When the Netflix series Unorthodox went viral last year, it introduced many viewers to Hasidic Jewish rituals and cultural norms, including those surrounding marriage. In this blog post, Yehudis Fletcher discusses marriage within the Haredi Jewish community. Often categorised as a “cultural norm”, Fletcher argues that the practices of engagement and marriage among young couples sometimes falls within the UK definition of forced marriage – and explains what this means for relationships and sex education in England.
The issue of forced marriage was raised on a recent episode of BBC Woman’s Hour, when it featured women from an ethnic and religious minority that is not typically represented in UK government discourse as being “at risk” – Haredi Jewish women. Beatrice Weber, a discussant who had met her prospective husband three times before proceeding to marriage, was asked “How much can you say that what you experienced and what other Jewish women say they are experiencing is forced marriage or more of a cultural norm?” This poses an important question. In this post, I draw attention to the ways that forced marriage is situated as an issue in some specific minorities but dismissed as “cultural norms” for others, which delegitimises the continuum of pressures that women and men experience around marriage. Changes to the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) in England offers an opportunity for consent to be promoted within faith tenets, but opposition remains on the part of religious authorities.
Forced marriage or cultural norms?
The UK government’s forced marriage poster campaign features four people, three women and one man in fine wedding jewellery and dress, from minority ethnic and religious backgrounds. “You have the right to choose,” appears underneath, in a way that speaks to people from the backgrounds represented in the image. While perhaps useful for speaking directly to women at higher risk of forced marriage, this government campaign reinforces public perceptions of “at risk” people rather than a practice that broadly occurs across society and amidst pressures that may be difficult to discern. In this regard, the campaign departs from the UK government’s own broader definition of forced marriage: “The act of forcing another person into marriage cannot be justified on religious grounds; every major faith condemns it and crucially, free consent is a prerequisite of all religions.”
Nahamu, a think tank founded to counter extremism in Britain’s Jewish community, has drawn attention to these inconsistencies around forced marriage. Whilst ‘outward’ facing extremism, such as a violent terror attack, directs its harmful impacts towards others, ‘inward’ facing extremism, such as ideologically justified domestic abuse, operates within communities as part of a process of maintaining a self-protective stance and group autonomy. Those who perpetrate outward facing extremism are almost always going to be perpetrating inward facing extremism at the same time, which often takes the form of moral regulation. An example of the former involves recent violent demonstrations in Israel initiated by Haredi Jews (who are otherwise and problematically referred to as being ‘ultra-Orthodox’), and Nahamu has identified forced marriage as an ‘internal’ harm that is being practiced in some Haredi Jewish circles.
Recently, an analysis of arranged marriage in Haredi Jewish communities was submitted to the Forced Marriage Unit, concluding that the typical marriage practices within some sections of the Haredi community fall within the remit of the UK Government’s own definition of forced marriage. While this position might appear new to people listening to BBC Woman’s Hour, they are a familiar part of life for Haredi Jewish women such as myself, who are raised with clear expectations of when and who to marry – and that marriage itself constitutes a prerequisite of adulthood. In our call for evidence, five markers were found whereby the marriage process can inhibit free and full consent being given by the young people involved, and thus falls within the UK government position on forced marriage rather than a ‘cultural norm.’ There will be some families where all of these practices are adhered to and some where none are. The focus on the markers are therefore a helpful way of identifying incidences of forced marriage, rather than assigning a description to an entire community.
The marriage process begins when Haredi Jews are in their teenage years. Marriage is seen as an automatic rite of passage, and a precursor to permanently moving out of the family home. Parents receive or seek out a prospective match for their child from a matchmaker (shadchan) and conduct extensive, often exhaustive enquiries, to ensure the suitability of the marriage. Depending on the family, these enquiries cover socioeconomic status, education, and lineage. The prospective couple will meet face-to-face, often just as a formality, and the encounters are as short as 20 minutes. Protected from broader influences, young people have limited ability and agency to opt out of the arranged marriage process. While termed a “meeting,” survivors of forced marriage recalled there being ‘cake on the table in the other room’ and feeling unable to say no when family were already assembled waiting to congratulate them. They felt rushed into their engagement.
Once engaged, the couple is not allowed to meet again (in some cases the parties are not allowed to speak on the telephone either) until the wedding, which is held several months later. This prevents the young couple from getting to know each other better, or allowing them to form any further impressions of each other. There is an engagement contract that is considered binding, whereby the parents sign a contract agreeing to bring their children to the wedding at a certain future date. It is very difficult to break this contract as there are financial and religio-spiritual penalties if the wedding does not go ahead. Whilst this practice has been all but abandoned by most of the community, it is maintained among Hasidic (subsection of Haredi) Jewish families. In this system, the two individuals are expected to rely on their parent’s choice and marry the person they are introduced to. At such a young age and with no alternative model presented as legitimate, there is no opportunity to provide full and free consent.
These practices are not secret or hidden within Haredi communities, but are proudly celebrated. Our call for evidence finds that Haredi Jews are increasingly aware of the harm caused by these marriage practices. When faced with accusations that forced marriages are taking place, gatekeepers emphasise how autonomy (personal and sexual) and consent around marriage is a fundamental Jewish ethic and example of how the day-to-day lived experience of Haredi Jews is informed by the standards set in Jewish texts. This performative value of consent is noted when Chaya Spitz, Chief Executive of the Interlink Foundation, a membership organisation in the Orthodox Jewish community, claimed in the aforementioned BBC Woman’s Hour interview, that “anyone in the community looking at this document would just balk and feel that it’s very far removed from the lived reality of ordinary people. Forced marriage is a very alien concept in Judaism; consent, and marrying of one’s free choice, are absolutely fundamental principles.” The reference to consent then serves as a counter-argument and deploys UK government discourse to indicate that marriage is unequivocally a matter of choice in Judaism.
Opposition to the teaching of sex and relationships education in England, however, indicates the reluctance of religious authorities to raise Haredi Jews with a basic understanding of autonomy and consent in relationships and marriage. Religious authorities have fiercely opposed the new RSE curriculum, which raises an important question: if consent is so fundamental to Jewish marriages, why can the new curriculum not be taught as part of these faith tenets? To demonstrate that autonomy and consent are fundamental Jewish ethics and that forced marriage is indeed an ‘alien concept’ to Judaism, then religious authorities have an opportunity to fully implement the new RSE programme and ensure that Haredi Jews are able to enter marriage free from pressure.
To return to the question that Emma Barnett raised on BBC Woman’s Hour, a clear image of who is at risk is reproduced when thinking about the problem of forced marriage (and made explicit through current UK government campaigns). By considering the markers that inhibit free and full capacity to consent, rather than focusing on specific communities that are considered to be at risk, we can pursue a future where everybody feels protected from harm. Responding to forced marriage is about more than law enforcement, it is about raising the threshold for safety across society, through the right to personal and sexual autonomy – especially where it is being wilfully neglected.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.