Aliya Abbas is a passionate and outspoken survivor of and advocate against child marriage in the U.S. Her story shows that, even after families immigrate to the U.S., traditional cultural practices continue to lock girls into the cycle of intergenerational abuse that is child marriage. Aliya stood up to break free from this cycle—all by herself. Now, 17 years after she was subjected to the human rights abuse of child marriage, she bravely uses her voice to speak up for all those still at risk of or suffering from this abuse.
AHA Foundation: Thank you for speaking with us, Aliya. Could you start off by telling us about your background and your experience as a survivor of forced child marriage? How did you escape?
Aliya Abbas: Sure. I am an American with South Asian roots. I was raised in Maryland in a practicing Muslim household. Islam played a role in my marriage as a child to an older man—it was a common thing for minors to be married off in the Muslim community I grew up in. Growing up, I remember there was one family who made up almost half the community. They would take their girls to Pakistan and marry them off to cousins. I was fated to follow in their footsteps, and I too was flown out of the United States to Pakistan, a country whose people were foreign to me. I was just 17.
Within weeks, I was married off to a complete stranger. I was left there to live with him and his family. I was bullied, beaten, shamed, and subjected to marital rape, which began on my wedding night. “Sit still and let him do everything”, said my sister-in-law. As per Islamic teachings, a wife refusing sex to her husband would mean being cursed by angels throughout the night. So much pressure! Especially on a girl child! I went through three pregnancies, all without my consent. I became a remote-controlled toy, being sent back and forth from my home in the U.S. to the stranger’s home in Pakistan.
I cancelled his visa the day I made the decision to free myself and my children from the mental, emotional, and physical torture I was subjected to both in my uncle’s home and back in my stranger husband’s home in Pakistan.
Throughout it all, I held on to my promise to myself to continue my education. I put myself through college during both pregnancies, working various jobs to do so. And I also became a single parent raising two babies on my own in my uncle’s basement. My husband was still in Pakistan waiting for his visa. I cancelled his visa the day I made the decision to free myself and my children from the mental, emotional, and physical torture I was subjected to both in my uncle’s home and back in my stranger husband’s home in Pakistan.
Why did I finally make this decision? I took the risk of unchaining myself from the generational cycle of abuse the same day I was told by my uncle that the only way out of my marriage would be my death because getting a divorce is the worst thing a Muslim woman can do. I realized I had to escape or I would be trapped forever. I was subjected to a lot more abuse from my guardians after I took that step, but ANYTHING was worth freedom. I further broke away from cultural and religious barriers and oppression. Away from evil human beings. My children deserved a life where they could be free, healthy, happy, successful, and have choices—to dream without having their dreams crushed right in front of their eyes! And I, too, deserved it.
AHA Foundation: How did you become involved in campaigning to end child marriage in the U.S.?
Aliya Abbas: It was about 7 years ago that I typed “child marriage in the U.S.” into Google search and Unchained At Last came up in the results. I was intrigued to know if there were others like myself. Also, I wanted to do what I could to maybe help others in similar situations to the one I had escaped from. The need to know and the need to take action to help others—maybe not to resolve their problems at first, but to merely support them emotionally as they went through what I had gone through in my child/forced marriage. I was alone on my journey. I didn’t wish that upon anyone else.
AHA Foundation: Could you tell us about some of your campaigning work?
Aliya Abbas: I am an activist to end child marriage in the U.S. which means I lobby for laws that would eliminate this human rights abuse. I advocate for brightline bills—bills that outlaw marriage under the age of 18 with no exceptions. So far only 6 states have eliminated child marriage. We have 44 to go, including my home state of Maryland—which has failed SIX times to tackle this very American problem.
I also work with Unchained At Last to mentor clients who reach out for support. My approach to mentoring is forward-focused. I provide my mentees with emotional support as well as tools and techniques they can use to move forward, even if it’s just mentally, with what is already available. This approach gives the individual a sense of power which is so important! Apart from that, I am also a member of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage.
[It’s] beyond frustrating when I hear legislators provide excuses for this human rights abuse to continue harming the most vulnerable members of society, our children!
AHA Foundation: What have been the highs and lows of your campaigning?
Aliya Abbas: There are always highs and lows. That’s just life. I love mentoring survivors/victims but that can also be emotionally taxing since a lot of what I hear is heartbreaking. It is always a good thing whenever a bill is introduced to eliminate child marriage and it’s even better when that bill passes. Of course, it’s frustrating when legislators vote NO to end child marriage and beyond frustrating when I hear legislators provide excuses for this human rights abuse to continue harming the most vulnerable members of society, our children!
Orally testifying for bills is such an important part of my advocacy. It is both a high and a low: each time a survivor shares their story, it creates awareness and gives the world an opportunity to do better, but, on the other hand, we almost relive the painful moments every time we testify.
AHA Foundation: You oppose the bill to ban child marriage currently being considered in Maryland because it would still allow 17-year olds to marry. Why is it so important that 18 should be the minimum age for marriage, without exceptions? How does your own experience inform your view on this?
Aliya Abbas: I did oppose the bill, simply because it leaves out so many of the most vulnerable to this abuse in the state of Maryland—17-year olds. It is just another “slap a bandaid on a wound without cleaning it properly” bill. It simply doesn’t eliminate child marriage. I feel that if this bill passes, people will become too comfortable to consider working towards raising the marriage age to 18, with no exceptions. Raising the marriage age to 18 with no exceptions is the only way to end ALL legal child marriage and hold the perpetrators accountable. I was 17 when I was married off—this bill wouldn’t have saved me!
AHA Foundation: Some people, when they read this, will argue that being 17 isn’t all that different from being 18. But we know there are big differences. How would this one-year difference in age have led to a different outcome for you?
Aliya Abbas: My guardians subjected me to child/forced marriage at 17, but had I been forced into marriage at 18, I would have had the full legal rights of adulthood. This would have given me the ability to first and foremost leave the family house and check in at a shelter. Then, I would have been able to take any legal action, if necessary. An 18-year-old adult wouldn’t be subjected to forcefully returning to the perpetrators. As an adult, I also would have had the ability to file for divorce right away had I been coerced into a forced marriage at 18 (coercion happens at any age!).
AHA Foundation: What have you learned from being involved in the fight to end child marriage in the U.S.?
Aliya Abbas: I remember the first time I mentioned child marriage in my Unitarian Universalist church community. Nobody—and I am saying, NOBODY—knew it existed right here in the U.S. People thought it was a foreign problem and when they found out that I was a child marriage survivor, they were shocked! It was then that I knew that I had to share my story and the stories of other survivors to create awareness of this very real problem we have in the United States.
I have also learned that even the most progressive state will choose to continue this abuse against our children, which is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Early in my advocacy journey, it was shocking to know that there are states with no minimum age for marriage. This is supposedly the free world we are talking about! I have learned that ending this abuse will be a long, hard fight (which is sad considering we are the United States of America!), but it is a fight that is worth it. We must keep moving forward.
AHA Foundation: What do you think will happen with the Maryland bill? And what do you hope will happen with it? Why has Maryland failed to pass legislation already?
Aliya Abbas: I mean, Maryland has already failed SIX times to pass any sort of legislation related to child marriage. It won’t be a complete surprise if this bill doesn’t pass either. I just hope moving forward, we can introduce strong brightline legislation and have it pass!
As far as who is standing in the way in Maryland, there are always the military exception and pregnancy loophole lobbies and organizations like NARAL, which fights for reproductive freedom and, with good but wrongheaded intentions, views child marriage as a “right to choose” issue and stand in opposition each time. Although Maryland is supposedly a “progressive” state, it sure does like to stick with its antiquated laws!
AHA Foundation: What do you think about the future of the fight to end child marriage in the U.S. more broadly? Are you optimistic?
Aliya Abbas: Yes, I am an optimist and it was optimism that kept me sane and helped me to move forward during the most painful years of my life in my child marriage journey.
The more we speak up about the marriage laws which encourage child marriage in every state, the more awareness we create for people to join and support us in this fight.
AHA Foundation: How can ordinary people help you and your fellows in this fight? Do you have any advice for AHA Foundation supporters who are or would like to get involved with advocacy against child marriage?
Aliya Abbas: The more we share our stories and the stories of others, the more awareness we create. The more we speak up about the marriage laws which encourage child marriage in every state, the more awareness we create for people to join and support us in this fight. People can look into organizations like AHA Foundation and Unchained At Last to educate themselves and they can help by advocating to end this human rights abuse or supporting anti-child marriage organizations by donating to help them continue their good and important work.
Please look into your state laws and see if your state allows child marriage. If it does, please write to your legislators and support the bills that would end child marriage by writing/submitting personal testimonies.
AHA Foundation: Thanks for sharing your story and your inspiring words with us today, Aliya. Let’s hope people help us in the fight to end this abuse in the U.S.
Aliya Abbas: Thank you! I still have hope and with hope anything is possible.
UPDATE: Shortly after this blog was published, in April 2022, the Maryland bill (discussed above) raising the minimum marriage age from 15 to 17 was passed. We reached out to Aliya for her response to this news. Here is what she had to say:
Keep up to date with Aliya on Twitter here.
Number of Women and Girls At Risk: 25,000
Status: Existing Legislation Needs Strengthening
Improve by adding: Prosecuting parents/guardian, felony offense