Till death do us part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage

How cultural misunderstanding and lack of legislation leave forced-marriage victims in shadows and at risk

Vidya Sri as she talks about her forced marriage. She asked Al Jazeera not to show her face.
Sarah Fournier

This is part one of a four-part series. Click at right for the other parts.

Vidya Sri was a typical American teenager in the Queens borough of New York. She went to school, hung out with her friends and took dance classes. But all that changed when she was 18 and started dating her first real boyfriend, a sweet Irish Catholic boy.

That was in 1987. Alarmed that Sri was dating someone who wasn’t Indian, her father shipped her off to India to live with relatives. Nearly every day for four years, she was pressured to get married. It became a condition of her return to the United States. Finally, she gave in and married a man she did not know.

“I was introduced to him, and a week later we were married,” said Sri, now 44 and divorced.

The marriage was recognized by the U.S., and the couple moved to New York. But Sri didn’t love her husband, wasn’t attracted to him and said she felt as if they came from “two different planets.” Despite not wanting to consummate the marriage, Sri gave in to family pressure and had two children with her husband.

Sri was a victim of forced marriage, a practice in which women — and sometimes men — are forced to marry against their will. The Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who have been abused, determined that there were as many as 3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011.

That the numbers aren’t clear is part of the problem.

 “We hide. We hide very carefully,” said Sri, who now works at her own organization to help prevent forced marriages like hers. “This whole thing is so humiliating. It’s so shaming, all you really want to do is drop dead.”

It’s so shaming, all you really want to do
is drop dead.

Vidya Sri

For those who might think that forced marriage isn’t much of an issue in the U.S., a host of organizations, scholars and victims beg to differ. A constellation of factors — from cultural misunderstandings to lack of legislation — keeps the issue in the shadows here, although activists are hoping that a growing awareness in Europe will bring changes in the U.S. as well.

The AHA Foundation, an advocacy organization founded by vocal women’s rights defender and often controversial critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped her own forced marriage in 1992, funded a recent survey of immigrant populations in New York conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. The results show that the issue of forced marriage is very much alive and probably underdocumented.

“Forced marriage is only one variant of the honor violence that happens in these communities,” said Ric Curtis, a professor of anthropology at John Jay, who led the survey.

Forced marriage in context

While forced marriage may sound like the concept of arranged marriage — with parents playing matchmaker for their children — the element of coercion when a marriage is forced often leaves women feeling “like slaves,” according to Tanya McLeod, senior campaign organizer at the Voices of Women Organizing Project (VOW), an organization dedicating to providing help and resources to victims of domestic violence in New York.

Sri, who was forced to marry in India, now runs GangaShakti, a New Jersey–based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of forced marriage find resources. She said the fact that the issue is often conflated with arranged marriage is a problem when protecting victims like her.

“They say forced marriage doesn’t happen (in the U.S.). You really mean arranged marriage,” she said. “But in my case, this was not an arranged marriage. There was violence. There was coercion. There was fraud.”

While Sri was not a victim of physical violence, she said that the “mental torture” from her father drove her to attempt suicide.

She is also a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her work aims to raise awareness about forced marriage all over the world. She recently published a paper in which she outlines the dearth of resources for forced-marriage victims in the U.S.

Anthropologist Ric Curtis and his students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice did a survey on forced marriage among the populations most likely to experience it.
Sarah Fournier

In June 2012 the United Kingdom announced it would criminalize forced marriage, following the lead of Norway, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Cyprus and Malta. In 2012 alone, the U.K. Forced Marriage Unit noted 1,485 cases related to possible forced marriage.

Curtis said that current research only scratches the surface of a problem he suspects is more widespread but largely hidden from public view.

His team interviewed 100 students at several City University of New York campuses, focusing on Middle Eastern, North African and Southeast Asian (MENASA) countries to try to determine how widespread forced marriage really is.

 According to the AHA Foundation’s 2013 annual report, of the people surveyed by John Jay, 88 claimed that they knew at least one person who did not want to get married but did. Of those, 31 said they knew three or more people forced into marriage.

 “All that we are seeing is the ugly tip of the iceberg, but how much more is there?” Curtis said.

 In 2013 the AHA Foundation helped 54 victims of forced marriage and honor violence, a 54 percent increase from the previous year. Through interim direct services, the foundation refers women seeking help to local social services, legal specialists and law-enforcement officers in their area who can offer protection.

All we’re seeing is the ugly tip of the iceberg, but how much more is there?

Ric Curtis, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Fraidy Reiss grew up in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and at 19 was married to a man after only a few brief interactions over three months.

“There is intense pressure not to reach the age 20 and still be single,” Reiss said. “Because that’s a death sentence. You don’t want to be the old maid at age 20.”

After she escaped her forced marriage, Reiss started Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to helping victims of forced marriage escape. During her marriage, she faced death threats from her husband and eventually had to get a restraining order to protect herself and her two daughters.

Currently her organization, which she founded two years ago, is helping 70 women from communities ranging from traditional Jewish to MENASA in the New York–New Jersey area.

Difficult to prosecute

For Curtis, the fact that forced marriage falls outside the scope of New York and federal laws makes the issue hard to define and prosecute.

Among U.S. jurisdictions, only nine — California, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, the Virgin Islands and Virginia — have legislation that could encompass forced marriage, according to the Global Justice Initiative. New York has no forced-marriage law on the books. There is no federal law protecting victims.

“Here if you go to the police with a marital problem, the first thing they are going to do is arrest your husband,” Curtis said. “They are just not trained to deal with those kind of problems. They need to build some expertise around this issue.”

Chris Boughey is a detective from Peoria, Ariz., who has made it his mission to combat forced marriage and subsequent honor killings nationwide. According to Boughey, honor violence occurs when someone who is seen as defying her family’s culturally based expectations is harmed or threatened by relatives in order to protect the family’s social status and respectability.

In 2009, he and fellow Peoria detective Jeffrey Balson investigated the case of Noor Almaleki, a 20-year-old Arizona woman who was run over and killed by her father in order to, in her relatives’ eyes, protect her family’s honor.

Now, since dealing with Almaleki’s case, the two detectives have been brought on as law-enforcement liaisons by the AHA Foundation. Since joining forces with the group, Boughey and Balson get referrals to cases of forced marriage and honor violence nationwide. According to Boughey, law-enforcement officials often have no knowledge of the practice.

“I think law enforcement and social services don’t understand the notion of honor violence and/or forced marriage and they kind of check it off as a family problem that should be dealt with at the family level,” he said. “And that’s a huge mistake.”

Hiding behind tradition

Khalid Latif, imam and executive director at New York University’s Islamic Center, said that culture is often used as wrongful justification to force young Muslim girls to marry. For Latif, as a religious leader, this practice is morally incompatible with religious practices and mainly occurs because of precedents in communities.

 “When somebody is getting married against their will, that is where it becomes religiously impermissible,” he said. “By no means is forced marriage sanctioned and allowed within Islam as a tradition.”

Imam Khalid Latif is the executive director at New York University’s Islamic Center. Using culture to justify forced marriage is wrong, he said.
Sarah Fournier

Latif counseled a young woman in New York City who every night, he said, “felt as if (she) was being raped” after she was forced to marry by her traditional Muslim family.

There can be severe psychological issues for victims, according to VOW’s McLeod, who is a survivor of domestic violence.

“A lot of times we see them being shunned because it is shameful not to be married,” she said. “It is shameful to leave your husband even if you are being abused. We have seen men who keep women constantly pregnant as a way to keep them controlled.”

McLeod said the U.S. needs better ways to educate women in communities at higher risk.

“Some of them learn their rights, go into shelters, and that’s when they begin the process of educating others,” she said. “It’s a really rampant thing that is really silent. These women are basically hostages until they can get themselves out.”

How to combat the issue

Sayoni Maitra is a legal fellow at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit agency in New York state that provides crisis intervention for victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking and forced marriage. Like Curtis and Boughey, Maitra agreed that the lack of legislation targeting forced marriage causes victims to fall through the cracks.

The U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to recognizing forced marriage as an issue of violence against women, Maitra said. And many agencies and individuals could help but don’t get involved because they think of it as a cultural practice and not domestic violence.

Forced marriage often goes “hand in hand with other forms of gender violence,” she said. If the victim is under 18, it could be considered a form of child abuse. For victims over 18 years old, crimes associated with forced marriage include physical violence, marital rape, stalking, female genital mutilation — carried out in preparation for marriage — kidnapping and abduction.

“A lot of times, particularly with school-aged children, they are told right before their summer vacations they are going to go abroad to visit relatives and to learn about their parents’ home countries,” Maitra said. “She boards the plane, and when she arrives there, that’s when she realizes that she is going to be forced into marriage.”

She boards the plane, and when she arrives there, that’s when she realizes that she is going to be forced into marriage

Sayoni Maitra, Sanctuary for Families

Maitra, who works on an immigration project at Sanctuary for Families, cited various immigration remedies — U nonimmigrant status visas, T nonimmigrant status visas, VAWA self-petitions and asylum — for victims without green cards who are experiencing gender violence.

“The main thing is that forced marriage does not happen in isolation,” she said.

For victims like Fraidy Reiss who have found resources, there is hope that the cycle can be broken. Her 18-year-old daughter is in college and has a boyfriend. She has no plans to get married anytime soon, if at all.

“There is completely no pressure on her,” Reiss said. “She can get married. She can not get married. She can have children. She can never have children. She could get her Ph.D., or she could drop out of college. Whatever she wants, she can do. I’ve always told her, ‘There is nothing in the world that you can do that would make me consider you dead.’”

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