Freedom of Marriage World Map

Worldwide Freedom of Marriage Project

Methodology - Same-Sex Marriage - Summary of the Findings - Freedom of Marriage in Israel

Introduction and aims of the project

The Freedom of Marriage World Map is a unique document produced by Hiddush - Freedom of Religion for Israel that examines and compares the status of freedom of marriage around the world. The main and original purpose of the map was to investigate Israel's standing on freedom of marriage in comparison to world standards. The comparison emphasizes the fact that although Israel is a democratic and liberal state, it ranks among some of the most fundamentalist countries in the Islamic world on this issue. This project has been undertaken in the hope of promoting a change in Israel's policy that will allow full freedom of marriage, hence recognizing secular civil marriages and marriages conducted by all religious affiliations.

To our surprise, there was no such comparative list in existence. The broad research work done by Natasha Roth, and project manager and Hiddush spokesman, Miki Sokolovsky, created a document which is the first of its kind. Research assistance was provided by Hiddush staff members Adam Ross and Nataly Pritikovski. Alongside the map, there is a user-friendly table that contains information about each country. The map contains around 160 countries and the table- 194 countries. The discrepancy is due to the difficulty in showing smaller countries in the map. Some particularly small countries are not mentioned in the table either, due to lack of sufficient information on their status of freedom of marriage.

We hope this map will be valuable not only to Israeli organizations and individuals, but also to other groups that are working to promote freedom of religion and equality around the world. The map's website was designed and built by Lionways. Many of the wonderful pictures that appear on the site are used with permission by photographer Tara McMullen and we thank her for her assistance. The project was edited by Hiddush's Vice President for Research and Information, Shahar Ilan. The mini-site was created with assistance from the New Israel Fund.


The research included almost every independent UN-member country and several additional entities. The following rating system was used:

0- Severe restrictions on freedom of marriage;

1- Partial restrictions on freedom of marriage, meaning: significant discrimination in certain areas or a number of minor restrictions;

2- Complete or almost complete freedom of marriage.

A wide variety of sources were examined in order to reach a consistent and fair evaluation of the status of freedom of marriage around the world. Two of the main sources for the project consisted of yearly reports of the United States Department of State: The Freedom of Religion Report and the Human Rights Report for each country. Other sites that were consulted for the project were the Gender Index, The European Council site, U.S. and United Kingdom embassy sites, and information provided by the World Bank. In the table, a link has been provided to the main source for each country.

The vast majority of countries that were given the grade of "0" are those in which the marriage laws are based on a strict conservative interpretation of the dominant religion and in which no civil alternative to religious marriage is available. These are predominantly countries in which Islamic Sharia law serves as the legal framework for marriage.

A country can be included in the "0" category if it allows formal freedom of marriage, but has serious infringements on actual freedom of marriage in practice.  For example, the combination of discrimination against women in marriage laws and the widespread practice of underage marriage constitute a grade of "0." A frequent reason for the failure to protect freedom of marriage in practice is that these countries, especially in Africa, allow parallel legal marriage systems, such as customary or Muslim laws, alongside civil registry. This creates severe discrimination against women and often allows underage marriages, forced marriage, and polygamy.

The grade of "1" was given to countries under several different circumstances. Often, this is due to marriage laws that infringe on the freedom of marriage in practice. One example of this is a law that defines an excessively young legal marriage age for women. Countries where formal freedom of marriage exists but is not respected in practice also received a grade of "1." This could be, for example, underage marriage on a relatively limited scale. This can occur either because of recognition of religious and customary marriage laws or because certain population sectors (especially in rural areas) ignore the law. There are often other social and cultural reasons that limit freedom of marriage and cause the country to receive the grade of "1." This often happens in countries with caste systems, where marriage between individuals from different castes is often forbidden or culturally unacceptable.

In countries that received the highest grade of "2" there are almost no restrictions or no restrictions at all on freedom of marriage. Civil marriages are recognized and different religious groups are free to perform religious marriage ceremonies.  Grade "2" was also given to countries where the law only recognizes the validity of civil marriage, but not religious ceremonies. The logic behind this standard comes from the fact that a religious option is not forbidden and citizens are free to marry in a religious ceremony without government involvement.

We are happy to receive questions and comments regarding the map, table, and the site's content as well as new information. We are available through the "Contact us" form on the site or through

Same-Sex Marriage

The table uses icons to note which countries permit marriage of same-sex couples or civil unions. Please visit the article on "The Status of Same-Sex Marriages" for more information. Additionally, since there are not enough countries around the world that recognize this marriage option, we did not take same-sex marriage into consideration when grading the countries.

The summary does, however, shows constant progress. 34 countries already provide the foundational right for same-sex couples to formalize their relationship through marriage or civil union. Freedom of marriage for heterosexual couples is a prerequisite for freedom of marriage for same-sex couples. The only country that recognizes same-sex options for couplehood that did not receive a "2" was Venezuela, which received the grade of "1."

Summary of the findings

Freedom of marriage or a status close to freedom of marriage (grade of 2) exists in almost half of the world's countries (93 countries or 48%). In general, stable democracies that practice liberal policies in different areas of personal status grant their citizens the widest variety of marriage options. This characteristic usually exists alongside separation of religion and state. Almost all countries in Europe and around 75% of countries in the Americas allow full or almost full freedom of marriage. The principle religion of 82 of the 93 countries in which freedom of marriage exists (88%) is Christianity.

56 countries (29%) received the grade of "1," reflecting limited freedom of marriage. More than half of these (30) are Christian. One-third of the countries (17) are Muslim. 44 of the countries (79%) are located in Asia and Africa. Only one country (Albania) is located in Europe.

Overall, 45 countries (which is close to one-quarter of the world's countries - 23%) received the grade of "0", which represents severe restrictions on freedom of marriage. 33 of the countries, equaling 73%, are Muslim countries. Among the Islamic countries in this category are Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Only 8 are Christian countries. Israel is the only Western democracy that has received this grade. It is also relevant to note that all of Israel's neighbors - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority - received a "0." Although the legal status of the Palestinian Authority is controversial, it remains important to discuss the lack of freedom of marriage under its jurisdiction.

In Islamic countries, severe restrictions over the freedom of marriage are usually derived from the standing of Sharia law as the only legal framework recognized in matters of personal status. In most of the countries that received the grade of "0", restrictions over freedom of marriage are accompanied by severe violations of human rights. Most of the countries in this category are theocratic countries, countries which legislate customary laws, or totalitarian regimes.

The map shows a clear geographic picture of a strong core of countries that severely restrict freedom of marriage. North, East, and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Western and Central Asia create a large black area in the center of the map. This core is surrounded from the east (Asia) and the south (South and West Africa) by a large number of countries in which there are partial restrictions over freedom of marriage. They create the two large grey areas on the map.

In the north, west, and southeast regions of the globe (the four continents colored in white: the Americas, Europe, and Oceania), there is almost full freedom of marriage. Europe gives the clearest picture: 44 out of the 46 countries provide their citizens with freedom of marriage. In one country (Albania) there are restrictions over freedom of marriage. In the Vatican, there are severe restrictions over freedom of marriage. In the Americas and Oceania combined, 12 countries received the grade of "1" due to restrictions over freedom of marriage. (This is out of 45 countries, constituting around one-quarter, although many are very small countries.) Only one country in these continents (Papua New Guinea) received the grade of "0." For analysis purposes, Central American countries were categorized with North America.

In Asia, 21 countries (44% of the continent's governments received the grade of "0"). 19 countries in Asia are governed by Islamic Sharia law. The remaining two are North Korea, which has a class-based system that puts severe limitations over the freedom of marriage; and Israel, in which the religious monopoly on marriage prevents many of its citizens from marrying within its borders. The Buddhist and Hindu countries and the former USSR states in Asia are divided between countries that enjoy significant freedom of marriage (11 countries received the grade of "2") and countries in which occurrences of discrimination against women and underage marriages are prevalent (16 countries received the grade of "1").

Only five of the 55 countries in Africa (less than 10%) received the grade of "2". 28 countries, or just under half the continent, received a grade of "1" and 22 received the grade of "0." North African countries received the grade of "0" due to Sharia law dictating marriage policy. Many of the other African countries received the grade "0" or "1" for other reasons, Some examples for this grade include: recognition of several parallel legal systems for marriage; customary or religious laws causing discrimination against women and/or underage marriages; forced marriages; and in some cases polygamy. In other countries, even though the law dictates freedom of marriage, customary laws continue to influence marriage practice, causing all or some of the aforementioned problems.

In 120 countries (close to two-thirds of the world's countries) the dominant religion is Christianity. In these countries more than two-thirds (82 countries) have freedom of marriage. Only eight Christian countries experience severe restrictions that warrant the grade of "0". In 53 countries, the dominant religion is Islam. Only three of these countries (6%) enjoy freedom of marriage. In 33 of these countries, or close to two-thirds of the Islamic world, there are severe restrictions in marriage laws (grade of "0"). In 14 countries, the dominant religion is Buddhism or Hinduism; half of these received a grade of "2" and the other half received "1." None of these countries featured severe restrictions on freedom of marriage.

Freedom of Marriage in Israel

Israel received the grade of "0" due to severe restrictions that limit the options for legal marriage and discriminate against certain populations. These severe restrictions on freedom of marriage put Israel alongside countries that are among the worst offenders of violating marriage rights.

Israeli law permits only religious marriages held by religious testimony, and does not allow civil marriages. Among the Jewish population, the Chief Rabbinate, which operates according to Orthodox Jewish standards, has a monopoly over marriage. Only those who are recognized as Jews according to Orthodox Jewish law can get married in Israel.This status quo comes in spite of data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), which shows that only 19% of the Jewish population defines themselves as Orthodox and 81% are defined as secular or "traditional." Members of other religions can only marry spouses of the same religion and only by their own recognized religious authority.

The result is that no interfaith or non-religious marriages are allowed. More than 300,000 citizens (4% of the country's population) are defined as "Without Religion". These are mainly immigrants from the former USSR and their descendants whose natural growth is approaching 5,000 newborns per year. The background of this problem stems from the Law of Return which allows up to second generation descendants of Jews and their spouses to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship, but prevents them from getting married.This also applies to individuals whose fathers or grandfathers are Jewish but their mother or grandmother is not. They are excluded due to Orthodox Jewish law which stipulates that Judaism is determined by the mother. Citizens that are categorized as "Without Religion" are usually descendants of a Jewish father or grandfather and a non-Jewish mother or grandmother.

There are also individuals who are Jewish according to Orthodox law, but who lose their marriage rights in certain circumstances. Those defined by the rabbinical authorities as illegitimate (born to a women who conceived a child with a man who is not her husband) are considered ineligible for marriage. Divorced women are not allowed to marry men who carry any of the traditional "Cohen" family names (denoting families who are considered to be the direct descendants of the ancient Israelite priests and who, by law, are forbidden from marrying divorcees and converts).

The State of Israel only recognizes Jewish marriages that are officiated by recognized Orthodox rabbis. Marriages conducted by rabbis of any other Jewish affiliation (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) are not recognized. The Law of Return recognizes converts who converted in a non-Orthodox ceremony. They are allowed to receive Israeli citizenship, but the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jews and does not consider them eligible for Jewish marriage. This creates a situation in which converts who joined Judaism through progressive movements and in some cases, Orthodox converts who converted by moderate Orthodox rabbis, cannot get married in Israel.

The Orthodox monopoly similarly denies many couples the right to marriage according to their belief. Secular, non-Orthodox and moderate Orthodox Jews fall into this category. This is partly due to the non-egalitarian characteristics of the Orthodox ceremony. Many of these couples choose to get married abroad, and others do not get married at all.

Due to Israeli Supreme Court rulings from the 1960s, the Ministry of Interior registers and accepts civil marriages held abroad. These marriages are usually held in nearby Cyprus, Italy, and the former USSR. It should be emphasized that there are different registration parameters. The question of the validity of civil marriages that were held abroad has yet to be decided in Israel, and there are many contradicting opinions and rulings on this matter.

According to Israel's CBS data, in 2010, 9,262 couples reported to the Ministry of the Interior that they married abroad. This compares to the 47,855 couples that were married in Israel in the same year. This means that 16% of the marriages of Israelis were held abroad. It is relevant to note that Jewish couples that have chosen to wed in civil marriages abroad are subject to the authority of the rabbinical religious courts if they want to get divorced. The Orthodox religious law that guides these courts often discriminates against women. One of the most significant areas of discrimination is the husband's ability to refuse to grant his wife a divorce. This greatly disadvantages the wife and potentially allows the husband to blackmail her into remaining married to him.

Hiddush annualy publishes the Religion and State Index, a public opinion survey conducted through the Rafi Smith Research Institute to measure the public's stance on issues of religion and state in Israel. Since the first study was conducted four years ago, all of the results have indicated that 60% of Israelis want the government to recognize a wider variety of marriage options, including civil marriage and ceremonies conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis. Additional surveys and research projects that have been conducted by different organizations similarly note that there is a large amount of public support for civil marriage in Israel. This clear call for change has not yet been answered in the political arena. Numerous law proposals for civil marriage have failed one after the other in the Knesset, mainly due to the objection of ultra-Orthodox parties who, until recently, where consistent members of the government coalition.

The current government coalition does not include any of the ultra-Orthodox political parties, which creates a historic opportunity to introduce civil marriage in Israel, but there is doubt that the Religious-Zionist "Jewish Home" party, which sits in the coalition, will allow this type of legislation. Another potential possibility is to pass legislation for a covenantal couplehood reigstration instead of civil marriage. This option is similar to civil unions; the couple receives most of the same rights to that are received in marriage and resembles in some aspects a "common-law marriage." Different countries around the world offer options to register couples that are interested in formalizing their relationship without marriage, as well as choices for same-sex couples. In Israel, it is proposed that the word "marriage" will be used only for a religious ceremony. If a couple is interested in civilly registering their relationship, they will have to make do with the term "Couple Registration." The likelihood that this proposal will succeed in Israel is still unclear. It has met opposition also from religious freedom and pluralistic groups who believe this proposal creates a second class of citizens who don't want to get married through the Orthodox establishment.


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