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Guest Post: "Mumsnet was the first safe place I had to realise my own agency - now I am campaigning to end forced marriage"

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JuliaMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 08-Mar-21 12:49:43

Yehudis Fletcher and Eve Sacks on their journey to co-founding Nahamu, which seeks to raise awareness and challenge forced marriage in the Jewish community.

Eve speaks

In Pixar’s Brave, the heroine is Princess Merida, and the film’s protagonist is her mother, Queen Elinor, who is forcing her to get married. Under UK law, you have the right to choose who you marry, when you marry or if you marry at all. Forced marriage is when you face physical pressure to marry (for example, threats, physical violence or sexual violence) or emotional and psychological pressure (e.g. if you’re made to feel like you’re bringing shame on your family). Merida’s mother applies emotional pressure, saying she will let down her clan by not following the tradition. Watching Brave whilst I was researching and writing a paper on forced marriage, meant it was obvious to me that the arrangements for Merida would be criminal under UK law.

The crux of the forced marriage issue for me is the question - should religious parents be allowed to bring their children up in a closed system whereby all young people marry someone chosen by their parents, and where no other options are ever observed or presented?
I did not grow up in an insular community. When I was a teenager in Glasgow my friends were from a range of backgrounds, including traditional Jews like myself. But I had a glimpse into a more insular Jewish community as I knew some Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) girls. These girls were home-schooled and did not mix with anyone outside their very small group (of around Charedi 10 families).

I attended a Sunday school with these girls. However, there was no opportunity to chat. There was a real but unspoken rule that we could not engage in open conversations, and the teacher was always present. The atmosphere was austere. We sat at the teacher’s large dining room table. We translated the Torah (Pentateuch) from biblical Hebrew into English.

When I was 16, one of the girls, a year older than me, got engaged to a young man she met once, just briefly, the first young man she had met. She would not see him again before the wedding. She was not allowed to speak to him on the phone. After the wedding she would move to Antwerp, shave her head and presumably have a large family. At the time I was working hard towards my highers, and considering my future career, and so I struggled to understand why anyone would agree to marry someone they’d met once, just briefly. But I could see that she had happily agreed to it.

10 years later I had graduated from the University of Manchester and I was living in London working as a chartered accountant. By this point, Yehudis was sitting around the same dining room table with the same teacher, translating the Torah with her peers, Charedi Glaswegian girls, many of whom were the younger sisters of the girls I had studied with. The difference was that Yehudis had a much more isolated upbringing than mine. The classes I attended on a Sunday morning were the type she attended all week.

Yehudis speaks

When I was a child, my mother told me that we didn’t believe in feminism and that each gender had their role to play. I always expected I would get married at 18, and I did. I saw it as my only route to adulthood, independence, and autonomy. I had no real idea what any of those words meant.

We are brought up from early childhood to marry the first person our parents suggest, and most of us go through with it without any question - because that is all we know. In my community, school books are redacted to ensure that any references to other ways of thinking are removed, public libraries are seen as dangerous and the internet is banned. We tend to only attend insular community schools, although some of these are state-funded, the curriculum is often restricted and Charedi children don’t mix with anyone different. There is no sex and relationship education until after young people are already engaged, so many don’t even think to question the matchmaking process. We are socialised to expect to marry someone we meet once. This is compounded by the huge emphasis on female modesty and gender segregation - so meeting more than ‘necessary’ is often considered immodest. No physical force is needed, but this is still a forced marriage.

In 2010, I was 22, married, and living in Edgware, North London. My son was a toddler and I was pregnant with my daughter. I discovered Mumsnet, where I was welcomed but also given a quick and brutal schooling in how the big wide world functioned. In one of my first posts, I asked for advice on how to manage my son’s diet, as he would only eat Shreddies. I regretted that one quickly! The constructs of intense othering that I had grown up with led me to quickly move on to confronting my own prejudices - Mumsnetters made quick work of my thread asking about the best way to ask for a white midwife.

Finally I asked ‘Does anyone else feel a duty to have sex with their husband?’ The thread started off light-hearted until suddenly it wasn’t. There seemed to be an awareness that this was an awakening for me.

It took years to get from that point to where I am now, having founded Nahamu and campaigning against forced marriage in my community, but I see Mumsnet as the first safe place I had to play with ideas and safely explore my curiosity.

Forced marriage, along with the other details of my life that I have shared, are often seen as faith-based or cultural practices. There is a nervousness in talking about it. Gatekeepers will try and deny there are any problems. We know that our community is far from the only one dealing with these issues. That is why we worked with the National Commission on Forced Marriage UK to raise awareness and why we wrote to the FMU asking for young people in our community to receive the same protection as other young people at risk of forced marriage. As the co-founders of Nahamu and authors of the first paper to address forced marriage in the Jewish community, we insist that young people, of every culture and faith, must have autonomy over who to marry, when to marry or whether to marry at all.

By Yehudis Fletcher and Eve Sacks.
Eve tweets at @EveSacks, Yehudis at @YehudisFletcher, and the Nahamu Project twitter handle is @PNahamu

From MNHQ: Eve and Yehudis have written this resource page on forced marriage for us, please take a look and share widely.

Eve and Yehudis will be returning to this thread to answer your questions for one hour on the 10th March at 10am, so if you have questions for them, leave them below.

OP’s posts: |
saracorona Mon 08-Mar-21 15:24:06

I have no questions as yet but I wish you luck in highlighting the issue. People get scared of intervening because it's a faith/culture issue. But that is sheer cowardice. I will be back on the tenth to learn more.

MichelleofzeResistance Mon 08-Mar-21 15:48:00

Thank you for this post, I wish the Nahamu Project all the best in amplifying women's voices and experiences. Freedom of choice should be fundamental rights regardless of sex or faith, and that familiar phrase for safeguarding applies: there is nothing so sensitive that it shouldn't be talked about. flowers

EmbarrassingAdmissions Mon 08-Mar-21 17:08:01

This was moving to read and a stark reminder of what women are denied when they lack freedom of choice and the narrowly compassed lives to which we can be restricted.

Thank you for sharing these experiences with us and telling us about Nahamu.

sunshinegirl28 Mon 08-Mar-21 18:50:03

You truly are inspirational, giving a voice to so many girls without one!

PikesPeaked Mon 08-Mar-21 18:57:16

My more distant cousins, all female in my generation, are Charedim in Bnei Brak. Their experiences of arranged marriages were slightly different, in that they were allowed to reject the proposed groom. They were also allowed to meet more than once, before making up their minds, and even meet unchaperoned after the first meeting as long as it was somewhere public, such as a hotel lobby.

However, if they met the proposed groom more than three or four times without accepting him, or rejected three shidduchs, they would get a reputation for being ‘difficult’, and there might not be any more shidduchs offered, or the ‘quality’ of the shidduchs would go down. So there certainly was pressure to accept the third.

My grandparents fell in love and married without any shidduch, and they distanced themselves from the Charedi way of life. Became a version of Modern Orthodox, I suppose. My mum and her aunts (no uncles, girls appear to run in that side of the family) were allowed to meet/marry/remain single as they chose. My sisters and me had the same freedom. Mum certainly arranged for us to meet suitable and eligible young men, but there was no pressure. We all ended up marrying non-Jewish men - against our parents’ wishes, but our dhs are completely accepted by them and our family. Though not the Charedi side.

Do you think there can be any middle ground between the sort of shidduch that you experienced and the complete freedom my sisters and I experienced? How would you balance the desire to maintain and continue Judaism and the particular group’s culture, with the young women’s right to freedom of choice?

RagzReturnsRebooted Mon 08-Mar-21 19:46:45

Wow, I feel stupidly naive to have had no idea how widespread arranged marriage is in the UK, or that it was a part of some strict Jewish faiths.

I find arranged marriage appalling and personally believe it should be illegal. Would you consider it a form of slavery? If, as I assume the women are expected to stay at home and produce and raise children with no choice in the matter.

bakingdemon Mon 08-Mar-21 20:22:17

You are brave women and I applaud you. I live near a Charedi community and the schools are a constant source of local controversy. Most of them are definitely not preparing the children for life in modern Britain (as Ofsted expects) and as you say the girls' curriculum is heavily censored. Do you think that segregated education can continue? Do you think it should? How do you make these schools teach the actual national curriculum rather than a selective version of it?

WarOnWomen Mon 08-Mar-21 23:00:11

Thank you for highlighting this. I actually had no idea that forced marriages even existed in some Jewish communities.

Socrates11 Tue 09-Mar-21 10:44:38

As with previous posters you have opened a window to a world I knew practically nothing about so thank you for the post.

As you say the urge to control other people's thinking & subsequent behaviour is a common feature of many patriarchal religions. I recently read Unfollow (Westboro Baptist Church) and Educated (Mormon) as well as Unveiled (Islam). Al young women breaking away from the religion they were expected to support and follow. Indoctrinating children into the correct way of thinking was a massive key feature of all these books.

I think should religious parents be allowed to bring their children up in a closed system whereby all young people marry someone chosen by their parents, and where no other options are ever observed or presented? is an excellent question and I would appreciate further discussion about how the human right to freedom to belief, thought and religion (Article 9) can be/is balanced between parents and their children.

Socrates11 Tue 09-Mar-21 10:45:25

'All written by'

Alexandernevermind Tue 09-Mar-21 11:38:21

Thank you for writing this. I had no idea this was happening in your community. I would imagine lockdown has isolated these young women even further. flowers

aweegc Tue 09-Mar-21 12:36:42

I have known about this issue, however, I would not mention it publicly. The reason is that anything construed as not fully supporting Judaism is labelled by some (and sometimes many) as anti-Semitic. That is not a label most people want to have when they're really not!

So my question is how can people from outside the faith discuss this openly, even within a women's and girls' rights perspective, without attracting that label? We know for certain that there are people who will see my, for example, criticism of this practice as anti-Semitic, even though I state the same about forced marriage in certain Muslim communities - also a religion which also has many marriages routes that aren't forced. There doesn't seem to be quite the same leap to being labelled Islamophobic.

This, for me, is an important issue to address, because especially in the times of social media pile-ons and employers being called about people's racist or transphobic tweets, this coukd actually cause some people more problems than they realise.

That is not to say I think it shouldn't be tackled openly. Not at all. I'm really glad to have seen this thread and the work you're doing. It's just that knowing how difficult this label can be to deal with, what would your advice be to non-Jews who want to support Charedi and other Jewish women and girls who may be affected, without getting labelled as an anti-Semite?

BuntingEllacott Tue 09-Mar-21 12:43:01

Thank you so much for this. Similar practices occur in strict Christian groups, but i think the culture of silence that means it's not addressed properly has a slightly different dynamic in those groups. Solidarity with you x

lojojomo Tue 09-Mar-21 15:24:37

Wonderful, brave women. I salute you.

nevernotstruggling Tue 09-Mar-21 15:49:56

I had no idea forced marriage even existed in the Jewish community.

Frumgirl Tue 09-Mar-21 16:07:15

Do you want your own children to marry within the faith? Would you encourage them to and at what point does expectation become coercion?

ArabellaScott Tue 09-Mar-21 21:44:14

Thank you for your moving and illuminating post. I had no idea this happened in Jewish communities.

An approach that encompasses all the faiths/communities that include forced marriage sounds a brilliant idea, and I wish you both all the best.

EmbarrassingAdmissions Tue 09-Mar-21 23:00:05

I've been thinking over the unexpected advantage of an online forum offering insights and constant challenges just by interacting with those who have never been part of a wider world and society.

we insist that young people, of every culture and faith, must have autonomy over who to marry, when to marry or whether to marry at all.

I couldn't agree more on the importance of this - I saw your support for a more secular education:

Nahamu will fight for the right of every Jewish child and adolescent to receive a secular education that will enable them to be a productive and financially independent member of society

I wondered if parents would be free to refuse this, and the feasibility of implementing this when there are no consequences for the parents who refuse and perhaps community difficulties if they do consent to a more secular education. I would echo Socrates11 's question above:

how the human right to freedom to belief, thought and religion (Article 9) can be/is balanced between parents and their children.

I note that you write:

Nahamu will help to develop innovative ways to support those who are seeking to reorient their lives. We will also seek to work with other organisations which are able to provide assistance to those who have suffered harm in Jewish communities.

Do you anticipate a need for specialist refuge and support services for those who want to refuse such marriage arrangements?

frazzledasarock Tue 09-Mar-21 23:51:28

I think it’s really important to emphasise that forced marriages (& it’s forced not arranged, where both participants get to decide to progress to marriage or not), isn’t just physically forced.

I had a forced marriage, for years I couldn’t even name it that as in my mind a forced marriage was one where you’re physically threatened and forced to get married.

I wish you luck in your charity, offering advice and an out for young women (& men), who don’t want to tow the line is a good start.

RealisticSketch Wed 10-Mar-21 06:23:22

Freedom to choose who you marry inevitably means more people will choose to marry outside of the faith, what do you say to those elder members of the faith about their concerns that this will reduce their community and weaken important values etc?

FlaviaAlbiaWantsLangClegBack Wed 10-Mar-21 08:54:16

Can I ask about this

In my community, school books are redacted to ensure that any references to other ways of thinking are removed, public libraries are seen as dangerous and the internet is banned. We tend to only attend insular community schools, although some of these are state-funded, the curriculum is often restricted and Charedi children don’t mix with anyone different.

This sounds like such a huge barrier. Do you have to work around it or to break though it to reach the girls and their families?

Best wishes on the work you're doing flowers

EveSacks Wed 10-Mar-21 09:58:33

PikesPeaked

My more distant cousins, all female in my generation, are Charedim in Bnei Brak. Their experiences of arranged marriages were slightly different, in that they were allowed to reject the proposed groom. They were also allowed to meet more than once, before making up their minds, and even meet unchaperoned after the first meeting as long as it was somewhere public, such as a hotel lobby.

However, if they met the proposed groom more than three or four times without accepting him, or rejected three shidduchs, they would get a reputation for being ‘difficult’, and there might not be any more shidduchs offered, or the ‘quality’ of the shidduchs would go down. So there certainly was pressure to accept the third.

My grandparents fell in love and married without any shidduch, and they distanced themselves from the Charedi way of life. Became a version of Modern Orthodox, I suppose. My mum and her aunts (no uncles, girls appear to run in that side of the family) were allowed to meet/marry/remain single as they chose. My sisters and me had the same freedom. Mum certainly arranged for us to meet suitable and eligible young men, but there was no pressure. We all ended up marrying non-Jewish men - against our parents’ wishes, but our dhs are completely accepted by them and our family. Though not the Charedi side.

Do you think there can be any middle ground between the sort of shidduch that you experienced and the complete freedom my sisters and I experienced? How would you balance the desire to maintain and continue Judaism and the particular group’s culture, with the young women’s right to freedom of choice?

@PikesPeaked
So yes I think forced marriage is on a spectrum, and our paper focuses on practices that fall under the Act’s definition of forced marriage. That doesn’t mean other practices that don’t fall under the Act are harmless - it's really not ideal to only meet a handful of times either, and to have to worry about a reputation for being fussy after only 3 introductions. I’d still say that any amount of coercion is wrong - but bear in mind many other countries haven’t made forced marriage a criminal offence.

Parents have the right to practice their beliefs, whether that is Judaism / or any group’s culture - but these rights must be balanced with their children’s own rights both to marry without coercion and to access a broad and balanced education.

There are certainly ways to do that, many in the charedi community already achieve that. There is nothing wrong with arranged introductions, whereby there is no stigma about dating for as long as you want, or meeting as many people as you want.

EveSacks Wed 10-Mar-21 09:59:54

bakingdemon

You are brave women and I applaud you. I live near a Charedi community and the schools are a constant source of local controversy. Most of them are definitely not preparing the children for life in modern Britain (as Ofsted expects) and as you say the girls' curriculum is heavily censored. Do you think that segregated education can continue? Do you think it should? How do you make these schools teach the actual national curriculum rather than a selective version of it?

@bakingdemon

Yes schools should follow the law - currently too many are not. When it comes to RSE / British values, there is no excuse at all - children expected to enter early marriage need this education more than other children who don’t face this expectation.

Lack of secular education is a key facilitating factor in forced marriage - and we have asked the government to be firmer with the schools, including unregistered schools.

We do support maintained faith schools, as long as they offer a full range of facilitating A Levels, as education is the only way of breaking this cycle. However, when it comes to the schools (whether independent or maintained) that don’t offer the opportunity to take 8 GCSES (including English literature, English language, maths, double combined science, history, geography, a language, computer science and art) and the potential to take 3 A levels (including English (literature or combined literature & language), maths, history, geography, biology, chemistry and physics) - then I think these schools contribute to the lack of autonomy.

Obviously there also needs to be RSE sufficient that the young people understand that they can choose who to marry, when to marry or whether to marry at all, consent and body ownership - as well as challenging the notion that sex inside marriage is seen as a religious obligation.

EveSacks Wed 10-Mar-21 10:01:15

Socrates11

As with previous posters you have opened a window to a world I knew practically nothing about so thank you for the post.

As you say the urge to control other people's thinking & subsequent behaviour is a common feature of many patriarchal religions. I recently read Unfollow (Westboro Baptist Church) and Educated (Mormon) as well as Unveiled (Islam). Al young women breaking away from the religion they were expected to support and follow. Indoctrinating children into the correct way of thinking was a massive key feature of all these books.

I think should religious parents be allowed to bring their children up in a closed system whereby all young people marry someone chosen by their parents, and where no other options are ever observed or presented? is an excellent question and I would appreciate further discussion about how the human right to freedom to belief, thought and religion (Article 9) can be/is balanced between parents and their children.

@Socrates11

I recommend ‘Cut Me Loose’ by Leah Vincent, to go with the other books you read. For a male perspective Shulem Deen’s book is excellent.

The reason Yehudis and I decided to write the guest post on Mumsnet is that we agree that this question - “Should religious parents be allowed to bring their children up in a closed system whereby all young people marry someone chosen by their parents, and where no other options are ever observed or presented?” is one that should be discussed more. It’s a much wider issue beyond the insular parts of the Jewish community, and yes similar issues arise in other insular faith groups. We note that Colin Bloom is writing a report on harmful faith practises, so we hope that the government will address this (but I don’t hold out much hope).

I think that it's the insular independent faith schools that are the root of the problem, broadly when secular education is restricted.This takes away autonomy from young people.

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