Forced Marriage in the United States
The Aljazeera America four part series "Till death do us part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage" starts off with the story of Vidya Sri. She was a typical American teenager raised in New York. Typical that is until she started dating a non-Indian. Her father didn't want her to marry outside her own culture, so she was sent to India to live with relatives and told she couldn't come home until she agreed to marry a man chosen by her family. She never loved her husband and later divorced. Sri now works for an organization to help victims of forced marriages.
The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who are victims of violence, says there were as many as 3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the United States between 2009 and 2011. However, that number may only be the tip of the iceberg. Forced marriage isn't just something faced by those from immigrant backgrounds. Girls from very conservative religions, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are also at risk.
Victims of forced marriage often feel frightened and lonely. Many develop mental problems like depression and eating disorders. Some suffer abuse from both their husband and in-laws. Some commit suicide. Many are afraid to leave because they fear being ostracized by their families and communities. They worry about how to provide for themselves and their children.
At just 13, Sameem was forced to marry a complete stranger. When pregnant, two months later, she was made to return to Glasgow where she suffered further abuse from her family.
Forced Marriage Versus Arranged Marriages
Arranged marriages are marriages arranged by the families of the bride and groom. The couple might have little contact before getting married or they may regularly talk and perhaps even go on dates before they agree to marry. Many people come from cultures where marriages are arranged and will willingly enter into them. Forced marriages are arranged marriages where coercion or abuse is used because one or both parties is unwilling.
The UK organization Karma Nirvana, which aids victims of forced marriages and honor crimes explains the difference between forced and arranged marriages:
The pressure put on people to marry against their will can be physical (including threats, actual physical violence and sexual violence) or emotional and psychological (for example, when someone is made to feel like they’re bringing shame on their family).
An arranged marriage is very different from a forced marriage. A marriage in which families take a leading role, but both parties have the free will and choice to accept or decline the arrangement.
They do acknowledge there is a gray area:
There can be a very thin line between arranged marriage and forced marriage. A marriage can start out as ‘arranged’ but, if the person changes his/her mind at any time during the preparations – yes, even on the wedding day!! – They have the right to pull out. If the person is made to ‘keep their word’ to go ahead with the marriage, the marriage ceases to be a free choice and becomes ‘forced’. The difference between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage hinges on choice. There is no compulsion in an arranged marriage.
However, not all "forced" marriages involve force, coercion and abuse. Often young girls (and in some cases boys) feel pressured to get married. They may be kids aged 15 to 18 who are afraid of the prospect of being ostracized by their families and communities if they refuse to marry. So, while they never fight the marriage, and therefore never experience any kind of backlash, they're still being married against their will.
Journalism student Sarah Fournier who investigated forced marriages talked about her own family background:
I’m French and my grandmother was in the Jewish community in France, and got into sort of an arranged marriage—but she didn’t really have the choice to say no. She wasn’t threatened or anything, or what we describe in the article, but it’s a slippery slope
Cultural expectations alone can be a form of coercion and force.
You may wonder how 15 and 16 years olds could be married against their will because US states have minimum marriage ages that should protect children from forced marriages. However, most states will allow marriage at younger ages with parental consent and a judge's approval. Many judges will approve underage marriages because they want to be culturally sensitive.
Some teenagers are tricked into visiting their family's country of origin for a visit only to find that they'll be forced into marriage when they get there. They're often isolated with no money, their passports are confiscated and they don't have any access to telephones to ensure they have no means to escape the marriage.
The Extent of Forced Marriage
The AHA Foundation, which was founded by prominent Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who was a victim of forced marriage) surveyed 100 students from City University of New York who came from MENASA cultures (Middle Eastern, North African, Southeast Asian) about the issue of forced marriage.
- 88 said they knew at least one person who didn't want to get married but did anyway
- 31 of those 88 said they knew three or more people who were forced to get married
Fraidy Reiss, from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was pressured to marry at the age of 19. She said:
There is intense pressure not to reach the age 20 and still be single. Because that’s a death sentence. You don’t want to be the old maid at age 20.
Nujood Ali's childhood came to an abrupt end in 2008 when her father arranged for her to be married to a man three times her age.
In extreme cases, girls and women who refuse to enter forced marriages become victims of honor killings. The killings are often carried out by parents, siblings or uncles. In "Honor killing" under growing scrutiny in the U.S." CBS News mentioned a couple of horrifying examples:
20-year-old Noor Almaleki...was run down in broad daylight by her father who was angry that she had become too westernized and did not want to accept a marriage her father had arranged for her in the family's native Iraq
Phoenix police arrested the mother, father and sister of 19-year-old Aiya Altameemi after they allegedly beat her, restrained her and burned her for reportedly talking to a boy and refusing to enter into an arranged marriage with a 38-year-old man
What Can Be Done?
Some countries have laws against forced marriage. Currently, there are no federal laws against forced marriage in the United States. Some states and territories, California, District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia and the Virgin Islands have laws against forced marriage. However, based on how the laws are written, they don't always cover children who's parents approve an early marriage. However, laws may not always be protective since many victims may not want to see family members charged with a crime. British activist Sameem Ali says:
No young child wants to put mummy and daddy in jail
More support for victims and potential victims is needed. Police, teachers and social workers, who serve areas with large at-risk populations, need to be trained to recognize and deal with forced marriages. Airport workers need to be trained to recognize possible victims being taken overseas. Doctors and nurses need to be trained to recognize pregnant teenagers who may be in forced marriages. Shelters, support groups and hotlines are needed. Education campaigns are needed to warn potential victims about the possibility of being taken overseas for a forced marriage. According to one charity:
It's vital that young people travelling abroad for a family wedding this summer realise it could be their own wedding they'll be going to and know who they should contact for help should they find themselves in danger.
If you want to do something to help, you can make donations to organizations that offer support services like the Tahirih Justice Center and the AHA Foundation.
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