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Shedding Light On Forced Marriage In America

Forced marriage in America. Muslim. Hindu. Jewish. More. A big new exposé tells the story. We’ll hear it.

Vadya Sri tells the story of her forced marriage, which happened more than 25 years ago. (Courtesy Sarah Fournier)

Vadya Sri tells the story of her forced marriage, which happened more than 25 years ago. (Sarah Fournier for Al Jazeera America)

“Forced marriage” sounds so outlandish, distant, exotic, foreign.  But when a team of young grad students went out to look around in this country, they found plenty.  Forced marriage, in America.  In corners of American Muslim communities.  Hindu communities.  Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities.  Young women, typically, forced into marriages they do not want.  With men they barely know.  Under all kinds of pressure and leverage.  And very little American law to protect them.  Al Jazeera America has published their exposé. This hour On Point:  Forced marriage in America.

– Tom Ashbrook


Alyana Alfaro, co-author of an Al Jazeera America four-part series on forced marriage in America. (@AlyanaAlfaro)

Vidya Sri, fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Founder of GangaShakti, a support and research organization for women in forced marriages.

Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to helping women avoid and leave forced marriages. (@thefraidycat)

From Tom’s Reading List

Al Jazeera America: Till death do us part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage — “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.”

Salon: Can a spoon end forced marriage? — “Last year, the U.K. Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit received its largest cluster of complaints — 400 of them —  between the months of June and August. It’s estimated that anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 girls in the UK are forced into marriage every year – and up to a third of them are under age 16. And girls trapped into marriage and motherhood are girls who are being abused, period.”

Columbia Journalism Review: How I got that story – ” I’m French and my grandmother was in the Jewish community in France, and got into sort of an arranged marriage—but she didn’t really have the choice to say no. She wasn’t threatened or anything, or what we describe in the article, but it’s a slippery slope…It was weird for me to think about the fact that my grandparents and my mother and me wouldn’t exist without that marriage.”

Resources And Tools For Forced Marriage Victims And Allies

*Producer’s Note: In the opening segment of this broadcast, a 2011 report prepared by the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative was mistakenly attributed to a different organization. A link to the original report can be found here.

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  • HonestDebate1

    I don’t understand why feminist organizations like NOW are silent on this issue.

    • Grigalem

      Maybe because you don’t read, talk to people or go out much.

      • hennorama

        Grigalem — facts (such as those below) don’t really matter to the DishonestPontificating1.



        • HonestDebate1

          So they applauded the UN for taking a stand, Whoopdee too. NOW themselves ought to be screaming from the mountaintops.

          Why the hate? Have you got nothing better to do than to stalk me and make silly comments. The blog doesn’t need that. Just never mind, I was trying to add to the discussion but if your personal vendettas and ideology are going to be this disruptive then go ahead and bask in it without me.

          • Ennis Demeter

            You remind me of the people on Fox News complaining that feminists never criticized the Taliban once they heard about it for the first time in 2001. Never mind that the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights was widely reported by feminists AND by NPR. They even had a member of the Taliban on Talk of the Nation BEFORE 9/11.

      • HonestDebate1

        What kind of reply is that? I searched their website and saw nothing. I read a lot, talk to many and live in the real world. But I am stupid so maybe I missed it.

        Surely they’ve taken a stand at some point but this is not an issue they go to bat for.


    Thank you for your story on sainted institution of “traditional marriage.”

  • J__o__h__n

    Thanks again religion.

  • George Potts

    Will anyone be critical of Islam on this program or will that be considered prejudicial?

    • hennorama

      George Potts — if you have a criticism, feel free to share it.

      • George Potts

        This is becoming ‘multicutural mumbo-jumbo”.

  • Dan

    “Multiculturalism” is just an excuse to look the other way.

    Let’s think critically and help people.

  • skelly74

    I thought that progressives are supposed to accept other cultural norms as “exotic rituals” to be respected and left alone to flourish under the umbrella of American tolerance.

    Multiculturalism is welcoming everyone and their way of life into your own way of life. We can’t pick and choose what expects of someone’s culture we decide to accept in our society- then we would be practicing “forced socialization”. So un-American.

    We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

    • J__o__h__n

      I thought the progressives were going to force everyone into a socialist nanny state. It is so hard to keep track of right wing hyperbole.

    • skelly74

      What next? There will be a campaign to make young Muslim women take off their burkas because “we” decided it’s too hot for them to wear on a hot summer day…slippery slope folks.

      • J__o__h__n

        No, because they are dehumanizing and oppressive.

        • skelly74

          Says you? I think suits and ties are oppressive and shaving my face is dehumanizing, but the American culture defines that fashion and hygiene as classy. Potato, potato. Its still a potato.

          • J__o__h__n

            No one is forced to shave or wear a suit and tie.

          • skelly74

            The New York Yankees are forced. The politicians; the priests of legislation; they are basically forced to look the part.

            Lets not be blind to our cultural “norms” only because people choose not to abide by them, but they may find themselves in a different caste position if they don’t have a pa$$.

          • J__o__h__n

            A job requirement isn’t the same thing as there are myriad jobs to chose from. It is a bit harder to chose to not be a woman. Politicians aren’t forced to wear suits. Even Mitt campaigned without one. Obama frequently doesn’t wear a tie.

          • skelly74

            Yes, and the Pope doesn’t wear his hat. Why? They all want the sheeple to think that they are not actors from the “system” they represent. Most people tend to distrust systems they are not intimately associated with.

            Focusing on the woman issue is the prime tool people use to create a “victim”. People always pay attention to victims.

            Males also have to abide by the rituals of their customs. Lets not classify women as victims because “we” decide our daughters would feel victimized. Are orthodox Jews victims because they have to wear top hats and curly sideburns clothed in wool suits? The Amish? The priests? What about the poor nuns?

            Do you think Hilary likes wearing pants suits?

    • AliceOtter33

      Multiculturalism does not mean moral relativism. I agree that the courts should not be in the business of cherry-picking aspects of minority cultures to define as illegal or ignoring others for fear of being deemed culturally insensitive. However, it seems reasonable to at least enforce the protection of basic human rights of the individuals who are seeking to leave a forced marriage.

      • skelly74

        More important than love, marriage is a legally binding contract. When the love is gone these people are left with the financial burden of dissolving a marriage.

        I know quite a few people who would love to classify their marriage as “forced”. The judges and lawyers would have a field day arguing the merits of a forced marriage and the redistribution of any wealth once they help dissolve the union.

  • George Potts

    That High School teacher that just called must stop being allowed to brainwash his students with his idiocy.

  • AliceOtter33

    The focus on culture is wrong-headed. Forced marriage seems more like an economic class issue.

    The laws could have more teeth if they focus on fraud and economic coercion – as your guest suggests.

    I know a couple who immigrated from Pakistan. Their marriage was arranged, but they were both in their late twenties and educated professionals when they married. They are happily married – but theirs was a lateral move socio-economically.

  • Michiganjf

    Would you consider promiscuity and objectification possible outcomes that are “detrimental to society?”

    Is that the danger of our own cultural “norms,” about which other cultures are suspicious?


    • Ennis Demeter

      You know who has the right answers? The human being whose future and life is at stake. Let women and girls have full power of whether and whom they marry, and their “promiscuity” is none of your business.

  • George Potts

    13 is a great age for girls to get married. Especially when they are force.

    • hennorama

      George Potts — if this is your view, then you likely agree with this individual:

      “Marry girls when they’re ’15 or 16,’ said ‘Duck Dynasty’ star Phil Robertson”


      (HLNtv.com) — “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson is ruffling feathers again, this time for comments he made years ago about how girls should marry when they’re still teenagers.

      “They got to where they’re getting hard to find, mainly because these boys are waiting ’til they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ‘em,” Robertson says in a video clip that resurfaced Monday. “Look, you wait ’til they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.”

      “In the video, Robertson is recounting an anecdote at a speaking engagement. He describes the story as “river rat counseling” he was giving to a “boy” of unknown age and — referring specifically to marrying teenage girls — also advises the crowd to “check with Mom and Dad about that, of course.” Robertson is four years older than his wife, Kay, whom he married when she was 16 years old, according to A&E’s website.

      “The reality show patriarch was speaking at a Georgia Sportsmen Ministry event when he recounted this advice, according to the video’s description. The clip was originally posted in 2009 by YouTube user wakemakerducks, which is also the name of Robertson’s company. It was posted again to YouTube on Monday.

      In the newly resurfaced footage, Robertson also lists other qualities he advised the boy to look for in a future wife.

      “Make sure that she can cook a meal. You need to eat some meals that she cooks, check that out. Make sure she carries her Bible. That’ll save you a lot of trouble down the road,” he said.”


      • George Potts

        You don’t understand sarcasm, do you.

        You go after the Fundamental Christians, who get prosecuted for underage marriage, but when it is the Islamic and Hindu cultures, the courts give the a pass.

        • hennorama

          George Potts — thank you for your response.

          I understood your comment. Perhaps you missed the word “if” in my reply.

          Regardless, you seem to hold a view that religions other than Christianity, especially Islam, deserve criticism. Yet you seem unwilling or unable to voice your criticisms and objections, other than what you seem to feel is some bias against Christianity.

          Please correct any misunderstanding.

          Thanks again for your response.

  • sickofthechit

    The anthropologist needs to take a course in Logic and stop confusing middle schoolers with his distorted “reasoning”. charles a, bowsher

    Going to college opens up a person’s horizons, it does not narrow them.

  • pepperbox

    Hello, Tom! Where in the discussion is the point that this is a gender-based issue? It’s not like boys are complaining. Isn’t this all about power and inequality? How different is this than telling girls they can’t go to school?

  • George Potts

    They prosecute the christians, but the other religions get a pass.

  • M S

    Personal agency over group identity! Forgot the so-called “nuance”.

  • truegangsteroflove

    This would be a good topic for a social scientist to study. It seems there is a broad continuum of family influence on marriage, ranging from uncaring to physical force. I’m not sure how a researcher would gather data, but it would be interesting to see the relative frequency of differing degrees of influence and coercion.

    I also wonder why some ethnicities have no coercion, such as Irish. It may have something to do with how much gender separation there is in childhood, at what age they start separating, and how strict is the enforcement.

  • George Potts

    Sorry you are unhappy, but we are a multicultural society and we do not want to judge your cultural norms of minimization of women.

    Tom, do you want to change your statement?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patricia-Dickerson-Lemon/1592900607 Patricia Dickerson Lemon

    If marriages could not be registered except by an officer of the law (judge, justice of the peace, etc.) like in France AND the officer had to be from another culture or society (NOT like in France), and if parents who forced their daughters into marriage lost their citizenship and work visas, we could make some inroads into this problem.

    • Miriam Esther

      in an ideal society, that might work … however, there have been instances of government officials ‘taking’ a bride the night before her wedding ….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patricia-Dickerson-Lemon/1592900607 Patricia Dickerson Lemon

    The civil marriage would have to take place BEFORE the religious ceremony.

  • caroline

    Also from a an anthropolgical perspective: culture is inherited, learned and innately accepted, and it does not exist in a vacuum. We are forgetting these subcultures exist in a greater culture. For better or worse american, western, immigrant, diaspora, are all part of the identities of these communities. Whatever cultural advantages these marriages may have served traditionally, they are not working with their new, cultural identities and society in which they exist. This is the reason for children, who have learned naturally this new identity, to clash with what feels like an unnatural tradition. It is not a matter of all cultures being coercive, it is a
    matter of socialization. The older generations “nostalgia” for cultural appendages are clashing with the natural enculturation of the younger generations. Law enforcement will further the divide. We need culturally sensitive social workers in communities helping to mitigate these challenges- helping to maintain the integrity of the cultural glue of the community while opening options for adaptation.

  • Give_Me_Liberty_92

    Tom, your interpretation of multiculturalism follows a line of thinking that, as much as it is commonly heard around here, is deeply flawed.

    America is a tapestry of many cultures, but what has been -for many years- the hallmark of America is the understanding that all these “cultures” will melt and lose their identity somewhat over the course of an “americanization” process. The Constitution and the promises we make at our naturalization oaths becomes our new identity.

    If we wish for a more perfect Union, we are supposed to leave our baggage back at the old country -I would know, I’m an immigrant myself. What happened to ‘Irish on saint patrick’s day, American every other day”?

    The idea that all cultures are worth of respect is nonsense and it’s not in the DNA of America. Individuals members of any culture are always worth of respect and protection under the law, their freedom to express their believes is surely worth of respect. But the content of their “cultures”, especially when it affects other individuals’ -especially minors- rights? Not really. Society has no duty to respect individual rights violations in the name of multiculturalism.

    When it happens that may be an America some professional multiculturalists wish for, but it is not the one our Constitution speaks of, as acknowledged many time by the Supreme Court.

    At the cost of being accused of “reduction ad hitlerium”, we don’t respect nazi supremacist cultures, we don’t respect islamic fundamentalists and their sharia law practices. We discriminate -and rightly so- against a whole plethora of “cultures” all the time. And if you want to stand for something and not being like a boat shaking about without pilot, that’s unavoidable.

  • nashbash

    this is so true, Give_Me_Liberty_92, what you said…

    “Society has no duty to respect individual rights violations in the name of multiculturalism.”

  • Miriam Esther

    ‘forced’ marriage is not allowed under Jewish law …. the woman speaking about this on behalf of the Jewish religion was not ostracized because of her divorce but because she didn’t want to follow the religion … her organization was founded to help women get out of marriages when the husband did not agree …. the question was never actually asked of her whether or not her marriage was ‘forced’ …. but she does talk alot about young girls (and, except in rare cases, they are over 18 in the orthodox Jewish circles) not really wanting to but doing it anyway … there is nothing forced about that … that is a young woman making bad decisions …. the same as in any other culture where women have a choice of whether and whom to marry … and divorce is also permitted in Judaism …. a woman is not ostracized (and, in fact, she is provided with additional services in many cases as the community tries to help her) unless she is also leaving behind the practices of Judaism which are customary in the circles in which the couple were married and lived …. to say ‘Fraidy’ was overstepping would be an understatement ….

  • Miriam Esther

    kudos to Judy from Milwaukee for calling out the panelist …. ‘forced’ marriage is not allowed under Jewish law …. the woman speaking about this on behalf of the Jewish religion was not ostracized because of her divorce but because she didn’t want to follow the religion … her organization was founded to help women get out of marriages when the husband did not agree …. the question was never actually asked of her whether or not her marriage was ‘forced’ …. but she does talk alot about young girls (and, except in rare cases, they are over 18 in the orthodox Jewish circles) not really wanting to but doing it anyway … there is nothing forced about that … that is a young woman making bad decisions …. the same as in any other culture where women have a choice of whether and whom to marry … and divorce is also permitted in Judaism …. a woman is not ostracized (and, in fact, she is provided with additional services in many cases as the community tries to help her) unless she is also leaving behind the practices of Judaism which are customary in the circles in which the couple were married and lived …. to say ‘Fraidy’ was overstepping would be an understatement ….

    • Florian Miyagi

      well the same goes for islam yet it still happens. what a religion proposes in theory and the pratices don’t neccesarily coincide. having written that, i have not read listend to the program yet but i will listen intently on the part of judaism.

      • Miriam Esther

        what is the same in islam? does islam not direct men to take brides of a much younger age? is it not true that ‘women’ (usually children) don’t have a say but must marry whom they are told?

        • Florian Miyagi

          nope. but i’ll leave it to you to figure that one out. i somehow doubt you’re interested though…

          • Miriam Esther

            you made a statement, i’m asking you what you mean ….. if you don’t want to take the time to tell me, why should i be interested in figuring it out?

          • Florian Miyagi

            1. islam does not direct men to take brides at much younger ages. there are islamic cultures in which this happens, for example afghanistan, but this is not to be blamed on islam. to go forth and slaughter people by the thousands is not written in the bible, yet somehow christians at the time justified it. i would say that the crusades are a part of christian history but would not go so far as to say that christianity as a religion directs christian to organize or partake in them.

            2. forced marriage does happen in some islamic societies but again i would not go so far as to say that it is “islamic” in itself. turkey, a majority islamic country, is a strict secular state. afghanistan or saudi are not the only islamic states in the world – though i would agree in saying that they are any many ways very backwards. with afghanistan it is a little more complicated because it traditionally was a society which was religiously heavily influenced by sufi islam which in many ways is very liberal. alot of the wahabi islam, which in many areas is so prevelant now, is a relatively new phenomanon, which started during the fighting against the soviets. another really interesting aspect of islam is the divorce system. though it may not comply with our ideas of divorce today one has to keep in mind when it was wirtten and that it was far more “friendly” towards women than any christian systems at the time. catholics still don’t allow divorce… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_in_Islam

            having written this – i am not a muslim and actually never thought i’d be in a position to “defend” or at least explain some aspects of islam. ;) i lived in the united arab emirates for more than 5 years in my youth and hated every day. i am by no means fan of any religion including islam. i find the way it is praticed in the gulf states in many ways dispicable – from the treatment of women to many anti-western notions. but i still believe that this is not neccesarily due to the religion but to large part goes back on cultural pratices. islam in south east asia or south asia is traditionally extremely liberal. sadly though through money from the saudis it is als slowly becoming more influenced by wahabi sideologie. tada!

            i’m in a hurry so i didn’t proof read so pls forgive my mistakes (engl isn’t my first laguage) take care and all the best and thankyou for this discussion.

    • Ennis Demeter

      Why don’t you use periods? I am genuinely curious.

      • Miriam Esther

        lol … Ennis a period seems too final for me … i do use them in business writings but conversations online seem much less informal and i prefer keeping others ‘hanging’ so to speak …

        • Miriam Esther

          and i never really finish speaking …. ;~)

  • Ennis Demeter

    Easy for a man to make the comparison he made. I wonder what he would say if he heard tell of a cultural norm that has parents forcing their teenage sons to go be sex and household servants to much older and stronger men.

  • Ennis Demeter

    Human culture developed by disregarding the wishes and well being of the most powerless members of the group. That’s what forced marriage usually is- utter and complete disregard for girls’ health, education and autonomy. It has ever been thus. It’s “culture” the same way slavery is.

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