Patriarchal structures in religious communities, practices, and texts influence the culture and habits created around each religious community. This includes the range of customs and practices within marriage and divorce. Beyond this, gender roles and dynamics have an impact in marriage and within the religious clergy. In my research of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, I have become versed in a range of religious customs and traditions within marriage and divorce, and how some of these practices can be used as a form of discrimination and oppression against women in the religious congregation.*

When looking at these customs and practices, a main stressor in the dynamics of marriage in both Christianity and Judaism is divorce, whereas in Islam there is a heavy influence on a contract in marriage. 

In Christianity, marriage is a ritual that is done in the presence of God, meaning that a couple commits themselves to the relationship in the presence of God. Because of this, divorce is feared as people equate it to having a broken relationship with God, leading to a mindset of being unable to leave an abusive or toxic situation thinking that leaving your partner means breaking a promise to God. A solution to this form of thinking comes from the idea that marriage is a covenant just as the church community is. Therefore, a partner acting in an abusive or psychologically manipulative way breaks that covenant, warranting a separation. That does not mean the person’s relationship with God is being broken, but rather that the covenant between partners has been broken and both partners have the agency to act on that. 

In Judaism, rather than a struggle between the couple and God, there is a contractual disagreement that hinders someone from leaving an abusive situation. In custom Jewish law, a man and a woman enter a marriage through a contractual agreement that belongs to the woman, giving her the power over the agreement. If a person in the marriage wants to leave, they can, but both parties must agree if divorce is to happen under Jewish law. This would mean that they would need to obtain a Get from one another, which is a rite of religious divorce. While this protects a woman from being abandoned, it can also prevent a woman from being able to leave, making her an Agunah, meaning the chained woman. The withholding of a Get is a form of abuse that allows for the emotional and psychological manipulation of a woman to continue well after anything else has ended within their marriage. Withholding a Get under Jewish law can withhold a woman from getting remarried or continuing her life apart from her husband. Women suffer in the status of Agunah for decades, gaining their freedom when their husband passes away or even when a Rabbinical court forces the husband to give a Get. There are a range of organizations that will work to put pressure on a man to give his wife a Get. Along with this, there are different types of statues that are being tried to help both in the Rabbinical and the civil courts in Israel.

In Islam, originating over 1,400 years ago, a marriage practice is a contract known as Nikah, which means conjugation or uniting. Nikah allows couples to discuss major aspects of their marriage before they become husband and wife and the couple is free to make their marriage agreement as detailed as they like. These decisions include places to live, career choices, children, and other major aspects of a marriage. It allows for each person in the marriage to ensure their goals and beliefs are being incorporated into the marriage. The contract also legalizes intercourse, makes children legitimate, and details the responsibilities of the spouses.

The rights and duties listed are different based on gender. In this contract, detailing the rights of the wife is the best way to protect the woman in the relationship both in the marriage and in the case of divorce. Although, many women do not know or do not get to read their contract before marriage. It takes away their rights to read the contract and dictate their role in the marriage, divorce, and money in the case of divorce. The contract can limit a woman’s ability to make decisions for herself, leading to toxic situations that are hard to leave. Furthermore, a lack of communication while making the contractual agreement limits a woman’s agency in her relationship and can cause an abusive situation.

Each religion has their own customs and traditions in marriage and divorce and these can also range based on the style of the religion being practiced. Regardless, from this comparison it is clear that in each religion, patriarchal structures and laws limit a woman’s agency and can create abusive situations in a marriage. While there are organizations and individuals working to help women gain the ability to dictate their future within marriage and divorce, there are still steps that need to be taken to equalize the patriarchal structures of marriage and divorce. 

Author: Sascha Shroff

*Please note that practicing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish people’s situations will vary greatly depending on what school of thought they follow, their sect, their cultural traditions, and a variety of other factors.