I am an American who has lived my whole life in my beloved state of Maryland. I want to stay here and continue raising my children here, but legislators are making that difficult by refusing to take simple steps to eliminate a human rights abuse that nearly destroyed me: child marriage.
I did not want to get married at 17. I wanted to finish high school and attend UCLA. I wanted choices in life and the power to make them. Even after I faked a suicide attempt in hopes that my guardians would realize I thought death would be better than being married off, I was flown to Pakistan, a country and people foreign to me, to marry. Within weeks, I was married off to a stranger and left there.
I was bullied, beaten, shamed and forced to endure marital rape beginning on my wedding night. “Sit still and let him do everything,” my then-sister-in-law told me, because a wife who refuses sex will be cursed by angels throughout the night. I had three pregnancies, all without my consent. I became a remote-controlled toy, sent back and forth between my home in the States and the home of the stranger I had been forced to marry in Pakistan. While he remained in Pakistan awaiting his visa to enter the U.S., I somehow kept my promise to myself and put myself through college, while pregnant, working different jobs and raising my babies on my own in my uncle’s basement.
I withdrew my petition for my then-husband’s visa the day I made the decision to free myself and my children. I took the risk of unchaining myself from the generational cycle of abuse on the same day my uncle told me my only way out of my marriage was my death, because getting a divorce is the worst thing a Muslim woman could do. I broke through cultural and religious barriers because my children deserved better. I deserved better.
According to Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the U.S., Maryland is one of 44 U.S. states that still allow child marriage, or marriage before 18. Legal loopholes in the state I love allow children as young as 15 to be entered into marriage.
Maryland has failed a disappointing six times to pass simple legislation to end child marriage, and is now on its way to failing for a seventh time. A bill was reintroduced this year in the General Assembly, House Bill 83/Senate Bill 29, but instead of ending all marriage before age 18, as six other U.S. states have done, the bill would carve out a dangerous and unnecessary loophole for 17-year-olds. That’s the age at which I was forced into marriage and raped repeatedly, and it is the age group most vulnerable to this human rights abuse.
The Senate version of the bill is even worse: It would continue to allow 17-year-olds to be entered into marriage if one party is pregnant or has given birth. Pregnancy loopholes to the marriage age have been used to cover up rape and force girls to marry their own rapists, and Maryland is one of only three states that still has a pregnancy loophole. While most states are moving away from this terrible public policy, the Maryland Senate is clinging to it.
Even mature 17-year-olds can easily be forced into marriage before they turn 18 and attain the full rights of adulthood. They cannot easily leave home, enter a shelter, retain an attorney or independently bring a legal action.
Although I took a risk to free myself and my children, my battle is not over. As an activist to end child marriage, I work with Unchained At Last to advocate for laws that eliminate child marriage. As a mentor to other forced and child marriage survivors, I can give others the support I never had.
But why are there others? Why won’t the legislature simply end all marriage before 18, without exceptions, as six other states have done? This would protect minors from the sexual and physical abuse, trauma, poverty and nonconsensual parenthood that I endure
Aliya Abbas (MoreFreeThinkingPlease@gmail.com) is a child marriage survivor and activist to end child marriage in the United States; she also advocates for the rights of Ex-Muslims and women.