Rachel R. endured three years of humiliation while seeking a civil divorce from her physically abusive husband in Iran during the late 1980s. Since he had fled their native country, the Islamic regime required her to place ads in newspapers in order to locate him. 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 granted custody of her children.
Rachel, who asked that The Journal not use her real name, is now 52 and living in Los Angeles. But her divorce nightmare continues more than 20 years later. She has never received a get, or Jewish divorce. Considered an agunah, or bound woman, Rachel is unable to remarry to another Jew. According to Jewish law, her ex-husband has the sole authority to grant her a Jewish divorce -- something he has thus far refused to do.
"I'm much older now. There's really no chance for me to get married again even if I do get a Jewish divorce," Rachel said.
Cases like Rachel's inspired Persian rabbis in Los Angeles and New York to embrace the use of legally binding premarital agreements that will allow women to obtain a get, even in cases where husbands are not willing to grant one. 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 the American Orthodox community.
"Since I was aware of this problem, from a long time ago, 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," said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women's Organization.
"Our community's leaders at the Nessah Cultural and Educational Center, Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center, the Iranian-American Jewish Federation and the Persian Jewish media have been very supportive in giving the community awareness of this agreement," she said.
But the new agreement doesn't just look out for women. Trapped men are also included.
The agreement, a new concept for the Iranian Jewish community, allows a religious panel to intervene in cases where a marriage has been dissolved in a civil court but the religious divorce is being purposefully sidelined by a spouse. The panel will review each case, and, if deemed necessary, can impose an adjustable fine of $150 per day on a husband who refuses to give his wife a get or to a wife who refuses to accept the get.
Pirnazar said she and her counterpart, Parvaneh Doostan Sarraf of the Ima Cultural Association in New York, had lobbied Iranian Jewish religious leaders over the last four years to adopt a measure similar to the premarital agreements that have been used by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America over the last 10 years.
"The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America were most cooperative in offering a revised reciprocal version [of the agreement] so that it would be more acceptable to Iranian Jewish values," Pirnazar said. Beverly Hills family attorney Alexandra Leichter also served as a legal adviser to the Iranian Jewish women's groups in helping to adjust the current agreement to meet the criteria of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Iranian Jewish community's norms, Pirnazar said.
Over the centuries, rabbis in Iran very rarely granted a get unless there were issues of infidelity, infertility or a husband's failure to fulfill his martial obligations, according to an article by Pirnazar published in the book, Padyavand, by Amnon Netzer (Mazda Publishers, 1996). In instances where a husband refused to consent to a get and there was not chance of salvaging the marriage, religious leaders in Iran would try to work within the community to persuade the husband to agree to the divorce.
The late rabbi of the Iranian community, Hacham Yedidiah Shofet, is quoted in the article, recalling only two rare occasions where rabbis in Iran granted agunot divorces when the husbands had disappeared and had not been heard from in many years.
Local Iranian rabbis said they were optimistic about the new steps taken to help future generations of women in the community that may be left in a state of limbo because of a husband's refusal of a get.
"This agreement will be good to help prevent future agunot, but it is not the answer to the agunah problem that has been an issue for the Jewish people for centuries," said Rabbi David Shofet, head of the Council of Iranian Rabbis. "In Iran, as far as I remember and my father of blessed memory told me, there were not so many divorces. The rabbis tried not to give gets but tried to have the couples reconcile or get counseling from the elders."
Rachel said she hoped that local rabbis will take measures to provide a retroactive means for agunot like herself to obtain a valid Jewish divorce without the existing barriers.
"There are a lot of Jewish women out there who are still young and can start their lives over if there is a way for them to obtain the divorce from a rabbi without having to face their spiteful husbands," she said.