At their first meeting, he barely said a word. Yasmin thought he was shy, or perhaps a bit embarrassed by the situation: They were going to be wed, and here, surrounded by family, they were seeing each other for the first time.
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Yasmin, from an Arab town in the north, was 30 at the time and felt pressured. “I’d reached this age without marrying, and all my acquaintances and my family in the village treated me like a freak, as if I were worth less than other women who were already mothers,” she said. “My brother told me this was my last chance for a wedding, and that I’d be a disgrace to the family if I didn’t marry. His family also put pressure on me, and on my mother.”
“Only after the wedding did I realize his condition,” she added. Her husband was developmentally disabled.
Yasmin (a fictitious name, like the names of all the brides in this article), is one of dozens of Israeli Arab women who, upon reaching their late twenties or early thirties, were pushed by their families into marrying developmentally disabled men so they wouldn’t be old maids.
“We know of dozens of cases like this in northern communities,” said social worker Emile Semaan, who heads an administrative forum for welfare workers in Arab towns. Only after the wedding do these women discover that their husbands “don’t function like other people.”
Yet not all these women are unhappy with the results of the conspiracy against them. Some discover that a developmentally disabled husband gives them power, control and freedom that other Arab women can only dream about.
Welfare workers have no hard data on the extent of the matter, though the women tricked into such marriages are usually poor and have little education. But a study recently published in “Chevra V’revacha,” a social work journal published by the Labor Ministry, sheds some light on the issue.
The researchers interviewed 12 women married to developmentally disabled men. They found that 75 percent weren’t aware of their husband’s condition before they married; half said they were pressured into the marriage.
“Your parents and the people around you begin exerting very heavy pressure,” said Iman, one of the interviewees. “’What happened? Why haven’t you married yet? What’s wrong with you?’ Every woman’s goal is to marry and have her own home, children and a husband.”
The study was conducted by Prof. Roni Strier of the University of Haifa’s School of Social Work and Ilham Zidan, a social worker in charge of developmentally disabled people at the welfare department of the Arab town of Jadeidi-Makr. It found that most of the women agreed to enter the union because marriage is so important in Arab society and single women have very low status.
All the women said they aspired to be wives and mothers, regarded marriage as an achievement and considered it vital to improving their economic and social status. They also saw it as the only way to have sex and children. Essentially, the women suffered from triple discrimination: as Arabs, as women and as spinsters.
“I was always wondering when it would be my turn to get married,” said Fatma, adding that what finally pushed her into marriage was seeing so many women around her, including those younger than her, already wed.
But the biggest reason why women wed developmentally disabled men is simply because they don’t know who they are marrying. “They didn't meet the man more than once or twice before the wedding,” said Strier, and even then, they did so under their family’s watchful eye.
“This doesn’t allow the woman to understand the situation, and they don’t explain it to her,” he continued. “The women said they felt there was something unusual about the men’s behavior, but hoped they could change that in the future.”
The men’s families, he added, are grateful that “the problem has been solved – now, there’s someone to take care of him.”
Pressure from the groom’s family always plays a role, but the bride’s family cooperates. A full 83 percent of the women interviewed said their brothers were actively involved in the process.
Laila said she realized after the first meeting that her intended was nothing like what she had been promised, and wept. When her brother asked why she was upset, she told him, “I don’t want this groom.” He shouted at her and even slapped her.
“I shut up because I was powerless,” she added. “At that moment, I felt my life had become a tragedy.”
Strier said the women’s families rarely use physical violence, but they do apply pressure. The women acquiesce because “the alternatives look worse to her.”
Yet even if the women are disappointed at first, many grow to like the situation. The marriage not only improved their status, they said, but also gave them more power and control than other Arab women have. Effectively, they are the heads of their families and they run the house, without any man telling them what to do.
Fatma, for instance, said her husband's family doesn't meddle at all; she can come and go as she pleases. Moreover, she’s the one who gets his disability allowance, and her in-laws “don’t interfere with what I want to buy.”
In marriages like this, the groom’s family is usually wealthier than the bride’s family, which usually leaves the woman better off financially after the marriage. And while caring for her husband is a burden, for the most part she doesn’t bear it alone, Zidan said; the husband’s family typically provides some help.
Most social workers and other professionals aren’t unequivocally against such marriages, since they recognize that there are some advantages for the woman. Strier and Zidan reached the same conclusion, saying that even though these marriages arise from oppression and coercion, they can often give women freedom of choice, power and autonomy.
One woman, Amal, said that isn’t the only benefit: she sees her husband’s “serenity” as a huge advantage compared to the stories she hears of what happens in other women’s homes.
“Many women marry men who seem to have wonderful personalities, and in the end, they drive them crazy,” she said. “When you see someone whose husband beats her, or a separated woman living with her parents, I look at my situation. Thank God, my situation is better than theirs.”
Yasmin, who is now 35, views her marriage very differently than she did immediately after the wedding. “I treat him as if he were another one of my babies,” she said. “So I have three children and no husband. That doesn’t bother me. All my friends would like to be as free as I am, without the man and his family telling them what to do."
“I love him, believe it or not,” she added. “He’s a good man and he makes me laugh, and it’s good living with him... God gave me a gift when He sent him to me, and today, I understand that.”