Two recent, entirely disparate news articles have collided in my thoughts.
The first was an item about the Conservative British peer Tina Stowell (http://genderidentitywatch.com/2013/10/24/tina-stowell-baroness-stowell-of-beeston-tinastowell-uk/, who has championed same sex marriage in her country and has received an award for her leadership on this issue from the gay/lesbian PinkNews (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/). The award angered some activists because Stowell has also introduced an amendment to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 granting the spouse of a person who undergoes gender transition the right to formally agree with the resulting transformation of her marriage – and the right to dissolve that marriage if she doesn’t agree. My choice of pronouns is deliberate: the spouses of transgender people who transition while in a marriage are almost always, if not always, women. To speak of these spouses’ right to divorce is to address the right of women to divorce.
The second article was a report on Jewish religious divorce, known as get (http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/11/04/for-orthodox-women-getting-the-get-can-take-years.html). In order for a couple who have been religiously married within Judaism to dissolve their union, a get, a bill of divorce, is written and ritually handed by the husband or his proxy to the wife, who must accept it. Under Jewish law, a man may give his wife a get for any reason, or for no reason whatsoever. He can also refuse to give his wife a get if he so chooses. A woman who has not obtained a religious divorce can’t remarry in Israel, or under Jewish law anywhere. If she has children with another partner, those children will be considered illegitimate and will never be able to marry within Orthodox communities. Thus there exists an entire class of women religiously tied to men they no longer cohabit with, men who may have been abusive, who may have abandoned them and their children. A woman in this situation is referred to in Hebrew as an agunah: a woman in chains.
Exact numbers aren’t known, but it’s certain there are hundreds of agunot, or chained women, in Jewish communities in the US. The article points to one agunah who has received some media attention, Tamar Epstein. Though she is legally divorced from Aharon Friedman, a tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, Friedman has refused to grant Epstein a religious divorce.
What this pair of issues share is their impact on women’s lives. The two populations – British women whose husbands transition and religiously observant Jewish women – don’t include most of us. Yet what is at stake for both groups is a right to self-determination so basic its denial invites our outrage.
The two news items put me in mind of my own experience with divorce in the context of gender transformation, and my own brush with get.
I wasn’t given a vote in my former husband’s decision to start a new life as a woman, and for a long time my ex refused to accept that vacating the roles of husband and father meant that our marriage would have to end. Because we were married in a civil and not a religious service, a get wasn’t required by Jewish law when the relationship ended. But during the period when we were separated and not yet legally divorced, I happened to speak with a rabbi who urged me to obtain a get. His position was that my former husband and I had been recognized as a Jewish couple, and together with our children as a Jewish family, within our community. We had a Jewish home, were active in synagogue life, spent time in Israel together, our children attended Jewish day school. A religious dissolution of our marriage was appropriate, he argued. He told me about an Orthodox institution in New York to contact about my situation. I called and explained my circumstances. The woman I spoke with told me that she would ask their rabbi to rule on whether I was a candidate for Jewish divorce and get back to me.
I vividly recall the warm summer evening, when, having just delivered one of my children to an event in town and climbed back into my car to drive home, I answered my cellphone to hear the woman’s voice, full of regret. She told me that my marriage, never religiously consecrated, wasn’t suitable for a ritual divorce. Her apologetic tone was memorable. She was delivering bad news, and she knew it.
Why did I want a religious divorce? Why wasn’t I relieved to hear I didn’t need one? My religious identity, the Jewish identity of my children and of our family, is central to me. I have found deep meaning in the Jewish rituals I’ve experienced. Having become convinced of the necessity for religious divorce, it now felt as if I was being denied the spiritual dissolution of an intolerable marriage. As if I was being denied renewal, the chance to be made whole after trauma; the chance to be free.
I reported to the rabbi who had urged me to obtain a get. He wrote a letter on my behalf in which he argued passionately, and very Jewishly, that a religious divorce was appropriate in my case. I heard again from the organization in New York: they were convinced. I could get a divorce.
Things should have gone smoothly and quickly from there. They did not. My ex refused to give me a get. To be specific, my former husband said that as we had not begun legal divorce proceedings, I had to wait. After that was under way or completed – that detail wasn’t clear – I would be granted the get. Several years passed, an ugly legal divorce was concluded. I approached another rabbi, told him the story of the get ruling and my ex’s agreement to grant me a religious divorce, and asked him to facilitate. He told me that because Jewish ritual was so meaningful to me, the get might prove spiritually significant in more ways than I could know.
The rabbi approached my ex: my ex equivocated. Again, it wasn’t an outright refusal, but another delay. My ex would grant the Jewish divorce at some future, unspecified time, if new terms and conditions were met. I couldn’t get the get unless, until, my ex got some new thing for it. Once again I explained to the rabbi that my ex had already agreed to the get years before. The rabbi expressed his regrets.
I was angry and frustrated of course. But in the days that followed, I took time to consider my situation, to examine my options and feelings.
For some husbands, a wife who asks for a get is offering her spouse an opportunity to wield power. She can’t move on without it. She can beg, petition, threaten publicity. He can refuse. He can make the get a bargaining chip, a means to any end he desires. Like any husband withholding a get, my former husband had threatened to never let me or my children move on. My had ex said that creating a new life as a woman was a wonderful thing, something my children (ages 3 to 12 at the time) and I should celebrate, but that we would never be allowed to make new lives of our own. Denying me the get, saying it would be granted at some future date when all demands and conditions had been met, was in sync with this plan: I would remain spiritually fettered by a marriage that had long since ended.
Thinking this through, I suddenly I realized exactly what I needed from my former husband: nothing. No spiritual cutting of ties, no release. If I needed anything at all I could do it for myself, with a ritual of my own devising. But the truth was I had already done it. Through the legal process, which I had found, surprisingly, quite profound (profoundly awful, but still: profound) and through the rituals I’d enacted in its wake, I had freed myself, deeply, spiritually and in all ways. I wasn’t shackled. I was whole.
It was enough that I could reach this place on my own – that I could decide for myself that I was free of the marriage – because I hadn’t had a Jewish wedding. Such autonomy is not available to those who have been married within Jewish tradition. It would not be available to women denied legal divorce if their partners choose to transition.
The get – a component of a gender-stratified tradition – casts an odd illumination upon the very modern view that insists on gender fluidity and just as fiercely defends keeping women unwilling wives. Men have rights under Jewish law, as do transgender people under modern civil law. They have power over their destinies. To object to Stowell’s provision is to deny civil rights to British women. To keep power over their lives in their transitioning spouses’ hands.
In its own, different context, Tina’s Stowell’s amendment could avoid the creation of a nonsectarian class of agunot, women in chains.