I moved to the U.S. from Pakistan when I was four years old. My family is ethnic Pashtun and I was born in a village that is a four-hour drive from the city of Islamabad. Growing up in New York City, I was a lot like other American girls. When I was young this wasn’t an issue for my parents who generally embrace very traditional values, especially when it comes to women. Things changed however when I became an adolescent. Not only did my parents argue with me about my clothing, they also discovered that I had a boyfriend at the age of 14. My father started beating me for being “too Americanized.” When teachers noticed there were bruises on my body, Child Protective Services were notified and I was put into foster care.
I did not want to be married;
I did not want to be a child bride.
While I wanted the violence and abuse to end, I found it extremely difficult to be away from my family. So I ran away from foster care and returned to my parents who decided it would be best that I move back to Pakistan until I turned 18. When we returned to my village, my parents forced me to marry a cousin who was 28 years old and who welcomed the opportunity to get a green card through our marriage. I was only 15 and I knew: I did not want to be married; I did not want to be a child bride. I fled to Islamabad covered with traditional wedding henna tattoos and my bridal jewelry. I wanted to try to get to the US Embassy but I was worried it was not safe because I was a young woman travelling alone. I contacted my uncle who told me it was best that I return to my family and he would make sure nothing happened to me. I distinctly remember thinking as we were driving back that I was going to be a victim of an honor killing. I was preparing myself to die. Instead, I was severely beaten by my husband. For the next few months, I cooked, cleaned and slept with my husband, my enemy.
Fortunately, my uncle who is well educated did not agree with the idea of child marriage and contacted the US Embassy who in turn informed Child Protective Services that I had been married off in Pakistan. When my parents returned to the US, they were warned that they would face prison if I were not returned because I was a ward of the state. My parents arranged for me to fly home and I was put back into foster care.
…accepting American values or respecting girls’ rights is not an affront to their (immigrant families’) culture…
Today I live with my family and I am attending college, as I would like to become a social worker with a focus on preventing and working with survivors of forced marriage. I love my family and I know they thought they were doing what was best for me but my experience underscores the importance of working with immigrant families and communities to understand how accepting American values or respecting girls’ rights is not an affront to their culture, and how ending forced and child marriage benefits girls, their families and their communities. I also think that we need men, like my uncle, to be champions in ending forced marriage, in raising their voices to say this practice is wrong.
…we need men, like my uncle, to be champions
in ending forced marriage…
It is key that we pass a bill to criminalize this practice. We also need to train law enforcement and Child Protective Services to recognize a forced marriage. I myself have made it my mission to speak to high schools and colleges throughout NYC about forced marriage, as I believe that schools need to do more to inform girls of their rights. We need to create shelters for underage girls fleeing forced marriage.
For any girl facing a forced marriage I think it is important that they know that they don’t have do it; it is their right not to accept a marriage they don’t want. It doesn’t mean they don’t love their parents.
I want to be there for other girls.
My dream is to open up the first group home for underage girls escaping forced marriage in the US. I want to make sure we provide appropriate support and services, and nurture survivors the right way. I was alone when I faced my marriage and I want to fight to ensure no other girl experiences this or feels this way. I want to be there for other girls.