My name is Sara Tasneem, and at fifteen-year-old, my father coerced me into marrying a 28-year-old stranger.
My story starts like most young kids. I lived in Colorado, with my mom, and I was going to spend the summer with my father in California. Upon my arrival, instead of discussing fun summer activities that most teenagers look forward to during summer break, my father told me that I was going to be married and that sex outside of marriage would damn me and my family to hell. I did not question his authority. I had learned early on that questioning him would be met with physical violence. One morning that summer, a man who I never met before, was sitting in a coffee shop awaiting our arrival. My dad told me that this was who had been picked for me and to go over and talk to him. Walking over to where my soon-to-be husband was sitting, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I sat down, not once looking into his eyes, but down at my hands, locked tightly together in my lap.
My father taught me never to look men in the eyes, and I was confused about why he asked me to speak to this strange man alone. He was telling me that he did not want to wait for a long engagement, and not being sure exactly what that meant, I nodded affirmatively shifting uncomfortably under his gaze in my seat. After the introduction, my dad proudly told me I would marry this strange man that night and the Sheikh would perform our Nikkah. It was a big honor for my dad, and my young and immature mind felt happy that he was proud of me. My wedding attire was a velvet green dress given to me by my aunt, and a face full of makeup that despite its application could not mask the confusion flowing through my mind. I remember going to the presidential suite on the top floor of the hotel where the Sheikh was staying, with my body quivering with nervousness on the elevator ride up. I had no clue what was and was terrified of what could be. “Where am I going to sleep tonight?” I asked my stepmother. She did not answer, instead, she looked down at the floor. Dread crept freely within me, as I went from leaving my home in Colorado as a teenage girl to California and was forced into womanhood
I was a frightened child in a crowded room full of adults who knew better, as my father gave me away to a stranger in a Nikkah (wedding ceremony), performed by the sheikh, who was the leader of the religious group my father was a part of. I remember my grandfather was unhappy about the union and expressed that to my father and told him that I was a child bride. That night after being handed over to a stranger, I lost my freedom, myself, but mostly, I lost my innocence, and I would never be the same again.
Before that fateful summer visit, I had been living with my mother in Colorado. My parents had divorced when I was five, and from five until twelve years old shuffled between family members. First, my dad, who remarried twice, from five to ten years old, first in Colorado, and at nine years old moved with him to California. I was then sent to live with my grandparents when I was ten until I was twelve years old. Then reunited with my mother in Colorado and lived with her from twelve until forced to marry at fifteen years old.
At twelve, I was sent to live with my mom. My grandmother, despite being kind, was not ready to raise a teenager. I had not lived with my mom since I was five years old, and despite her absence, I knew my mother loved me and she told me all the time. The years I spent with her, allowed me to be free. I was no longer under the control of my father’s group and the religion I had been indoctrinated into since birth. But though free, living with my mom was not easy, as she had become an alcoholic during the years, I had been separated from her. While she loved me and my brothers very much, her home was also unstable.
In my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the AirForce and then go on to law school. I had also started seeing a boy my age after school. I would go to his basketball practices and hang out with him. I was still a virgin at the time, I did not feel ready, and I felt it would be a sin that I could not come back from. My boyfriend respected my feelings and always made me feel safe when I was with him. I was raised with my dad’s strict religious philosophies and for me, hell was a very real place. My mom found out about my boyfriend and told my dad about it, and that she intended on putting me on birth control and would allow me to continue to see my boyfriend once I returned from my summer visit. She thought that my dad would be supportive of that idea. Instead, he started trying to find me a husband.
Based on the teachings that my father practiced, my young mind believed I was doing the right thing by marrying that man. We were supposed to obey the Sheik without questioning his authority or teachings. The group believed he had a direct lineage to the prophet and spiritual connections back to the other Sufi leaders. We were supposed to have faith and our faith would be tested, and if we asked questions, we failed those tests. The followers believed that the Sheik would be their salvation during the end of the world, which they believed would happen in the year 2000 and when it did not, they attributed their salvation to the Sheikh who had prayed and prevented it from happening.
Followers would ask the Sheikh about important life decisions, such as who to marry and when, or what he should do in all life matters. The Sheikh’s followers supported him financially and those who gave more money he rewarded with a higher status, or a bride. My father, who was close to the Sheik, asked him about all his family decisions, and he advised him to marry me off and even picked my groom without my prior knowledge. Gender roles were strictly enforced and most of the women in the group were mothers and wives who were obedient to their husbands and the Shiek. In the group, it was normal for virgin girls to marry adult men. The Sheik encouraged men to marry virgins and told them that “marriage was half of their faith.” There were often matches made by the Sheik and his family between adult men and virgin girls. As girls, they raised us to believe that a woman’s highest role was to be a mother and a wife, and taught that when a man married a woman, the woman had to consent to sex with their husbands no matter what. There was also no birth control, because the Sheik taught if God wanted you to get pregnant that was “His will.” Girls were taught that we had to make ourselves useful to the sheik and his family either by cooking, babysitting, or cleaning at his house. My brothers did not escape abuse. They were made to work on the Sheik’s house, remodeling it and worked full days under the hot California sun digging ditches and doing much of the labor the Sheik benefited from as they poured sweat equity into his property. Some of the boys were also married at younger ages, however the majority of children who grew up in the group who were married off as teenagers, were girls marrying adult men.
My mother was a topic of constant disparagement in my family and in the group. She left the religion and my dad to pursue a career and personal freedom. She was forced to marry my dad at nineteen, by her own father. When she left my father and us kids the group made up stories about how “crazy” she was and that she was a horrible mother for leaving us children. The narrative given to me by my dad was that my mother did not love me, and that is why she left us. My dad frequently compared me to my mother’s likeness, and considered me a black sheep, because I came from her and thought that I could be under her influence. The group controlled my life, and my dad’s beliefs and because of that, I did not question his authority and did not feel I had a voice. Physically and emotionally abused by my father for years under the guise of religion, he often punished me any time he felt I was not obeying.
I believe the motivation for my forced child marriage was to control my sexuality and to ensure that I followed my father’s beliefs. My mother was not religious and did not believe in the group my dad was a part of, so the marriage would also conveniently resolve any burdens, financial and otherwise, that my father had towards my upbringing.
After the ceremony, my childhood abruptly ended, and I was immediately cut off from the entire world. The next thing I knew, I was pulled from school and taken abroad to a country that only spoke French. In a strange land with an unfamiliar voice, the man I married impregnated me. Then at sixteen and six months pregnant, we returned to California. Shortly after returning, we were legally married in Reno, Nevada, at a drive-through wedding chapel, just a short four-hour drive from the Bay Area where we lived. I did not drive, go to school, have friends my age, and I was robbed of my freedom and youth. The lost hollow feelings that I possessed left me void of emotion. Plus, the trauma that was my marriage kept me from recalling the most painful parts. I had lost hope and was trying my best to make this adult man happy, and was confused, I was a child, and had a child’s mind, so I blamed myself for what was happening to me and felt powerless to change it.
With the legal age in California being eighteen, my ex-abuser could have been charged with statutory rape if anyone had known. I know if my mother knew what was going on before the marriage was legal, she would have called the police. They prohibited me from contacting my mother though, apart from when they coached me to lie to her and others, like doctors and other adults. I was isolated and alone and sadly began to identify with my abuser(s), referred to as Stockholm Syndrome in a difficult marriage filled with anguish and pain.
Freedom for me came slowly. I realized I needed to gain my financial independence for myself and my children. This realization started after my first child was born. I was a young mother, depressed, and living in a small apartment with my ex-abuser in Fremont. When he would leave to work, I would take my daughter on walks to the park. While sitting in the park watching other girls around my age, I questioned why I could not go to school. I needed to feel like other girls my age, and I asked about getting my own education. My request was met with disdain from the women in the group, and told my place was in the home taking care of my daughter, and that my husband would provide.
Despite their disapproval, I went back to school. That was the first time I stood up for myself and put my needs before his. It was not long before my ex-abuser's controlling tendencies became more apparent. He would constantly berate me anytime I went out, asking me where I had been and about money. He had trouble keeping a job and would always quit after a brief period. To keep us afloat, he would call his parents and have me to call my family to ask for money. He took pleasure in putting me down, and in the end, I would always find myself apologizing to him for making him angry. This was my first relationship, I had no concept of what a healthy one looked like, and I had little control.
We bounced around a lot, and I became worried my kids would be in an unstable home. I felt that I needed to get my education and start working to prevent that. I started slowly, getting my GED from a local community adult school. I found it empowering learning how to navigate the outside world, and my classmates found it shocking to learn my age and that I was married with children. This started a long process of my own internal questioning of why I was living this way, and that moment became a turning point for me. Up until then, I thought I had no control over my life, and I realized that I had the power to say no even if it had consequences. I slowly started taking my own power back. I began to realize that my marriage was not a real marriage at all, even if it was legal.
It took me seven years to leave my marriage, and three years to get a divorce. I got a job working as a chef after graduating from a culinary school program at City College of San Francisco. This allowed me to bring home a paycheck and I finally felt I could leave. I stood up to my ex and told him I did not want to be with him anymore. He called my dad to try counsel me. Instead, my dad just told him to leave me and told him that I would come crawling back once I realized how hard it would be to support my kids as a single mother. Once again, my dad compared me to my mother and blamed me for the separation. Once we separated, he left California with the kids to his country. We agreed that he would return them once I got my own place, but instead he tried to keep my children from me, just like my dad had done with me and my brothers. I refused to accept that, borrowed money from my brother to fly to his country and demanded my children back. Once we returned home, I filed for divorce. The legal system gave me no breaks even in divorce. He had the power to fight me with attorneys, while I had enough money to barely scrape by, supporting two children. I was twenty-three, and after a long and painful three years of fighting for custody and freedom my divorce finalized.
With little education, and little means I had a long road ahead of me. Finding the strength to leave my marriage was difficult but the hardest part was yet to come. My ex-husband had a tough time keeping a job during our marriage and afterwards, and I was never sure if I was going to receive the minimal child support that I desperately needed. There were times I had to choose between paying for gas to go to work or buying dinner for my kids. Poverty did not lead me back to my ex though, as my abusers had predicted. I decided I would rather be broke, and on my own than to return to that horrible cage called a marriage.
After leaving my marriage, I discovered I was years behind my peers in education, work experience, mental health, and life experience. I had to learn how to navigate life as a single parent, starting from zero. During my marriage, my ex-husband had controlled the finances and I had never even had my own bank account. I had learned to drive at 22, and I had earned an associate degree in Culinary Arts at 23. Without these abilities, I am not sure that I would have been able to leave and survive with my kids on my own. I am one of the lucky ones.
The community I had grown up with shunned me because I had divorced. I was a shell of myself, because of years of physical abuse starting from my early childhood, and from the emotional and sexual abuse I suffered throughout my marriage. Conditioned to surviving my circumstances, I no longer knew how to live a life without being scared, anxious, depressed, and angry. It took years to overcome the mental obstacles that were holding me back. I suffered from severe and debilitating depression, PTSD, and anxiety for years after I left.
My children grew up with a mother who was still in survival mode, and I felt ill equipped to navigate the adult world. Despite these circumstances, my children and I found a way to move on and rebuild our lives. There are still moments of despair, anxiety, and depression that I struggle with, but now I have a support system that helps me to overcome these high and lows. Many survivors do not have the same support system I did, and I feel incredibly lucky.
Despite these odds, my children have grown up to become independent, free-thinking adults in charge of their own futures. They have been my motivation to always move forward, and to never give up. I wanted to give them a better life than I had, and I am grateful for each day I can do that. My kids are now in their twenties and are fully in charge of their own futures.
I have been in therapy for the past five years and that has helped me to identify and move on from the abuses I experienced. My experience is not unique, and victims of forced child marriage are three times more likely to experience abuse. The abuse I endured was normalized at an early age, which was why it was so hard for me to recognize it. Instead, I blamed myself for years until I started going to therapy and began to understand what I endured.
The most empowering thing I did to reclaim my freedom was to go back to school, and in 2019 I graduated with honors with my Master’s in Public Administration from Golden Gate University. My work and family have been a huge motivation to deal with my trauma and to find better ways to manage my PTSD and anxiety.
Activism and Advocacy to end child marriage in the United State
Many Americans are unaware that children across the United States are legally able to marry, in some states with no age limits. State laws govern marriage age laws, and forty-four out of fifty states allow children under the age of eighteen to be married with loopholes such as parental consent. Ending child marriage in the United States is an uphill battle because each state must enact new laws limiting the age of marriage to eighteen. Many states are reticent to pass such bills because of age-old patriarchal views of marriage and pregnancy. Recently, six states have passed marriage laws to limit the age of marriage to eighteen, with no exceptions. At eighteen, individuals are legally considered to be adults and can access vital services they may need if they experience abuse or want to divorce their partners. There are forty-four states that allow minors to marry through exceptions written into marriage age laws. These laws do not protect a minor’s safety. It is important to raise awareness about this issue because of the devastating harm child marriage causes to minors and because of the lack of awareness that it even exists in the United States. Child marriage is an issue in the United States because it is legal, and it does happen with alarming frequency. My story is just one of hundreds of thousands.
I started engaging in activism in 2016 when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree. I was doing a research project about child marriage when I learned marriage under eighteen was legal in all fifty states. Up until that point I thought my experience was an anomaly. During my research, I found an organization, Tahirih Justice Center, who was asking for online submissions of people who had experienced forced child marriage. I submitted my story, and they contacted me and wanted to know if I was willing to share my story publicly to raise awareness. I agreed and was introduced to advocacy work and activism. Since then, I have testified in front of legislative bodies in hopes of passing legislation to end child marriage. I shared my testimony as well as lobbied for legislation that ends child marriage under the age of eighteen, no exceptions, otherwise known as, “brightline 18 legislation.”
I have shared my story across multiple media outlets, and in a feature length documentary film, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story (available on TUBI TV, and Apple TV). I have worked with organizations who are trying to end child marriage in the United States such as, Unchained At Last, the AHA Foundation, Global Hope 365, and Resiliency Foundation. Together with other survivor advocates we have fought and continue to fight to raise awareness of this issue and to lobby for legislation that will end child marriage under the age of eighteen, no exceptions permanently.
My mother always told me that “no one can take your education away.” Her words inspired me to pursue something I had thought to be beyond my reach. I believe in the power of education and that empowering all girls to obtain their education is a formidable tool against child marriage. Education allows girls to decide their own futures. Educating parents is also important. The more parents know about the serious harms of child marriage, the more that they will also become aware of the abuse and hopefully find other options for their children.
What can we do to end child marriage?
There is a collective idea that all parents have their children’s best interests in mind, however that is not always the case. For child marriage victims, it is often the parents who have forced them into the marriage. The common thread of child marriage is that it happens where there is already abuse occurring. We can overcome this abusive practice by elevating survivor voices, and educating our children, so that our society creates change around these practices. The most meaningful way to end this practice in the U.S. is to lobby for legislation that ends legal forms of child marriage from happening at all. Children’s autonomy and ability to thrive and pursue their own goals must be legally protected. I strongly believe we must make marriage under the age of eighteen illegal in all states, so it sends a strong message to the public that child marriage is wrong, and illegal.
The laws in Nevada in 1997, when I was legally married, allowed my father to consent on my behalf. No one asked me if I wanted the marriage, nor was my mother’s approval sought or even inquired about. The mere fact that I was sixteen and pregnant should have been a red flag to the officiant that I was in a coercive relationship with an older man, and once they stamped my marriage certificate it forced me into a legal trap. Even if I had been strong enough to stand up to all my abusers, I would have had nowhere to go and would have been returned to my abusers. Therefore, these loopholes are dangerous, and put minors into an impossible legal situation and expose them to multiple forms of abuse.
So, this is my story, but also a call to action to find out about your local laws about child marriage in your state. If legal, please write to your legislators and demand that they change the law to end all marriages under the age of eighteen, no exceptions. You can also visit the websites of all the aforementioned organizations and get involved.
For those living in my home state of California, I have created a petition for CA legislators, please review and sign it at http://chng.it/CmVRqZTX .