Sara’s Story, Part 1: A Survivor of Child Marriage in the U.S. On Her Ordeal and How She Won Her Freedom: “Being married to an older man was like being a prisoner. I didn’t even have control over my own body.”

aha

Published 11/7/2022

Sara Tasneem was trapped in a marriage with a stranger when she was just 15 years old. This happened in the U.S. Now a free and independent woman, she bravely fights for anti-child marriage legislation so that other girls don’t have to go through the abuse she experienced.

Here, she tells her angering yet inspiring story in her own words.

*The opinions of Sara Tasneem don’t necessarily reflect those of AHA Foundation*

Many people think that child marriage is not an issue in the U.S.—but it is legal and it does happen. It happened to me.

Sadly, much of my experience is not unique. My story is just one of hundreds of thousands. 

How I Was Forced to Marry Aged Just 15

I was married at the age of 15 to a 28-year-old man who was a complete stranger to me. I met him one morning at a religious convention in Los Angeles and was forced into a spiritual ceremony, called a Nikkah, that night. The ceremony was led by the leader of the religious group my father followed. I was in California visiting my dad for the summer and my marriage happened without my mother’s knowledge or consent. 

This was actually my dad’s second attempt to marry me off. The first unsuccessful attempt happened when I was 12. My dad had tried to introduce me to a man much older than me who had refused to marry me. I did not even understand what happened at that time and it was not until much later that I realized what had been attempted.

My parents divorced when I was 5. I was living with my dad from the ages of 5 to 10 years old, then moved around to various homes until finally, at 12, I was reunited with my mother in Colorado, while my dad had settled in California. I lived with my mom until I was 15.

Sara aged 15.

In my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Air Force 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 after school. I was still a virgin at the time because I was scared of having sex, and he respected that. I did not feel ready, and I felt it would be a sin that I could not come back from. I was raised with my dad’s strict religious philosophy and for me, hell was a very real place. 

My mom found out about my boyfriend and told my dad. She told him that she intended to put me on birth control and would allow me to continue to see my boyfriend once I returned from my summer visit. I believe she thought that my dad would be supportive of that idea. Instead, he started trying to find me a husband. 

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. My marriage would also conveniently resolve any financial burdens my father had regarding my upbringing. 

How a Religious Cult Stole My Childhood

Since I was raised for the most part under my father’s care, I had been indoctrinated from a young age with his group’s spiritual practices and beliefs. My dad was physically and emotionally abusive to me when I was a child. I was terrified of him and learned not to question his authority for my own safety. 

I believed my marriage was the right thing to do, based on the teachings I was raised with. We were supposed to obey the Sheik, who was the leader of the group. The group believed he had a direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and spiritual connections with historical Sufi leaders.

In the group, many young virgin girls were married to adult men. I was not unique. The grooming started at an early age. The Sheik encouraged men to marry virgins and told them that “marriage was half of [their] faith.”

We were taught that questioning anything about the group or the Sheik was wrong. We were supposed to have faith and not question. His followers believed that the Sheik would be their salvation during the end of the world, which was imminent. They would ask him about important life decisions, such as who to marry and when, what to name their children, when to travel, or what they should do in marital and other life matters. His followers supported him financially and those who gave more money were rewarded with a higher status in the group structure. My father was close to the Sheik and asked him frequently about many of his family decisions. The Sheik advised him to marry me off and even picked my groom. 

In the group, many young virgin girls were married to adult men. I was not unique. The grooming started at an early age. 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, we were told in many different ways that a woman’s highest role was to be a mother and a wife. We were not encouraged to think about a career or anything beyond what our group’s practices were. 

Sara at her Nikkah ceremony, aged 15.

I was told that when a man married a woman, the woman had to have sex with him whenever and wherever he wanted it. I was also told that birth control was not allowed because if God wanted you to get pregnant that was “His will.” We were taught to hide our bodies because men could not control their urges. We were taught that we needed the protection of a male in order to navigate the dangerous outside world. We were taught to be afraid of the influence of non-believers on our faith. We were taught to be suspicious of anyone who challenged our insular views. 

The followers that did leave, like my mother, were constantly spoken about negatively. My mother was a target because she left my father to pursue her own career and freedom. She was also forced into her marriage at the age of nineteen. She left the religion when she left my father. Because of that, we were told that the Sheik labeled her a “shaytana,” which meant she was considered a “she-devil.” I was told that my mother did not love me, which was why she left. She was a scapegoat for anything that went “wrong” with me and was often used as an example of how not to be. I was frequently compared to her likeness and was also considered to be a black sheep in my own family because she was my mother and I could be under her dangerous “influence” because of that.

My Marriage: An Imprisonment

Being married to an older man was like being a prisoner. I didn’t even have control over my own body. My reproductive rights were taken from me. I did not drive, go to school, have friends my age, or anything that was mine alone. My freedom and youth were completely robbed. I felt like I lost myself after I was married. I felt hollow and numb to any emotion. I remember having to appease my husband constantly. I was constantly trying to not make him angry and when he did lose his temper, I blamed myself. 

After I was forced to marry, my entire world got cut off. My childhood seemed like a distant memory. All of the things I had enjoyed at my mother’s house were gone. I was pulled out of school and taken abroad to a country where they only spoke French. I did not understand the language at the time. I became pregnant almost immediately. We returned to California when I was 16—and 6 months pregnant. Shortly after, we were legally married in Reno, Nevada in a drive-through wedding chapel, a short 4-hour driving trip from the Bay Area where we lived.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CHILD MARRIAGE IN THE U.S.

In California, my ex-abuser would have been brought up on charges of statutory rape if my mother had known what was going on before our marriage was formalized in law. The age of sexual consent in California was, and still is, 18. I was told that I could not have any contact with my mother and was kept from talking to her except when I was coached to lie to her over the phone. I was also coached on what to tell other people who were not in the group, such as doctors or other adults. 

I felt isolated and alone. I began to identify with my abuser(s) in what is commonly referred to as Stockholm Syndrome. Much of my marriage was difficult and filled with a lot of pain and anguish. I blamed myself for what happened and for a long time I felt powerless to change it. 

How I Won My Freedom

Freedom for me came as a slow realization that something was not right about my “marriage.” I realized I needed to gain independence for myself and my children. In order to break free of my marriage, I felt that I had to gain financial independence. This realization started after my first child, my daughter, was born.

I was 17, depressed, and living in an apartment with my ex-abuser in Fremont. I often walked to the park with my daughter and would watch girls my age going to school and I started to question myself, “why can’t I go to school?” I started asking these questions internally at first, and then to my husband and group members. I was met with disparagement from the women in the group and was told that my place was in the home taking care of my daughter. “Your husband will provide,” I was told.

[My husband] would constantly berate me anytime I went out. He would ask me where I had been. He asked about any money I spent and would interrogate me about each of my purchases…He would find ways to put me down, by saying that I was a bad mother, or that I was selfish.

We bounced around a lot, from peoples’ homes to different rentals, to his parents’ home. I felt that in order to escape I had to start working or else I would end up being homeless. I started slowly, by getting my GED from a local community adult school. I learned many useful skills by going to classes, like how to get on public transportation, apply for school loans, and arrange for child care. These were things I had no idea about before and learning how to navigate the outside world felt empowering. My classmates would be shocked when I would share how young I was and that I was married and had children. This led me to further question the situation I was in.

My husband’s controlling tendencies became more apparent to me after I went back to school. He would constantly berate me anytime I went out. He would ask me where I had been. He asked about any money I spent and would interrogate me about each of my purchases. He had trouble keeping a job, he would work for a while and then quit.  He would call his parents for money or we would move to another place. He would ask me to call my family for money.

At one point, I took a job as a babysitter for one of his friends. He made me return the money to his friend after I got paid for the very first time. He would find ways to put me down, by saying I was a bad mother, or that I was selfish. Arguments were intense and would usually end up with me apologizing to him for making him angry. This was my first relationship. I had no concept of what a healthy one looked like and in mine I had little control. 

It took me 10 years to leave my marriage. I started working as a chef after graduating from a culinary school program at San Francisco City College. This allowed me to bring home a paycheck and I finally felt I could stand up for myself. I told my ex it was over the same day I got my first paycheck! 

We separated and he left California with the kids to go back to his country with the agreement that he would return them once I got my own place. Instead, he tried to keep my children from me. I would not accept that and with some money I had borrowed from my brother I flew out to his country and demanded my kids be sent home. Once they returned home, I filed for divorce. 

The last time my ex assaulted me was when he came back to the United States for a court appearance. I had taken him to see my son’s preschool because I wanted to show him how well the kids were doing. He constantly accused me of being a bad mother, so I was always trying to prove I was a good one. On the car ride home, he tried to push me from a moving vehicle while my kids were screaming in the back of the car. He threw my phone out of the window so I could not call the police. I was lucky to escape.

I just knew I had to get away from him and never be in contact with him alone again. I fought for 3 years to get my divorce finalized. 

Next month, Sara will continue her story by writing about her activism to end child marriage in the U.S.


VISIT SARA’S WEBSITE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HER ADVOCACY

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