Speaking in a trailer for the documentary “Knots: A Forced Marriage Story” about her arranged marriage at 19 to an abusive husband in the chasidic community, Fraidy Reiss says, “That’s one of the things that bothers me the most,” her voice cracking. “How could I have been so gullible?”
The feature-length film, by writer and director Kate Ryan Brewer, explores forced marriage in the United States through the eyes of three survivors turned advocates: Reiss of Westfield, Sara Tasmeen of California, and Nina Van Harn of Michigan.
“Knots” had its premiere at the Omaha Film Festival in Nebraska on March 4, with Reiss in attendance. (In light of the public health situation, Reiss canceled her scheduled March 14 appearance at the Manchester Film Festival for its British premiere, where “Knots” won Best Documentary Feature honors.) As of yet, screenings of the film in New Jersey have not been scheduled.
“My hope now is that this film will be the wake-up call that the country needs,” she told NJJN in a phone conversation.
Reiss founded Unchained at Last in 2012 to advocate for the end of forced and arranged marriages. It took the Brooklyn native years to get out of her own marriage. Her family and others urged her to “adapt” and stay with him in Lakewood, where they lived as members of the fervently Orthodox chasidic community, despite her husband’s violence and threats. But she found her own way out, attending Rutgers University (and graduated as class valedictorian) and, after being married for a dozen years, she left her husband — and the community.
“I am dead — it’s true,” she often tells audience members at speaking engagements; at least that’s how her family regards her.
After founding Unchained at Last, she also fell into advocacy around the related issue of child marriage, which, she discovered, is legal in most states. So along with her other work, Reiss started campaigning to pass legislation that would ban marriage, with no exceptions, for those under the age of 18. She often says when she speaks, it’s a no-brainer to ban marriage for girls who aren’t yet old enough to file for a divorce.
So far just two states, New Jersey and Delaware, have passed such laws, and 10 states have legislation pending. Reiss and her staff and volunteers hold regular “chain-in” demonstrations in places where laws are pending: Wearing wedding gowns and veils, they chain their arms and tape their mouths shut, symbolizing the need for legislative action to end the practice.
Reiss’s advocacy has garnered plenty of media attention over the years, including through television, radio, print, and on-line op-ed pieces and interviews. Besides Unchained having been featured twice before in the pages of NJJN, Reiss and her organization have been featured and/or discussed in The New York Times and Buzzfeed News, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks, and other public lectures. Most recently, she was part of chain-ins in New Hampshire and Minnesota, where, she said, it was minus 29 degrees outside the statehouse.
An op-ed Reiss wrote in The Washington Post a few years back caught the eye — and the Twitter feed — of Chelsea Clinton, who gave her a shout-out. In response, Reiss invited her to collaborate, and the former first daughter accepted. Last summer Reiss learned that Clinton and her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wanted to include her in “The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience” (Simon & Schuster, 2019), their account about pioneers, leaders, educators, and social activists who have inspired them. When a staffer e-mailed Reiss to get her permission, she recalled that her “exact” response was, “Does this mean Hillary knows who I am? OMG, I cannot breathe right now.” She added, “It was not a tough decision.”
Even so, it’s clear upon speaking with Reiss that the widespread recognition of her work is far less important than the work itself: her unceasing advocacy for women and girls.
When NJJN called her a few weeks ago, she had been watching New Hampshire politicians debate the state bill on TV. She turned down the volume and said, “Sometimes I just want to walk outside and just yell because it’s so obvious, it’s so simple: Child marriage is a human rights abuse, it destroys girls’ lives. It’s so infuriating to watch legislators just not give a crap about girls.
“How, how can you sleep or rest well, when that’s still going on?” Reiss continued. “These girls are reaching out to us and asking for help, and we have to tell them there’s nothing we can do to help you.”
According to research conducted by Unchained at Last, 240,000 children under 18 were married in one decade, mostly girls who were married to adult men. According to Reiss, the organization has helped close to 600 women escape forced marriages through its direct services, and she said she feels really good about using her own trauma as a force to assist other women. Still, it can be complicated when girls under 18 call the organization. But now, when girls in New Jersey or Delaware call, Reiss said she can tell them the practice is no longer legal.
“The impact is real and the lives are real,” she said, “and these are girls, instead of being pulled out of school and raped, are now going to have a future…. That’s what keeps us going.”
Shifting her attention to the film, Reiss said she first watched it at a private screening for cast and crew while sitting in the front row with the other women featured in the documentary. “We held hands through the entire film, all three of us,” she said. “It was very sweet.”
At the public premiere in Omaha, the film received a standing ovation, Brewer, the filmmaker, told NJJN. “People asked really engaging and insightful questions. They wanted to know what they could do to end forced and child marriage,” she said, which, of course, is the goal of the film.
Reiss said she was gratified that the audience reacted with all the shock and horror she had anticipated. “I hope it will put us on the map,” she said. “I hope the people who never got the message get it now.”