'I was a housewife at 14 but nobody seemed to care'

A fake reality show trailer shines light on the real issue of US child marriage

Founded by a former Haredi woman, the organization Unchained at Last releases ‘Unseen Housewives’ to raise awareness that such arrangements are still legal in 43 states

Fraidy Reiss is the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a non-profit that’s been battling arranged and forced marriages for the past 12 years. (Photo copyright Susan Landman via JTA)
Fraidy Reiss is the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a non-profit that’s been battling arranged and forced marriages for the past 12 years. (Photo copyright Susan Landman via JTA)

JTA — A three-minute trailer teases a new reality show called “Unseen Housewives,” and features women describing their experiences as child brides in forced marriages.

“I was groomed by a pedophile at age 14 and married by age 16,” one of four young women in the trailer tells the camera.

“I turned into a housewife at 14 but no one seemed to care when it happened,” says another.

There is no such reality show, although the trailer, making the rounds on social media, is describing a real issue. The video was produced for Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that’s been battling forced and child marriages for the past 12 years.

Founded by a woman who left what she calls an abusive forced marriage in a haredi Orthodox community in Brooklyn, Unchained At Last hopes the video will draw attention to its efforts to outlaw marriage for children under the age of 18, regardless of their background.

“We’re trying to solve a problem that most people don’t even know exists,” said Fraidy Reiss, Unchained At Last’s founder and executive director. “Most Americans have no idea that child marriage is legal in the US. Child marriage is a nightmarish legal trap.”

Unchained At Last has led a campaign that has outlawed child marriage in seven states, including New Jersey and New York. Legislation prohibiting marriage until the age of 18 is currently pending in 11 states: Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, South Carolina, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, California, New Mexico, Washington and Hawaii. The organization is particularly optimistic about the chances for passage in Vermont and Connecticut. Reiss said the group expects similar legislation to be introduced in Michigan this week.

The idea for the video came from Bruno Guimaraes, the creative director at Area 23, a Manhattan ad agency that specializes in healthcare campaigns, said Reiss. Guimaraes’s wife, the psychiatrist Morgan Fallor, interviewed survivors of child marriage and prepared their stories for the project.

Guimaraes’s colleague, Jihane Ghostine, produced the “Unseen Housewives” video.

“I just wanted to shed light on this topic,” Ghostine said. “I come originally from Lebanon where it’s actually legal to marry at a very young age. I think through our art and our crafts, we are maybe able to change the world in some kind of way. And this is what pushed me to do this.”

Ghostine said Gustavo Lemme, the director for the trailer, came from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to helm the video. The actresses who appeared in the trailer worked at a discounted rate because they support the cause, she said.

The lines in the video are based on the real-life stories of women who were married when they were legally considered children. The trailer was shot in Tampa, Florida.

Reiss, married at 19, left her marriage after 12 years and went on to attend Rutgers University. In 2011, after working as a reporter at the Asbury Park Press and as a private investigator at Kroll, the global investigations company, she founded Unchained At Last. Initially it helped both Jewish and non-Jewish women leave arranged and forced marriages and seek custody of their children in civil court. Reiss now describes herself as “a devout atheist.”

The organization has since begun pushing for legislation prohibiting marriage for children — which is legal in 43 states with parental consent or judicial approval. Opponents say child marriage is related to sexual exploitation, increased poverty, a higher risk of health complications and lower educational attainment.

Although the issue crosses various social and religious lines, Reiss has sometimes found herself facing off against Orthodox Jewish communities like the one she left and where, she said, friends were already married in high school. In 2018, the Haredi advocacy group Agudath Israel of America called the New Jersey legislation too strict, saying it wanted to see an exemption made for older teenagers who want to wed. The bill stalled under Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and was signed into law by his Democratic successor, Phil Murphy.

Reiss hopes the “Unseen Housewives” trailer will go viral on social media. She plans to screen it during her spring travels to promote Unchained At Last’s legislative agenda.

The group plans to continue with its “chain-in” events, in which women wearing wedding dresses appear in street protests with chains on their wrists and their mouths taped shut. More than 100 wedding gowns, some dating back to the 1940s, have been donated for the demonstrations.

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