“Escape from Hell“ by Smadar Shir Yediot Aharanot, 28 January, 2014
It’s hard to hear their story and comprehend that these things still happen in the 21st Century. Forced to marry at the age of 12, they underwent a battery of abuse and rape. How two Jewish sisters managed to escape husbands in Yemen and find new hope in Israel.
Hawida Tzabari was 12 when her father forced her to marry a 20-year-old boy whom she had never met.
“That’s the way it was in Yemen,” she sighs. “They don’t wait until the girl grows up a little. When the father gives the word, the daughter is dressed in a black dress, gold jewelry is put on her and the wedding takes place. Once the father decides, no one can argue. Sometimes a miracle happens and the pair falls in love, or at least learns to live together. It worked for my parents.”
In her case, love wasn’t a part of the deal. According to her, her husband hit her often, and when she fled to her parents’ home, he forced her to return. Eight years ago she escaped from Sana’a to New York, and a year and a half ago she came to Israel. Here she learned Hebrew and changed her name to Judith, Yehudit. But she understood she would never be able to obtain a divorce from her husband, the father of her two daughters, who has remained in Yemen; he told her more than once that she will remain an aguna – a ‘chained woman’ – until the day she dies.
Still, last week a miracle took place, when Hawida’s marriage was officially annulled. In a rare ruling, the Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv stated that the marriage vows were disqualified, according to the laws of Judaism she wasn’t married and therefore was not required to obtain a divorce. “Thank God, thank God,” said Hawida, who at 38 is a grandmother of three grandchildren. She then hugged her sister Nadra (32), a mother of six, for whom a halakhic solution has yet to be found. “God willing a solution will be found soon,” she said.
Hawida and Nadra are two of 12 siblings who grew up in Braida, a village near Sana’a. “We didn’t go to school, only the boys went,” says Hawida. “We the girls didn’t even learn how to read and write. We sat all day with our mother at home and learned how to cook, clean and raise babies. At the age of four, my mom taught me how to be a little mother.”
When Hawida was 12, her father told her, “in a week you’ll be getting married.” She cried bitterly. “I screamed that I don’t want to get married. I’m afraid. I’m still a little girl. I cried to my mother and she said, ‘Nothing can be done, your father has decided.’ In Yemen the mothers have no right to interfere or to express an opinion. I pressured my mother tell my father that I’m still a baby, but it was too late. My father forced me to marry a 20-year-old man and his brother was to marry my sister. This is the custom among Jews in Yemen: two families exchange grooms and brides among themselves in order not to pay a dowry. If my father would have canceled my wedding, he would have had to cancel the other wedding as well.”
Did you meet your future husband?
“No. I was only told me his name. But even if I did know him I wouldn’t have agreed to get married. I was young. My monthly cycle hadn’t even begun. Only on the night before the wedding, apparently because of the pressure I was under, did it suddenly appear.”
So you actually saw your husband for the first time under the marriage canopy?
“No, not even under the marriage canopy. In Yemen there is a partition during the wedding. I had been dressed up in a long black dress that covered my body and face – there were only holes for the eyes. I was told to say ‘Amen’ and did what they told me.”
“Why are you crying?”
The first night the groom slept in her parents’ home, along with her brother, while the bride, Hawida, slept with her mother. “All night I cried to my mother,” she says. “In the morning my husband brought the car and took me to his parents’ house. Only when we got there was I allowed to remove my black scarf and see my husband.” Hawida continued to cry at her husband’s home. “The young couple doesn’t move into a private apartment like in Israel,” she explains. “He took me to his parents’ home, with his brothers and sisters-in-law and cousins, a house with lots of rooms, and from every room we were watched to see how we behaved. I yelled at my husband, ‘I don’t want to sleep with you,’ and he was ashamed that everyone could hear. He forced me to sleep with him and then hit me, and I when I cried loudly he beat me again to make me stop crying.”
During the day she remained at home with her mother-in-law. “I helped her clean and cook for the whole family. My mother-in-law asked me why I cry at night and I told her the truth, that I’m just a child. And she said, ‘What do you want? I was married when I was just nine.’ I prayed that the day wouldn’t end because I knew what would happen after darkness fell. As soon as my husband came into the room I felt like a lion had entered. I was so afraid of him.”
According to custom, during the first month the wife is under total quarantine. A month after the wedding, Hawida’s parents came to visit, and two months after the wedding she was allowed to visit them. “When I got to my parents’ home I sobbed and said I’m not going back to him. I told them that he raped me and beat me and how bad it was. But my father said nothing can be done. If I run away from my husband my sister would have to run away from her husband. That’s the trade-off.”
After her two daughters were born (“he beat me because I didn’t give him a son”) she went to the Arab court and asked for a divorce. “We had no Jewish Court”, she explains. “A rabbi or a judge performed the weddings, and they could divorce the couple if it was consensual, but if the request for a divorce is not consensual, you have to go to the Arab court. The judge there demanded that I bring along my sister and my husband’s brother, and said: ‘Either both couples get divorced, or you should all leave, I am tired of your story.’ My brother-in-law refused to divorce my sister. So we went back to our place and our daily routine: he rapes me, I run away to my parents, and then there are two options: either my husband comes to my parents’ home, slaughters a sheep in their honor and they say, ‘Why are you complaining? You have a good husband,’ or my husband doesn’t come to get me and my father orders me to return to him so as not to come between my sister and her husband.”
Twenty years ago, Hawida mustered up courage and decided not to return to her husband. “In response, he took away my oldest daughter. In Yemen that’s how they treat a woman who escapes. He couldn’t take the little one as she was still nursing. My eldest was sent to the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Jews in New York, grew up there until the age of 12, and when her adoptive parents moved to London, they took her with them and found her a groom. I couldn’t go anywhere because my husband took my passport. When I offered to pay him for a divorce he screamed ‘even if you convert to Islam I won’t grant you a divorce.’ I was sure that I would spend the rest of my life like this, buried alive.”
Nadra’s life was no better. “I was married at the age of 12 and a half,” Nadra emphasizes the last word. “They gave me six more months to be a little girl. But my husband, who was also 20, was much worse than her husband. My older brother, who knew him, came to my father and said: this guy’s not religious at all, doesn’t pray, doesn’t work and only drinks. My brother told my father ‘I’m ready to pay him compensation for canceling the wedding, so that he doesn’t put his hands on my little sister,’ but my father wouldn’t hear of it. The engagement had already been arranged four years earlier, when I was eight years old, and my father didn’t want to break his word. My brother and my mother refused to attend the wedding.”
Nadra says that her husband began abusing her on the first day of their marriage. “He would stand in front of me with a gun, yell at me to get undressed and go on the roof, and there he would rape me in front of everyone. After giving birth the first time I ran away to my parents, so he married another woman – in Yemen men are permitted to marry two wives – and had a child with her. Then he came to my parents’ house, begged me to come back and promised to divorce the second woman, so I returned with my child, but he continued to rape me, even during my monthly cycle, and was very cruel. Even after six children he never stopped hitting me.”
Eight years ago the couple drove to a wedding with their little daughter. While they were on their way, Nadra says that her husband stopped the car and said to her, “Throw the girl out of the car, I want to run her over.” She held on to her daughter with all her strength and shouted, “You’re going to have to kill me before you hurt the child.” Then, she said, he pulled out a gun again. “He pointed the gun to my neck; I felt it on my skin and started to murmur ‘Shma yisrael.’ I guess God heard me. The bullet got stuck in the barrel and wasn’t released. My husband stuck his hand out the window, aimed at the sky and fired the last bullet. This is how I was saved.”
Nadra fled to her parents’ home with her infant daughter. Her older children were sent by her husband to Monsey, New York. “Someone told me that he got drunk at a party and killed a person. The police were looking for him, so I realized it was my chance to escape. I went to the United States Embassy with Hawida. We told our stories, got visas and flew to New York.”
A relative of the sisters who immigrated to Israel 11 years ago, brought them to “Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline,” an organization founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone institutions which employs nine rabbinical court advocates who are trained to assist women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce, a get, and who have lost hope.
“The uniqueness of Yad L’isha is the fact that we don’t fight with the rabbis in the rabbinical courts, but rather work with them,” says attorney Tehilla Cohen, who represented Hawida in court. “The halakha has solutions for difficult cases. In cases involving women from Yemen, the first thing I check is the validity of the marriage. We found a flaw in Hawida’s marriage and it was cancelled. Unfortunately Nadra’s marriage seems to be okay, and her husband can’t leave Yemen because there’s an arrest warrant against him for murder. We hope that he will agree to accept money and settle. Obviously he doesn’t expect Nadra to return to him.”
Nadra lives in Beit Shemesh and visits a psychologist to help her face the fears that still haunt her. Hawida lives in Beersheba, taking care of their elderly parents.
Are you angry with your father?
“There is no reason to be angry,” they say. “That’s what he knew. He didn’t know another way of life.”(Translated from the Hebrew original by Carolyn Gross. Photographs used with permission of Yediot Aharonot and photographer, Yuval Chen.)