The life-long physical and psychological trauma caused by child marriage highlighted in stories from Jerusalem
Child Mother, featured at this year’s Human Rights Watch film festival in London, is a heart-wrenching rendition of stories of the lives of mothers. This powerful documentary, created by Israeli filmmaker Ronen Zaretsky with his wife Yael Kipper, tells of five mothers – Esther, Naomi, Hana, Rumia and Soshana – recalling their life stories to their children for the first time. What these women share with each other, and with thousands of other women from the region is that they were all married as children, sold between the ages of 8 and 12 to men as much as 40 years their senior.
Screened at London’s Barbican Centre, the documentary begins with Esther. Now 84 years old and living in Jerusalem, Esther was born in Morocco and forced to marry a much older man when she was 10. Esther explains to her daughter that, in her mind, this simply signified the prospect of new clothes and a party and so, almost by accident, she married for the first time. Upon grasping what marriage genuinely entailed, and realising that she did not want to marry this older man, she absconded multiple times but her parents repeatedly sent her back. She describes one occasion where she hid under a hay bale in a barn for three days with no food or water: “God didn’t let me die, He let me run.” Her persistence led to her first divorce, and at 14, she was married again to the man who would later be the father of her children.
The stories of these women, as well as the multiple other testimonies followed a similar vein. They all begin with an innocent sense of ‘knowing nothing’ – none of these women, as girls, understood what marriage was, what it involved, what these older men wanted, what it would mean for them in the future: being deprived of choice for the rest of their lives. It would seem for the perpetrators of these marriages (their families, no less) that there is an age, a window of opportunity, where a young girl is desirable but childlike. Where she becomes Nabokov’s Nymphet. Where her body is growing and changing but her mind is still learning, adapting, exploring. Where she is malleable, impressionable, never having seen a woman say “no” to a man before, or dare to fight against a life that has been decided for her. This unchallenging (in most) naiveté was inevitably followed by the realisation of what 40-year-old men want from 12-year-old girls when they marry them. Not only did these women describe multiple episodes of rape, followed by escape, followed by recapture, followed again by rape, but also of what came of multiple resultant pregnancies. Esther told her daughters of one child who was stillborn – with an unfeeling, almost indifferent, look on her face, and proceeded to relate to them of how she had self-aborted multiple other pregnancies later. This entire trauma was followed by a lifetime of loveless marriages to ageing husbands unable to work, while these women had to work night and day as cleaners, labourers, maids, mothers and carers for the men who had claimed the remainder of their childhoods.
Zaretsky and Kippur’s method of capturing these compelling stories as told by mother to child brings an element to this film which may not have been achieved by conducting conventional interviews. One quickly realises that the viewer is being shown the moment when sons and daughters are hearing for the first time that their fathers have raped their mothers repeatedly, that they had never wanted their children, that Rumia laughed when her husband died because she had never loved him and consequently she says her heart is now made of stone.
One can notice a stark difference between the reactions of the sons and the daughters upon hearing their mother’s stories, particularly in the response of Hana’s son, Avi. “He used to beg for forgiveness morning till night – he knew what he did,” Hana told her son. She told him that the Rabbi who was to marry them took her uncle aside before the wedding and admonished him for what he was complicit in doing, saying, “Have you thought about what kind of life that girl will have with that old man?” I couldn’t help but notice the misogyny that flowed from his comments, the apologist remarks of ‘but he was a man’. Not that I’m blaming him. Because his whole life he has witnessed his mother bending over backwards to cater to his father. Perhaps not realising until now that his mother does not like to be touched, not even by her own son. The misogyny crosses the generational line, wielding the natural lack of choice for women.
Touched upon by Zaretsky in the Q&A following the screening, the pasts these women have been holding and guarding are not uncommon in today’s Israel – indeed, thousands of Jews who migrated from surrounding regions have suffered similar experiences. It is also not something exclusive to the Jewish community, despite the documentary solely focusing on Jewish women in Israel who were previously married off in Morocco and Yemen. UNICEF estimates that there are currently 700 million women globally who were married as children (Israel doesn’t even make it into the top 20 countries where child marriage is most prevalent).
The honesty and sense of intimacy within Child Mother allows us, as viewers, not only to understand the pain the women have been through, but how it has so deeply infiltrated their families and their notions of love. This honesty (despite being caught unawares that the film is supported by the Israel Film Fund, something to be wary of given Israel’s attack on the BDS movement) was what drove home the realisation of the chronic, visceral, rippling damage that stems from a patriarchal community crippling women psychologically, physically and intellectually from childhood.
See more reviews from this year’s HRWFF London as they are published.
Photo: London Human Rights Watch Film Festival
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