The Joy Of Leaving An Arranged Marriage — And The Cost

FRAIDY REISS: Arranged marriage - where I grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, this was just how marriage worked. And it was something I very much wanted to do. Most girls in my community were married at age 18 or 19, tops. And I had no qualms about it.

SIMON: That's the voice of Fraidy Reiss, who, at the age of 19, found herself trapped in an abusive relationship with seemingly no way out. And as she tried to raise her two young daughters, she began to fear for all of their lives. She eventually did manage to free herself and went on to found Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women leave arranged and forced marriages.

It is hard to measure how many arranged marriages occur in the United States every year. They are an accepted part of life in certain communities, and they can often turn into happy partnerships. But when they don't, as you will hear in this interview with Rachel Martin, it can be difficult to get out. Fraidy Reiss is our Sunday conversation.

REISS: I was aware that there was an outside world, which I was told my whole life was a terrible, unhappy world. And I always that our way of life and our way of marriage was superior.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So you were married at the age of 19. Who were you partnered with?

REISS: So the matchmaker, who actually was my mother's first cousin, partnered me with somebody. And this was somebody who knew the families. She knew his family, knew my family, didn't know us very well. And that was typical. So, you know, I was from a poor family. He was from a poor family.

MARTIN: There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

REISS: Enough said. Match made in poverty heaven. Yeah. But, you know, I knew him for a total of three months when I married him. That was including our engagement. And during that entire time, we were never allowed to be alone together or have any physical contact. But it never occurred to me that I was doing anything other than what I had always dreamed of doing.

MARTIN: When did it become clear to you that it was not that? When did things start to go wrong?

REISS: Actually, only a week after our wedding. That was when my husband woke up late one morning and became infuriated that he was late. And just was so frustrated that he started jumping up and down and cursing and screaming. And then, in a fit of rage, he punched his fist through the wall in our apartment and left a big hole in the sheet rock and ran out. And that's when I stood there shaking and looking at this hole in the wall and thinking, oh, my God.

And so what happened was, you know, we lived together for 12 years. And during that time, he would come lunging at me. And he would actually describe in graphic detail how he was going to kill me. If we were driving in the car, he would speed up to 100 and them slam on the break to send me flying.

MARTIN: During this time, are you looking for help? Were you getting help and support from your parents, from your community? Did you tell people what was going on?

REISS: At first, I didn't. And then, as I slowly realized that my life was in danger, I did. I started - I went to my family, I went to his family, and I went to rabbis. But the reaction from everybody was the same. It was, you know, he's a good guy. He has a little bit of a temper, but, you know, it's fine.

MARTIN: So how did you get out? - because you did.

REISS: I - at age 27, after a particularly violent episode, I became, I believe, the first woman in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey, to walk into the police department and to ask for a temporary restraining order against my husband. But it turned out to be a big mistake because what I realized too late was that now, you know, one of the gravest sins in the Orthodox Jewish community is ratting out your fellow Jew to the secular authorities.

So the rabbis in Lakewood sent an Orthodox Jewish male attorney to my house to drive with me to family court and to tell the judge that I wanted to drop the restraining order. And so the way I got out was I was the first person in my family to go to college. And once I graduated and had a degree and had a way to support myself financially and my two girls, I was finally able to leave.

MARTIN: Able to leave, but what does that mean in the context of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community?

REISS: My family - my entire family shunned me. And they all - they declared me dead. So after that, you know, when I took the steps and I finally, you know, got divorced and then, you know, left the religion completely, my family was already - I had already lost my entire family.

MARTIN: So you started this organization. And what did you find? Who were the women who were knocking on your door, so to speak?

REISS: A lot of them are from the Orthodox Jewish community, but a lot of them are from various Muslim communities. They're South Asian, Middle Eastern, African. A lot of them are women that, 10 years ago, I would've walked past them on the street and thought that we had nothing in common.

MARTIN: What are the laws around this in this country - around forced marriage?

REISS: There are very few laws and policies in place in the U.S. to prevent or to punish forced marriage. So there are 10 states and territories that have some laws that can be used. So it's, you know - it's kind of scary.

MARTIN: So what support can you offer the women who come to your organization? What do you tell them? What can you do?

REISS: We get them free legal representation. Often, you know, there's a divorce, custody battle. Often, too, there's an immigration matter, domestic violence matters. So we get them free legal representation for all of that. And then, there are a lot of social services that they need obviously to rebuild their lives. So, you know, psychotherapy, career counseling, financial planning. That sort of thing.

MARTIN: Are you in touch with your family at all?

REISS: Sadly, I am not. It's been seven years, and I'm still dead to them.

MARTIN: How are your daughters with all of this?

REISS: Well, you know, my daughters, you know, have you been through this incredible journey with me. And, you know, leaving everything we knew and discovering this big outside world that we always had been taught was so evil and awful - turns out it's actually pretty wonderful. And so, you know, the adjustment was difficult for all of us. It took time. But my daughters are doing wonderfully now. My older daughter is actually finishing up her first year of college at age 18. So instead of getting married, she's getting her college degree and, you know, has all kinds of options open to her for the rest of her life.

MARTIN: Fraidy Reiss is the founder of Unchained At Last, an organization that helps women trapped in forced marriages. She joined us from our studios in New York. Fraidy, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

REISS: Oh, thank you, Rachel.

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