Shulamit S. Magnus
Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

The Last Agunah of Afghanistan

The Jewish world has been riveted during the last few weeks by the story of “the last Jew in Afghanistan,” feared to be in imminent danger since the Taliban took control of the country. Numerous TV news reports and print articles have explored his identity and history and detailed heroic efforts to try to get him out of the country—against his own resistance—efforts that finally succeeded, with the man now in the US.

The man resisted leaving Afghanistan because his destination would have been Israel, where his wife, whom he has held in marital captivity, iggun, for years, lives. There, the authorities can take legal action, including imprisonment, against men who defy a rabbinic court order to give their wives a get, a rabbinic divorce decree, which is the only way Jews can get divorced in Israel, since the country has no civil marriage or divorce. Rabbinic law, halakha, puts the power to give or withhold a get at the discretion of the baal, the husband, literally, the woman’s master or owner. Any and all men, moral, immoral, or amoral; mentally competent or not, even comatose; however abusive their behavior, including get extortion, violence, child abuse, even attempted murder; whether they are religiously observant or utterly outside the bounds of Jewish tradition, all enjoy this privilege by sheer dint of being Jewish and male.

But the Israeli State rabbinate can deploy various measures against a man who defies a rabbinic court order to give his wife a get. Such orders, decreed only after years of fee-driven proceedings, during which the woman loses unrecoverable Life Time (a huge point of leverage for men in demanding get payoffs), are rare, but the mere possibility of this was enough to deter the Afghani get refuser, consistently depicted in a prayer shawl or in other traditional poses, from ascending to the Land of Israel. To be clear, in the rare instances that a rabbinic court orders a man to give his wife a get– of his own free will (an halakhic stipulation that further empowers men)– and initiates punitive measures against him, the actionable offense is not keeping a woman hostage in marriage against her will, making her an agunah, but defying rabbinic authority (for anyone seeking an instance illustrating “androcentrism” and “patriarchy,” this would be one).

It was this that this last Jew in Afghanistan sought to avoid. So important was his power over his wife that he preferred the Taliban to relinquishing it. Until he was convinced to leave. Not to go to Israel, however, but (ultimately), to the US, where no legal action can be taken against him for holding another human being, the last agunah of Afghanistan, hostage. Apparently, he made leaving Afghanistan conditional on being taken to the US, not Israel. And his saviors, apparently, acceded to that demand, enabling his behavior. The latest drama in this saga is that the man signed a document stating that he would authorize a halakhically valid messenger to write a get on his behalf, but the validity of that zoom-witnessed signing was challenged the minute it was done and then it was off to the halakhic races! Talmudic debates! Feats of ingenious displays of halakhic dexterity!– while the last agunah of Afghanistan, like the rest of her sisters in iggun, continues a hostage to this system.

I deliberately refrain here from naming this man; I have not seen a single report that gives this agunah a name or takes any interest in her, so that effacement is at least some paltry justice. Even this remains all about him.

But it isn’t. And to focus on him, as so many reports and comments have done, including “jokes” about what a marriage that must have been if this man preferred the Taliban to Israel—is to be complicit in the ongoing crime of Jewish marital captivity.

Because iggun is not about bad husbands or bad rabbis, though both abound, but about an abusive system. The abuse is not individual but systemic and until and unless it is recognized as such, the disgrace, the hillul hashem, of Jewish marital captivity, including in “start up nation,” where the entire female half of the Jewish population are either agunot or agunot in waiting, living a game of Russian roulette, hoping “it” doesn’t happen to them, or their daughters—continues.

The origin of iggun is in the manner that halakhic marriage is conducted, via kinyan and kiddushin, wholly unilateral actions in which the new baal acquires exclusive access to his wife’s sexuality and reproductivity. Marriage being enacted by the man, with the woman merely passively acquiescing to her acquisition (she has no similar claim on her husband), so too, is divorce unilateral and at the discretion of the baal.

Whether or not iggun eventuates, the acts of kinyan and kiddushin are inherently degrading to women. No man would ever consent to being married in this way. While much apologetic nonsense has been written and peddled about “sanctity” and “sanctification,” every beginning student in Talmud knows exactly what kinyan and kiddushin mean, legally, and their consequences. One of which is iggun. Which is not bad luck that just happens to happen to some, but an inevitable outcome of this system. To which many in recent years have developed good, Jewish alternatives, such as adaptation of halakhic partnership law, in which both parties (which, in this case, the rabbis assumed were men), are protected equally, and the laws of vows, and for divorce, nullification of vows.

The media have a tremendous role and responsibility in how they report this case. If the focus remains, voyeuristically, on this bizarre, sadistic, manipulative little man, the media collude in the ongoing crime of Jewish marital captivity.

It is high time to put the spotlight on the last agunah of Afghanistan—no more personally on her than on her rabbinically empowered master—but on why this shame on the Jewish people and the Jewish State continues, and above all, on how to end it. Not manage it; end it.

Ending it requires, first, ending kinyan and kiddushin as the manner to enact marriage, and instituting healthy alternatives, worthy of the verse in Genesis 1:27, which, for some reason, has not (yet) been halakhized, which states unequivocally, ever so majestically, that human beings are created female and male in God’s image. This would prevent iggun, going forward.

As to the myriads of Jewish women who are agunot, there must be a shift to annulling any and all marriages in which there is get refusal and/or get extortion. Many have laid out the grounds on which such annulments could be enacted. If men married under the old system knew that if they withheld a get or attempted to extort for one this would trigger immediate annulment, agunot would be freed, now.

What are lacking are not halakhic means and methods but the use of them. And change will only happen when Jewish women demand it and settle for no less. Change will not come from “above” but only from women ourselves. Pleading with this system using its rules only enables it and perpetuates the abuse. To cite constitutional law scholar, Dahlia Lithwick: The problem with power is that there is no speaking truth to it when it holds all the cards.

The first step in this sea change should be annulment of the marriage of the Last Agunah of Afghanistan. Let us, let alone this woman, not be subjected to a spectacle of extended proceedings about this man and what he has done, enabled by the halakhic system; or to media hype about him, or his enablers, or to Talmudic debates about this “problem.”

Women are not a problem. We are human beings, in God’s Image.

Let that annulment be the start of systemic steps to end the scourge of iggun, now, once and for all.

We are at the start of a New Year. Let it be the last in which we have this conversation.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and read Torah there in the first such service, in 1988. She is first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel, using scrolls held there, and she opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, and the Jerusalem Post. She is currently at work on a book of scholarly advocacy about the history of agunot and how to free gunot and end iggun.
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