INTERVIEW-Naila's story: How a New York girl escaped forced marriage

by Stella Dawson | https://twitter.com/stelladawson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 June 2015 17:40 GMT

A young girl runs through a sprinkler at a playground in the Brooklyn borough of New York July 7, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Image Caption and Rights Information
"People always ask, 'How were you forced to marry someone you did not want to marry?'," says Naila, a 25 year-old former child bride

WASHINGTON, June 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Naila Amin was a child bride. As evenings closed in, she would curl up on the floor waiting for the beatings and rape to begin. Only one thing saved her, that she was a ward of New York State.

Today Naila, 25, dreams of opening a home to provide a safe haven for teenagers in the United States trying to escape forced marriage. No one should live through the hell she suffered, she says.

Naila spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York. This is her story, told in her own words:

"People always ask, 'How were you forced to marry someone you did not want to marry?' Sometimes your parents don't have to put a gun to your head. They say one word and you feel compelled to sacrifice your whole life.

That is how it happened for me.

My parents always used to say they would die or disown me. Losing my family was one of my biggest fears, and I think for so many other young women. When we are threatened with an ultimatum, we pick our families. We know nothing else.

I come to America from Pakistan. I was born in a remote village in the Attock tribal region where people live more by the code of Pashtunwali than the religion of Islam. I was born at home, by a local midwide. I don't even know if the time on my birth certificate is exact or approximate.

When I turned four my pregnant mother, three siblings and I travelled to New York City to join my father, who was a merchant marine. I started attending school and wore jeans and T-shirts.

At the age of 8, I mean I was only a child, I was betrothed to my first cousin, Tariq. My family was on a visit to Pakistan. I went from calling him "lala", a term of endearment for big brother, to suddenly looking at him as my future spouse. He was 13 years older than me.

CHILD BRIDE, RUNAWAY

I continued living a pretty normal life in America. I had my nose pierced and I had a crush on a boy, up until 2003. I went back for my older brother's wedding and I had my Nikah done. I was now Tariq's wife according to Islamic law. I was 13 years old, waiting to start high school. I was not happy.

I came back to New York with my family and I met a boy named Edy and we started dating. My family found out and I ran away for the first time ever. I felt so lost and confused. I had broken all the norms and traditions. In my family's eyes, I was married and committing adultery with Edy.

I fought with my parents, a physical fight, and I ran away again. At school, the social worker saw my bruises and called Child Protective Services. I became a ward of the state.

The foster care system had no idea on what to do. I was probably the first case they ever had of a child bride. They could not even find one Muslim foster home. They did not even know what halal food was. I ate pizza for three months straight.

I was the only one there because I had cultural differences with my parents and was there for being too "Americanized". No one knew what was going through my head. I ran away, back to my parents' house, and I hid. My parents bought me an air ticket to Pakistan, and I figured I would stay there until I turned 18.

PART OF ME DIED

I left for Pakistan in October 2004, and three months later here comes January, 5, 2005, the day a part of me died forever. I was sent to live with my husband Tariq that day.

My dad gave him his 15-year-old daughter to rape and beat. The first night he entered our bedroom, I wanted to disappear or have the ground open up and swallow me. He tried to touch me but I was not having it. I remember making a barrier in the bed. It was a very uncomfortable night.

By the second day of our wedding our parents knew we were not happy. I begged my mother to take me home. She said she had no say. I tried running away several times, but always failed. I was beaten in front of the whole family. My mother would watch my husband and my father kick me together in the head. She screamed and screamed but she was never heard.

After one of my escapes, my uncle brought me back. I told him, 'If anything happens to me, you call Child Protective Services and let them know that I was killed in the name of honor.' I was still a ward of New York State.

When I returned, my husband accused my uncle of eloping with me. My uncle was furious, and he called Child Protective Services, and my mother was arrested when she returned to America.

I am extremely lucky to be alive. My father told my husband I had to return to school. I landed at JFK airport in New York, and no one was allowed to leave that plane until I had left. All these police, 20 people, social workers were waiting for me at the door.

They took me to a psychiatric hospital and I woke up in a fetal position. It was the happiest day of my life."

(Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)