Many women in the Netherlands are locked in a marriage; under Dutch law, they are divorced, but according to their religion, they are still married. A special helpline for such women was launched this week - Femmes for Freedom.
Being imprisoned in a religious marriage can have dire consequences. Muslim women, for example, who have remarried or have a new partner, often risk arrest when visiting their lands of origin. They can face prosecution for adultery - and sentences of stoning or hanging, depending on the country.
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Women in this situation are usually not arrested the moment they arrive at the airport; local police often only take action after they are informed of the situation by the women’s relatives or acquaintances.
In the Netherlands, women can be put under great pressure to remain locked in marriages by relatives who fear scandal and disgrace. This is largely an unseen problem as few women in this position dare be open about their dilemma.
One exception is Shirin Musa of the Pakistani-Dutch community. She married a Pakistani Muslim man in 2002 and, in 2005, the couple went through with an Islamic wedding.
In 2008, Ms Musa’s husband said he wanted to separate. They were divorced under Dutch law but the man refused to agree to a religious divorce.
Ms Musa appears to be the first Muslim woman who has had her religious marriage ended by a Dutch court. In fact, the Dutch judge simply imposed 250-euro damages on her ex-husband for every day he refused to end the religious marriage.
The judge was convinced by Ms Musa’s argument that her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights were being breached. Her ex-husband quickly complied with the court order and the religious marriage was dissolved.
Roman Catholic and Hindu women also risk being locked in marriages they don’t want. Jewish women face similar problems if their ex-husbands refuse to agree to religious divorce. If the woman begins a new relationship or has children, she can be considered as bringing shame upon her family.
Jewish marriages do appear easier to dissolve in the Netherlands than is the case with Islamic ones. Lawyer Danusia Bialkowski who represented Shirin Musa says Jewish couples often have it written into their Dutch pre-nuptial agreement that the man won’t refuse to co-operate with a religious divorce if this is desired by the woman. Ms Bialkowski points out that rabbis accept these agreements.
Femmes for Freedom
Drawing on her own experience, Sharin Musa last year set up Femmes for Freedom to fight against both imprisonment in marriage and forced marriages. She says she knows directly of nearly 20 women who are locked in marriages against their will.
Her organisation aims to combat this kind of abuse both in the Netherlands and abroad. A helpline has now been set up and it is hoped in the future to train ‘buddies’ who will support women during legal proceedings.
Ms Musa believes it is important that political measures are introduced. MPs are due to hold round table discussions on the issues next month. Femmes for Freedom is pushing for draft legislation on forced marriage to cover imprisonment in marriage as well. Outgoing Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten is considering the proposal, according to a spokesperson, although the issue is said to be far from simple.