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Myth: A religious marriage is merely symbolic

Myth: A religious marriage is merely symbolic

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

When a marriage no longer works, you break up. Divorce proceedings are started and if all goes well, both partners can go on to live their own lives. At least, that is how it works with a civil marriage. But for those who have vowed ever-lasting fidelity in a Roman Catholic church, the protestant congregation, the Jewish or Islamic congregation, encounter numerous problems. A religious marriage is certainly not merely symbolic, argues Pauline Kruiniger, jurist and researcher at Maastricht University.

For her research into marital imprisonment – a situation in which (usually) the woman remains in a marriage against her will because of religious rules or doctrines – she spoke to many ‘victims’. Noor Stevens is one of them, a Dutch woman who married an Egyptian in Egypt. A holiday romance. They went to live in the Netherlands but moved to his homeland a few years later. “He felt like a foreigner in the Netherlands,” says Kruiniger. “As soon as they were in Egypt, Noor was physically and mentally abused by her husband, stripped of all her money and literally a prisoner in her own home.” Eventually, Noor Stevens flees to the Netherlands, where she has been in hiding to this day, “she is being threatened by her husband”. Despite the fact that she ran up against brick walls and closed doors in the Netherlands, including those of the police and aid organisations, she has managed to complete her civil divorce in the Netherlands. At the same time, she is still bound by her religious marriage, because this cannot be annulled here. For this, she is dependent on the Egyptian divorce procedure. Kruiniger knows that this is complex and expensive. “There is also widespread corruption.”
Noor Stevens has set up an organisation to help women who are imprisoned in a religious marriage or those who want to engage in one. She also wrote a book: Kus kus, Bezness (Kiss kiss, Bezness). In her book, she draws special attention to bezness: Western women who go on holiday by themselves to countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, where they meet a “young god” and allow themselves to be charmed, with all its consequences.

Those who think that marital imprisonment only occurs in Muslim communities, are wrong. “The Roman Catholic church does not acknowledge divorce, marriage is a sacrament, no human being can dissolve it,” Kruiniger explains. The only possibility is annulling or dissolving on certain grounds, for example by appealing to the Pope. Although most Roman Catholics are pragmatic in their approach to divorce and opt for a (legal) divorce anyway, there were until recently all kinds of sanctions attached. “For example, you were not allowed to take Communion or were barred from other sacraments, such as anointing of the sick.”
In protestant congregations, the marriage often remains intact as well, because it also has a meaning for the religious congregation. Or take the Jewish faith. Traditionally, the man must offer the divorce letter voluntarily, “he must take the initiative. So, you can imagine what that means for the woman if she no longer wants to be married but he won't act. Research shows that in liberal Jewish circles in the Netherlands, we do see that with a marriage a document is signed with the conditions for a possible divorce. For example, that when a civil marriage is ended, the religious marriage must also be dissolved with a fine of 750 euro per month for the person who doesn't comply.”

“The key issue is that in situations of marital imprisonment, human rights are at stake.” Kruiniger mentions the example of a young academically trained woman from Pakistan who marries a Pakistani in the Netherlands, first during a civil marriage ceremony and a month later for the Islamic faith. Things go wrong when both of her in-laws move in and she finds she has to ask permission for everything. She becomes isolated and is abused, the marriage doesn't work out and she wants a divorce. Her husband refuses to agree to a religious divorce. Eventually, she starts a civil suit based on wrongful act. “He prevents her from getting on with her life.” But taking matters to court is not an option for everyone. Many women are afraid to start proceedings, for example because of their own safety and that of their children, says Kruiniger.
She argues for an adaptation of the civil code, so that both partners at the time of dissolving their civil marriage are obliged to also co-operate in the annulment of their religious marriage. For the time being, she hopes that there will be at least more information, to prevent marital imprisonment. “The people whom we address first, are those who start relationships: secondary-school pupils. Information should also be available at embassies, consultation agencies, local government offices, lawyers, notaries and schools.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics



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