted to marry him or not.
Was I held at gunpoint? Of course not! Was I able to say no? Of course I could. But what I also knew was I was not getting younger; indeed most of my friends were already engaged by then, some had babies already. At 20 years old I was getting old for a Charedi girl. I was finally getting to fulfil the dream I had been waiting for my entire life: marry a wonderful boy and set up a Jewish home.
This is how I ended up having sex on my wedding night with a complete stranger I barely knew. Of course, this was my choice. There was nothing happening here which I hadn’t signed up for. However, what I also knew was that my wedding was not valid if we did not have sex. The marriage counsellors would have made it clear to both my husband and myself before the wedding. Did it matter that I was not in love with my husband or was not remotely attracted to him? Of course not. We were a ‘perfect match’ for each other and I knew I would build a home and family together with him. Of course I would and this is exactly what I did.
Ten years and five children later I wanted a divorce. I had secretly read on the internet about ‘consent’ and understood that my body was mine and even within marriage rape was illegal. I wanted my husband to give me a get but was told by Beth Din that unless my husband agreed I would have to stay married to him forever. Two years later and after a prolonged custody battle which ended up in the High Court I was lucky to receive my divorce and begin to build a life for myself and my children outside of the community.
My experience is not unique. In the last 10 years since founding GesherEU I have spoken to over 100 men and women who have told me their own experiences which were similar to mine. Facing pressure from parents, community rabbis and leaders who all expected them to meet a boy or girl and marry. They all describe how despite feeling unsure however they were unable to say no as there was no other option. All of them have the same thing in common, they were all barely adults and expected to marry someone they barely knew.
The Charedi marriage system is well designed. It is a community where the norm is for young men and women barely out of their teens to be pressured into making a lifelong commitment to a prospective marriage partner they barely know. No community is above the law. Forced marriage and rape, including marital rape, is a crime in this country and it is about time the Charedi community faced up to this.