Most of us dream of finding someone special to share our lives. Your partner should be someone you can trust and count on for support. He should be someone you choose.
Fraidy Reiss and thousands of other women in North America are coerced into taking their vows. A forced marriage is a form of domestic abuse. Some women end up trapped in a union with a controlling or abusive man. If they do leave, they are shunned by their families.
Fraidy is the Founder and Executive Director of Unchained at Last. This is the only organisation of its kind in the U.S. Fraidy and her team at Unchained at Last assist women in forced or arranged marriages with free legal services and other resources.
Fraidy faced pressure from her Ultra-Orthodox Jewish family to marry a man they chose. She was married at 19. The abuse started during what is supposed to be the honeymoon phase. It took Fraidy 12 years to leave her marriage because she didn’t have the support of her family or the community.
Without an education or a job, this bright and beautiful soul started a new life with her two young children. What a life it is! Fraidy graduated from Rutgers University at age 32 as valedictorian. She has a degree in journalism and she uses her skills as a journalist and former investigator to create positive change. Fraidy has made it her mission to lobby for more powerful legislation to protect women.
Through Unchained at Last, Fraidy empowers women to transform their lives and give their children a brighter future.
First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Fraidy about her story and the work she is doing through Unchained at Last.
Thank God, you’ve broken the cycle for your children. In a patriarchal community, men make the rules, but it takes strong women like you to stand against injustice. Why is this still happening in North America? I wonder about mothers who have suffered the same fate in their arranged or forced marriages and yet they stand by or even assist their daughters to do the same thing. I realize it is difficult to fight religious beliefs and years of cultural conditioning, but how do we educate women to see that they can make their own choices like you did?
Fraidy: Patriarchy persists in North America because of entrenched religious beliefs and because of years of cultural conditioning, as you said. But remember, patriarchy does not exist only in insular religious communities like the one in which I was raised. Patriarchy exists everywhere in so-called mainstream culture too: For example, women still are much more likely than men to assume their husbands' surnames upon marriage. Women still earn less than men do for the same jobs. We still have never had a female president in the US. Etc., etc.
So we need to address patriarchy everywhere, not just in some communities.
Further, we need to stop legitimizing patriarchy in the name of "cultural sensitivity." I've seen law enforcement officers and judges allow behavior in insular religious communities that they would not allow elsewhere, because the officers and judges do not want to be viewed as culturally insensitive or anti-religion. We need to protect the rights of all people, even (if not especially) women who live in insular religious communities.
UN-Arrange a Marriage … RE-Arrange a Life is the call to action on Unchained at Last. It must be extremely difficult to make that change when women are shunned by their families and friends. Can you tell us about some of the resources you offer women to help them build new lives?
Fraidy: I know firsthand the trauma of rebuilding a life after being shunned by family and friends. To help women through that trauma, Unchained runs a mentoring program, which matches women with someone from a similar background who can be a best friend through the difficult process. Unchained also offers free psychotherapy, to give women the emotional support they need.
You and your organization have been very active in working to change legislation to help gain rights and protection for women in arranged or non-consensual marriages. Congratulations on your bill S1524/A1676, which was recently passed by the New Jersey State Senate. We need a federal law to protect women from a forced marriage. Do you have any plans to work towards that goal, and how can we help?
Fraidy: I definitely plan eventually to introduce in the U.S. laws similar to those in the UK, where forcing someone to marry is a criminal offense. However, the laws in the U.S. might need to be introduced in each state, not at the federal level. Please check in with me in the coming years; I will take you up on that offer to help.
People are confused about the differences between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage, but isn’t that a grey area? While there are plenty of people who claim to be happy in arranged marriages, aren’t women in the Orthodox Jewish community, Muslims, some Christian sects and even some secular cultural communities pressured to marry? That sounds forced to me.
Fraidy: Arranged and forced marriage sit on the same spectrum. At one of the spectrum is a purely "arranged marriage," in which a man and a woman are introduced to each other but are given all the time they want to decide whether to wed. They are old enough and experienced enough to make an informed decision, and they face no pressure to decide a certain way.
I have never seen an arranged marriage like that, by the way.
At the other end of the spectrum is a purely "forced marriage," in which the bride and/or the groom is dragged down the aisle at gunpoint. I know women who have endured that terrifying ordeal.
Between those two points on the spectrum are various gradations. In some cases, the bride and groom technically have the right to say no to a match, but they are too young or inexperienced to make an informed choice. Sometimes they are not given enough time to get to know each other. Sometimes they face intense pressure to say yes. Sometimes they are threatened with violence or shunning or actually are subjected to violence.
At what point in the spectrum does an "arranged marriage" become a "forced marriage"? I don't see any logical place on the spectrum where one turns into the other, especially considering that most arranged marriages involve several of the gradations I describe. I don't see any logical way to differentiate "arranged" from "forced." Therefore, I always refer to "arranged/forced marriage."
In North America, the wedding industry promotes love. We watch romantic comedies and read romance novels. We celebrate Valentine’s Day – it’s all about finding that special person and living happily ever after. Part of that is a social construct or a fairy tale in many ways, but the feeling is real, even though many marriages end in divorce. Some people say that you can fall in love with someone in an arranged marriage, but isn’t that spark, that excitement and the growth of love such an incredible part of the human experience? You have some heartbreaking stories on your website from women who have been in arranged marriages, but have you ever met someone who is truly happy and in love in this situation?
Fraidy: Sure, some arranged/forced marriages turn out happily -- and, of course, many of those fairy tale "love marriages" turn out unhappily. Besides, many people who grow up in insular communities do not watch romantic comedies or read romance novels, and they would not think of "falling in love" as part of the human experience.
I will answer your question by saying I have seen very few people who have been married for more than a few years -- in arranged/forced marriages or in love marriages -- who are "truly happy and in love."
I think one of the reasons organized religions are losing their congregants is because they allow evil to happen under the watchful eye of people who hold their selves out as God’s representatives. Did you lose your faith after all of this?
Fraidy: I did not "lose my faith." I chose to free myself from it, and I now live happily as an atheist.
You’ve got some amazing women who are involved with Unchained at Last. How can people get involved or donate to Unchained at Last?
Fraidy: Thank you. Unchained is an all-volunteer organization that needs all the help it can get. Information about how to donate or get involved is at unchainedatlast.org.
Thank you, Fraidy, for creating a safe and supportive place for women who need our help to gain their independence.
Did you feel coerced into marrying a man or were you forced into a marriage? Please share your story in the comment box below.