26: Fraidy Reiss
founder/executive director of Unchained at Last

photos by Remi Riordan

Fraidy and I talked about leaving her abusive marriage, complications of sexual agency, marriage as inherently problematic, and "the ability to dress like a slut when I feel like it."

Fraidy Reiss is founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls escape arranged and forced marriages and works to end child marriage in the United States.

Remi Riordan is a 17 year old photographer, writer, and editor-in-chief of Crybaby Zine based out of Montclair, NJ / NY, NY.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on April 9, 2017 in the Unchained office. Remi Riordan photographed and witnessed the conversation.

SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood. 


FRAIDY: I grew up in a really insular religious community where girls are very openly second-class, and are taught from a young age that their goal in life is to to be a wife and a mother. That's actually not the reason that my childhood was dysfunctional, because I didn't realize that there was something inherently wrong with that message until I was an adult, though I rebelled against it in small ways without fully realizing that I was doing so.


SOPHIA: Could you talk about those small ways in which you rebelled?


FRAIDY: It's actually almost embarrassing to talk about, because they were so tiny and so insignificant in the face of such tremendous misogyny. But I remember that questioning in that community is considered a great sin. Especially for a girl to question, that's really really frowned upon. But I would question. Why can't a girl say kaddish, the prayer for the dead? I don't know why I didn’t complain that every day the men and boys in my community said a prayer thanking God for not making them a slave, a non-Jew, or a woman. Instead, in my prayer book, it said, "Thank you, God, for making me as you wish.” 

My mother finally fled from my father and the rabbis approved her leaving (which was really uncommon at that time —that’s how violent my father was). Under Orthodox Jewish law, a man is allowed to divorce his wife, but a woman is not allowed to divorce her husband. So after fourteen years in hell, my mother was able to escape with her six children and get physically someplace safe. She moved back in with her parents. She didn't have the right to get a divorce. I was only a child watching my mother go through this, and yet even as a child, I said, "There's something very wrong about this set of laws. Why is he allowed to divorce her, but she's not allowed to divorce him?" She would cry herself to sleep at night. It seemed in many ways that her life was actually worse after she left her abusive husband than it was before.

I said ‘This is a mistake. This guy is gonna kill me. He’s describing to me how he’s gonna kill me.’

SOPHIA: You dealt with psychological and physical abuse, as did your mother, and I assume a lot of women around you. How did the community kind of speak about or justify the infliction of actual violence upon women's bodies under these laws? 


FRAIDY: I don't like to say anything negative about an entire community, because no community is monolithic. I don't know that there's any spoken or unspoken rule in the community that says violence against women is ok. But in that particular community where I grew up, I do think there was a written, spoken, and unspoken rule that women are less than men. When I was married off to my husband, I was his property. I wasn't a party to my marriage contract—two rabbis signed it. It wasn't me; I was given to him. 

There's that basis of misogyny, and then you add to that a lack of understanding of domestic violence…Mental illness is stigmatized everywhere, but in this particular community it seemed to be especially so. Getting diagnosed, getting treated, was almost unheard of. You throw all that into the mix, you marry people off at a young age in arranged matches where they don't know each other, a lot of them are just not compatible because that's what's gonna happen, and you just have a recipe for disaster. I think that the community has come a long way in understanding that violence against women is bad and should not be tolerated, but there's still a lot more to go in terms of connecting that to real life. What happens when a woman says that she is being abused by her husband?


SOPHIA: You must have experienced some transition from feeling that the marital course of action that you were forced to take was acceptable, whether or not it felt completely good to you, to thinking that it was wrong. Can you describe that transition? 


FRAIDY: That actually took me one week. Unfortunately it was after my wedding. There was a total of three months between when we were introduced by the rabbi until I was his wife. And that included our courtship period, if you want to call it a courtship. We were never allowed to be alone together or have any physical contact, so I don't really know what kind of courtship that is. During that whole time I really didn't question it, and I went along with it really happily. I always talk about my wedding, how I walked down the aisle basically to my execution, wearing a big smile and a tremendously ugly gown. 

It was one week after our wedding that my husband first punched his fist through the wall in our apartment, and hard enough that he left a big hole in the sheet rock. And it was only a few days after that that he first threatened to kill me. So at first my question was just, "Did the matchmaker bring me the wrong guy?" It was that basic. There was still a tremendous lack of understanding about what had just happened to me, how big the whole system was, and how small I was within that system. I did not possess the legal right to get out of my own marriage. I was not allowed to have a bank account or a credit card in my own name; I was not allowed to have a job. I was not allowed to use birth control; my first child was born eleven months after my wedding. I also had no education. In high school I actually had to sign a paper promising not to take driver's ed or the SATs. This was an all-girls school in Brooklyn; I didn't grow up in Iran. The only possible way out for someone like me would've been if my family would have said "You can come back and live with us." And yet, when I went to my family soon after my wedding, and I said "This is a mistake. This guy is gonna kill me. He's describing to me how he's gonna kill me," my family said "No." My mother didn't want me to move back in with her. It took years until I realized the enormity of what had been done to me, and how unfair that was.  


SOPHIA: Your mother suffered under similar abusive circumstances, but she still didn't want you to take refuge in her home. To the extent that you’re comfortable, can you talk about that relationship, and how that worked out?


FRAIDY: I don't know why my mother wouldn't take me in and why she wouldn't help me. I think part of it is because of everything she had been through. It was probably very re-triggering for her to know that her daughter was going through something not nearly as awful as what she had been through, but close to it, and that maybe there was guilt involved. I don't think she ever forgave her parents for arranging her marriage to this horrible violent man, and it was shocking for her to discover that perhaps she had done something like that to her own child. But the stigma of divorce is still so great, and the rules of the community are still the rules, and my mother doesn't have my rebellious nature. I think ultimately what it came down to was that the religion and the community were just too important to her.  

SOPHIA: How do you believe that we understand and act around the sexual agency of girls and young women? Is it all about whether you're eighteen or not, or is it more nuanced than that?


FRAIDY: There are two answers to that question, because certainly, a forced marriage can happen at any age. We have clients who are forced into marriage past their teenage years and into their twenties, thirties, or even forties. However, when it comes to marriage before the age of eighteen, there are significant additional problems because children just don't have the legal rights of an adult. So if they try to resist a forced marriage before it happens, or even if they enter into a marriage willingly and then decide they want to leave because it's unhappy or abusive or whatever, it's very difficult for a child to do that, just practically speaking. If a child leaves home, she's considered a runaway. If we attempt to help her, we could be charged with kidnapping. If we get into a shelter, shelters will generally turn girls away. We've had shelters say, "If she's turning eighteen tomorrow, bring her back tomorrow." Children are generally not allowed to bring legal action in their own name, and contracts with children are voidable, so a retainer agreement with a child is basically useless, and retaining an attorney becomes really difficult. So certainly there are additional insurmountable obstacles for children who are resisting a forced marriage or trying to get out of a marriage, which means that child marriage is especially problematic. 

But as I said, a forced marriage can happen at any age, and it's often difficult to define. That's why we're starting our legislative push with child marriage, which is easy to define. One party is under age eighteen. That's a child marriage. With a forced marriage…nobody held a gun to my head, so I'm sure a lot of people would argue that my marriage was not forced. It's difficult to define, and it's difficult therefore to try to find some kind of solution to it. But talking about issues of agency involves the notion of, as with sex, full, free, informed consent. Just because somebody doesn't say "no" doesn't mean that that's consent. There has to be actual consent and it has to be an informed consent and it has to be freely given. It’s difficult because there's no one answer; there's no black and white.  

Sure, it means that there’s more suffering, but it means that there’s also just that much more opportunity to fix this, because we can all work on it together.

SOPHIA: In a piece that NPR did on you, you said that a lot of your clients are women which, “10 years ago, I would have walked past on the street and thought, 'Well, we have nothing in common,’” Can you talk about how doing this work has impacted the way you relate to or understand other women? 


FRAIDY: Yeah, one of the really empowering aspects of working here at Unchained is finding out how much we have in common, for better or worse... 


[both laugh] 


FRAIDY: It’s a sad way to bond with other women—over forced marriage. I wish we could bond over…all winning the lottery or something. 


SOPHIA: [laughs] 


FRAIDY: But it is empowering for me and for them. One of the things we do at Unchained is try to get our clients to interact with each other, especially with clients from other cultural backgrounds, because there is something empowering in knowing that it isn't just me, it's not just my community, it's not just my culture. Sure, it means that there's more suffering, but it means that there's also just that much more opportunity to fix this, because we can all work on it together. [Early on,] I knew that this was happening in other cultures, but I didn't know the full extent of it. I thought that I had to fix my whole community and it was all on me. But I learned that no, this is a gender-violence issue that transcends religion and culture, and that means that women I meet anywhere can work on this with me. We can all fix it. 


SOPHIA: I think it was a New York Times piece in which you said, "Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blow in the wind, or wear jeans, or attend college, the courts have the authority to take her children away from her." What do you love about being a woman that wasn't available to you in the Orthodox community? 


FRAIDY: [laughs] That's a really good question. There are so many things. Certainly feeling the wind blow in my hair is something that I will never ever take for granted because I didn't have it for so long. Being able to wear this dress. So I have to say, the ability to dress like a slut when I feel like it, you know? 


[both laugh] 

FRAIDY: Some days you just want to do that, and now I can! Freedom can be really scary when you come from a community where there's a rule for every second of the day…how you dress and when you dress and where you eat and what you eat…When all of a sudden every opportunity is open to you, it can be really scary! So at first it was really kind of overwhelming. The scary nature of that has worn off, and I take that a little bit more for granted now, but it's still a wonderful thing to be able to travel and not worry about “Well, it's the Sabbath and I can't travel and I can't be on a plane and I can't carry things and I can't deal with money." It used to be that I could only travel to places that had Kosher food or else I had to freeze wrap food to bring with me in all kinds of ways…I mean, it was just a pain in the ass! Now I can just get on a plane and go wherever I want and I can figure out what I eat when I get there!  


[both laugh] 

FRAIDY: I can walk into any restaurant and order anything I want off of the menu and maybe it'll taste disgusting but I can learn that on my own. And maybe I don't like lobster but at least I can try it. So the freedom of it, the endless opportunity has turned from terrifying to wonderful. And also, one of the big things is just feeling like a part of the world. We were really discouraged from having contact with anybody from outside the community, so my world was so small. Now, being able to interact with people like you, to make friends with anybody I want to make friends with, and to learn about other cultures and religions is very much an adventure.  


SOPHIA: How have women themselves seen their ideas of womanhood transform in the process of working with your organization? I know you can't speak to everyone at once, but maybe a few prominent things come to mind. 


FRAIDY: Well I can't say that all women really change their notions. Sometimes, I actually kind of wish that I could push them to change more of their opinion, because often, even when we're working to help them get out of their bad situation (and it takes tremendous courage, of course, to even acknowledge that you need help and then to reach out and get the help,) sometimes I still see them clinging to notions like, "I'm looking for a job, and it has to be within certain fields, because as a woman I can't do this and I can't do that, I'm not capable of that, or it's inappropriate for a woman to do that." And then, sadly, what we see sometimes is that we will help a woman get out of a terrible forced marriage and only shortly thereafter, her family will arrange another marriage for her. Sometimes I think that that's a personal failing, that I didn't explain to her that as a woman, she has the right to say no. So unfortunately not everyone reacts in the same way.


SOPHIA: How has doing this work colored the way that you see gender in the world as a whole? Because I feel like it would be easy to start seeing it as this kind of battle between completely empowered men and completely disempowered women. What is that experience like to you? 


FRAIDY: Yeah, it's easy to slip into that idiotic frame of mind where it's the empowered white male versus the disempowered female. And of course, that's not the case. There are women who don't believe in women's empowerment and there are men who are staunch feminists. So of course it's not that. But what I have seen is that women just have so much further to go. It's been a little distressing to see how entrenched violence against women is; gender violence is still such a significant problem globally. It is disheartening. And you just wonder: will this ever change? When will this change? How will this change? What can we do? You look at the United States, and aren't we supposed to be such a modern, advanced, and free country? It's such a huge, entrenched problem here that you wonder, how does it happen in a developing country that still hasn't come to terms with notions of equality? So my solution is to just try not to think about how huge of an uphill battle that we have, and instead focus on just one little piece. If I can just help end forced or child marriage in one country, then at least that's something. 

SOPHIA: What's your idea of a good marriage? 


FRAIDY: That's a trick question. [laughs] I do think that marriage in general is problematic, often and especially for women. But if I had to give a definition of a good marriage, it would be one based on equality and choice. First of all, both parties enter into that marriage willingly. It was their own idea, it was their own choice. There would be no repercussions for either one if s/he said, “I don't want to marry this person,” “I don't want to marry right now,” or “I don't want to marry at all.” They both enter into it willingly without any pressure, duress, or coercion. And then equality: there is no one that is dependent on the other. This is something that I drum into my kids all the time. I say, "You can't even think about getting married until you are established financially. There is just no way." If one person can't leave the marriage because she or he is dependent on the partner, then that is already a basis for an imbalance of power, and that's already a problem, because how do you know that they're both there willingly? So that again comes back to the whole question of choice. Both partners have to enter into the marriage willingly and stay in the marriage willingly. Every day that's a choice. I'm here because I want to be, not because I can't leave because I'm financially dependent. Or because my family will shun me. Or I'll have no place to live. That's not a good marriage. 


SOPHIA: Can you talk more about the ways in which you think marriage is fundamentally problematic? 


FRAIDY: I just think that when you look at the way marriage works...[laughs] my friends who are married are going to take offense at this... 


SOPHIA: [laughs] 


FRAIDY: This is not always, but this is what I see generally. Typically, it's this unspoken or even spoken rule that the man has to propose to the woman. They get engaged and he buys her a ring, so she's "taken," and every guy knows that she's taken. And I don't see the guy wearing a diamond ring so all the men and women know that he's taken. And then, most women still change their last name upon marriage, and let's be honest, marriage was formed in a time of extreme patriarchy. It was not an equal match between two parties; the man would acquire his wife as property. So the changing of the name harks back to that and yet it persists until today. Studies show that still, a woman in a heterosexual marriage is more likely to be the caretaker for the children, and often she has to give up her career if she has one. Then she becomes financially dependent on her husband because she's not working, and even if she has an advanced degree or a lot of experience, she's been out of the workforce taking care of the children and is at a financial disadvantage. If she has to get back into that, it becomes very difficult. 

I also think that a lot of people marry because of pressure. Not the extreme kind of pressure that I was under when my family arranged my marriage, brought me the guy, and told me that this is the guy I'm marrying, but still a lot of pressure to not reach a certain age where, if you’re not married, people look at you funny. People start judging you. People start asking questions. I think a lot of people marry just for that. And that's problematic. When you talk about full-free informed consent, what are you consenting to? If you weren't worried about what people are going to say, would you get married to this person right now? 


SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently? 


FRAIDY: Can I give 15 things? Obviously the ultimate goal is complete equality. That's a really broad answer, but our ultimate goal is to get to a point where we're not paid 87 cents on the dollar, we’re not discriminated against because we don't have a penis, and people won't vote for our opponent who's an orange fascist just because we have a vagina. Ultimately that's where we want to get. 


[both laugh] 


FRAIDY: So we need to keep pointing our finger at it. Keep shining a spotlight on it. Don't let people forget that this is the situation that we're not yet where we need to be. We're still so far away that violence against women is still a huge problem. Wage and equity is a real problem. We have to just keep talking about it, keep agitating, keep complaining about it, and find some way beyond the kind of armchair activism that SNL made fun of last night. Did you see that sketch? 




FRAIDY: It's really funny. They're basically making fun of a guy who like, sent a tweet from the toilet and thinks that he just saved the world. So beyond armchair activism. Just take real steps in any way that you can to move toward that goal. No one of us is going to obviously get to that goal, but if we all work together, I do believe in woman power. 

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