Twenty years ago in Iran, Rachel R. (not her real name) endured three years of humiliation while she tried to get a civil divorce from her physically abusive husband. When the courts finally agreed to hear Rachel’s case, she was required to pay the equivalent of $4,000 to be released from her marriage and be granted custody of her children. Now she’s 52 and living in Los Angeles, and her divorce nightmare continues. Considered an agunah, or bound woman, Rachel is unable to remarry another Jew until she receives a Jewish divorce, known as a get. According to Jewish law, her ex-husband has the sole authority to grant her a get — something he has thus far refused to do. While he is free to marry whomever he likes, even without a Jewish divorce, she is not, until she receives that release from him.
Cases like Rachel’s have inspired Persian rabbis in Los Angeles and New York to embrace the use of legally binding premarital agreements to allow women to obtain a get even in cases where husbands are unwilling to grant one, a measure the American Orthodox community put into effect several years ago. Adopted earlier this year, the contract is the result of years of lobbying on the part of Persian Jewish women, who want parity between their community and mainstream Orthodoxy.
“I always felt it was my mission, as an Iranian Jewish woman, to make Iranian Jewish brides aware of what they were signing in the ketubah (wedding contract),” said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization. Notably, the new agreement doesn’t look out only for women: trapped men are also included. The agreement, a new concept for the Iranian Jewish community, allows a religious panel to impose an adjustable fine of $150 per day on a husband who refuses to give his wife a get, or on a wife who refuses to accept one.
Rachel R. said she hoped that local rabbis will now provide retroactive means for bound women like herself to receive a valid Jewish divorce.