Mariam was a sixth-grader in Toronto when her family started pressuring her to get engaged. They sent her on a summer trip to their native Pakistan, ostensibly to study but actually to meet a fiance chosen by her aunt. When she protested after returning home, she said, her mother kept insisting and wearing her down.
"She cried a lot. She prayed loudly to God that I would change. She refused to speak to me for days. She told me the family's honor was at stake," recounted Mariam, now 20, who asked that her last name not be published. "I wanted to finish school and go to college, but at times I almost said yes, just so she would stop crying."
Finally, when she turned 17, Mariam decided to leave home — an unthinkable act in her culture. With encouragement from a women's rights group, she slipped out early one morning, taking a small bag. No shelter would accept her, because she had not been physically abused, and she felt racked with guilt and loneliness. Eventually, though, she found housing, friends and a measure of emotional independence.
Today, Mariam is active in a growing movement in the United States and Canada to promote public awareness and legal protections for victims of forced marriage. She visited Washington last week as part of a nationwide tour organized by the Tahirih Justice Center, a legal aid and advocacy group in the Virginia suburbs that helps immigrant women facing abuse.
According to officials at Tahirih, a 2011 survey of social agencies and other experts reported as many as 3,000 suspected or confirmed cases of forced marriage in the United States over the previous two years. They said the practice is found in many immigrant communities, especially among South Asians, from the Washington suburbs to ethnic enclaves in cities including Houston, New York and San Francisco.
Nevertheless, they said, there is no U.S. law against the practice, and laws that could help victims in some regions are more geared to victims of kidnapping or physical violence. Moreover, many shelters and welfare agencies are unfamiliar with forced marriage and ill-equipped to help young women fleeing it.
Many traditional societies observe the custom of arranged marriage, in which family relationships matter more than individual choice. Such weddings forge lifelong alliances between families and are seen as ensuring that young couples have compatible backgrounds. The intended bride and groom meet, spend time together and consent to the union.
Forced marriage is less common and illegal in most countries, but it is harder to define or prove. A daughter may be ordered to marry someone she may not know or like, such as an older relative, a stranger or someone who is owed a debt. If she is extremely young, she may not know the arrangement has been made. Even if she finally agrees under pressure, activists assert that such marriages are neither fair nor legitimate.
"Families use a range of coercive tactics, and there is a lot of emotional blackmail," said Jeanne Smoot, the legal director at Tahirih. "If a mother says to her daughter, 'You will be dead to your parents,' or 'This will kill your grandmother' or 'I will kill myself if you don't marry him,' " Smoot said, "that is as coercive as a gun to the head."
Tahirih has been working for the past three years with a coalition of women's groups in North America on the campaign to curb forced marriage. They met with White House officials last week, asking for national legislation similar to a new law in the United Kingdom that makes forced marriage a crime, and they have put on dramatic readings and skits in five U.S. cities this spring that tell the stories of girls like Mariam.
Although better laws can help young women resist family pressure or report physical abuse, they can also backfire in complicated domestic situations and add to public prejudice against certain immigrant groups. Many young victims of forced marriage are loath to bring charges against their parents because of the shame it would bring.
"It is important for us not to criminalize all of South Asian culture, to suggest that the West is a safe place where girls flee from terrible oppression," said Aaliya Zaveri, an official of a South Asian women's aid group in New Jersey called Manavi. "In cultures where family duty and honor are so important, this is not what the girls themselves want."
What victims do want, the advocates said, is a way to escape from intolerable, even if well-intentioned, pressure to marry. But they often face dead ends, because most shelters and service agencies do not view such pressure as an abusive emergency and local laws fall short of offering full protection, even if a girl is about to be flown abroad to marry against her will.
In one such case in Virginia, Tahirih officials said, a high school student sought help from school counselors, saying her parents had arranged her marriage back in their homeland and were punishing her for resisting. The local child protective services office declined to take her case, so Tahirih lawyers appealed to a judge to protect her. The girl was sheltered in a private house, and the judge confiscated her family's passports.
"Legally, we were skating on thin ice," said Layli Miller-Muro, executive director at Tahirih, explaining that child protection laws in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia are geared more for kidnapping and trafficking than family conflicts. "If the judge hadn't bent over backwards, we could have been charged with aiding a delinquent minor. This is why we need laws that are clearly designed for scenarios of forced marriage."
In a case in Texas, a counselor said she could do nothing to help a young woman who called as her parents were preparing to fly her to Pakistan for a wedding. She came back married and called the counselor again, saying her parents were now pressuring her to sign immigration papers for the groom.
"They wanted her to sponsor a spouse she had never wanted to marry," said Nusrat Ameen, the case manager at a women's legal aid center in Houston. "They stopped paying her school fees and took away her car. She keeps calling me, and I tell her to be assertive about her rights, but there are a lot of gray areas and strong cultural feelings that you have to obey your parents. It can be very hard to define abuse."
In many such families, disputes over early marriage can be part of broader generational conflicts in which Asian-born parents seek to control and protect their Western-raised daughters, who yearn for modern freedoms such as dating boys, staying out late, and wearing makeup and party clothes.
But advocates at Tahirih and other agencies said they have made few inroads into family counseling or public education within immigrant communities, partly because of cultural resistance and partly because they place a higher priority on rescuing or protecting the young women who call their hotlines for help.
"Many times, families are not interested in intervention," said Usha Amachandran, who runs a women's aid program in San Francisco. "In the South Asian community, no one wants to talk about things like domestic violence or forced marriage. But we are in the business of talking about uncomfortable things, and it is very much needed."
In Washington last week, Mariam and several other young women performed skits at a Busboys and Poets cafe in Washington that reflected their contradictory feelings about parental demands. One played both herself and her parents calling her a slut and a "bad daughter." Another held an imaginary phone conversation with her mother, saying she believed "family comes first" but insisting that if she stayed at home and acquiesced to marriage, "I'll have to bury part of myself."
Mariam said she eventually overcame her guilt and sorrow about leaving home. She was able to enroll in college and earn money making clothes, and she plans to become a fashion designer while keeping up her activism. She never fully reconciled with her parents but said she keeps in touch with them "on my own terms."
"For me, it is important to talk to victims who are in situations like I was, to let them know they do have options," she said. "The system failed me, and it fails many girls."