Al Jazeera America takes a look at forced marriages in the US.
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.
And that went as well as you would expect – she didn’t like him, she didn’t want to have sex with him, she was miserable.
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.
But it could be more; it’s hidden; it’s humiliating and shaming.
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 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.
The FLDS contribute a large number all by themselves – and they don’t get counted because they hide. They really hide.
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.
Or to put it another way, domestic violence that is ok because it is a “cultural practice.” Some guy getting drunk and punching his wife or girlfriend, that’s domestic violence, but a stone-cold sober guy chastising his wife for disobeying him, that’s a cultural practice.