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I Escaped an Arranged Marriage

"Amina" was supposed to marry a man three times her age, but fled her family before they could make her say her vows.

by Simon Cottee
26 February 2015, 1:00pm

"Amina" (Photos by Roberto Dassoni)

A few months ago, Amina left home. She was due to marry her father's friend: a man from Yemen nearly three times her age. The thought of it terrified her. She had expressed deep reservations from the start, but her father – a well-known sheikh in Canada with a large international following – was adamant that she was to be married and had initiated the sponsorship process to bring her prospective husband over from the Middle East.

It took months for Amina to steel herself to leave, until one day last summer she did it. "I just filled in two bags of my papers and stuff, and told my brother, 'I have to take out the trash,'" she says. "There was a cab waiting for me and I went straight to the shelter."

Amina spent the first few weeks in a shelter in her home town, Kingston, Ontario. But following the advice of the local police, she left and relocated to a new province in Canada. This is because her father, a religious leader in the community with a history of violence, cannot accept Amina's leaving home and is trying to find her to bring her back. It is for this reason that I can't tell you Amina's real name, and why you can't see her face.

According to a recent study conducted by Canada's South Asian Legal Clinic, more than 200 women in Ontario were married against their will between 2010 and 2012. Amina is lucky to have escaped being consigned to this statistic, which the report's authors believe is only the tip of the iceberg, given the culture of secrecy surrounding this issue.

Amina is 18 and, prior to leaving home, was studying biology at university. She is now helping out at the shelter where she currently lives. The morning we meet, she is wearing a purple hijab and a long, loose-fitting dress. Everything but her face and hands is covered.

I ask Amina about her childhood and what it was like growing up as a Muslim in Canada, where she was born and has lived all her life. "My father is the sheikh and is very much respected in the community, so if we don't learn the Quran or if we're moderate it would look terrible for him. He wants us to be completely religious. So there was a lot of pressure."

She remembers spending up to three hours a day studying Arabic and the Quran, and would rarely miss the five daily prayers that are obligatory for Muslims. All this study paid off: by the age of nine she had attained the rare and revered status of a hafiza – someone who can recite the entire Quran in Arabic from memory.

Yet, today, Amina doesn't pray and has all but forgotten the holy book she had once committed to memory. In fact, she's now a disbeliever, a so called "apostate" to the faith: someone who used to follow Islam or identify as a Muslim, but who no longer does. "I want to remove it," she says of her hijab, "it's just I feel completely naked without it. But I'm trying to push myself."

I interviewed Amina twice. The first time was in April last year on Skype. She had read about my research on ex-Muslims via an online forum and contacted me to share her experiences. The second time was in August in Ontario and over a few days.

Apostasy is a sin in classical Islam. The Quran, though it doesn't mandate a worldly punishment for apostasy, threatens eternal torture and damnation for Muslims who leave the faith. In some Muslim-majority countries, apostasy is also a crime punishable by death.

But it isn't a crime in the west; it is a foundational principle. According to Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." This includes the right to change one's religion or belief.

Reformist Muslims concur with this and insist that freedom of religion is mandated by Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Quran: "There is no compulsion in religion."

Amina's father, however, has other ideas. "He thinks apostates should be killed," she says. I ask her what he'd do if she told him about her loss of faith. "That would be the end. He would never accept my apostasy. I cannot imagine it."

Amina first started having doubts about Islam when she was nine years old, even though, by that point, she knew the Quran by heart. But it wasn't until she "stumbled across" the online forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in her mid-teens that she finally "came out" to herself. "I just couldn't agree with most of the stuff, especially with the treatment of women – that got me out of Islam," she tells me. Reading the online testimonies of other ex-Muslims gave her a voice and the confidence to leave. "I tried my hardest to love Allah and love everything in Islam," she says, "but it is hard to force yourself to feel a certain way."

Amina was born in 1997 in Ontario. For the first few years of her life she lived with her mother and brother. Her father had left before she was born and was living in America. But it didn't work out and he returned to his wife and family just after Amina's sixth birthday. Amina says that, according to her mother, her father was once a moderate Muslim. But this was not the man Amina knew growing up in Ontario. It is certainly not the man she has recently fled. Something had happened to him in America – some kind of religious epiphany or conversion – because when he came back he was different. "Maybe he was radicalised there. I don't know," says Amina.

Amina had a troubled upbringing. There was a lot of violence in the home and nearly all of it came her way. It first started when she was just three. A friend of her father's had moved into the family home, where he stayed for two years, subjecting Amina to sexual abuse throughout the duration he was there. When this man left, the sexual abuse didn't end; it was continued by her brother, who is five years older than her.

When Amina's father returned he was different, but so too was his daughter. She was now suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. She couldn't speak and was diagnosed with selective mutism. "I could only talk to my mother and brother, but when it came to other people I just couldn't say a thing," she tells me. Amina was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Amina's father was unaware of the abuse, because Amina – at her mother's insistence – kept it secret from him. "She was aware of all of the sexual abuse from the beginning, but told me to keep my mouth shut because my father would probably murder me," she says. "He thinks rape is the female's fault. If my father knew that I'm not a virgin, I would be in trouble."

Despite knowing about her daughter's abuse, Amina's mother did nothing to stop it, and it went on until she was 13. The general abuse, however, continued after that, when Amina's father returned from the States.

Initially, it was to do with her muteness. Amina's father couldn't understand it. He mistook it for shyness. And he would punish her for it. Often, the catalyst was Amina's inability to read from the Quran. Amina's father, on returning from America, had remodelled himself as a religious leader, setting up his own after-school madrassa for Muslim children in his local area. "He beat me until I read. It was terrible because I couldn't physically read an entire page. But my father would try to force it out of me," says Amina.

According to Amina, this beating was done with a large bamboo stick, which also served as a pointer in class. "He would deliberately avoid the face." Other children accused of indiscipline were also physically punished. "He used to tie up some students and they would get a beating as well."

Amina says that this "didn't really make me dislike Islam". But it did make her hate her father, whose violence gradually escalated to the point where its impact couldn't be hidden. Amina recalls the first time this happened. It was over a damaged Quran: "There was a tear in a page and my father assumed I'd ripped it. He got my hand and put it on the stove."

"My dad was furious with me," she remembers, describing how he beat her so badly that he broke her wrist.

Amina didn't report this, but a teacher from her school, who saw the burn mark, did, and Ontario's Children's Aid Society (CAS) made a visit to the family home, where they interviewed her parents, who said the burn was the result of an accident. Amina recalls that her father was "very angry" because she had "brought kāfir people [unbelievers] into the house." Amina was just seven years old.

Yet, more violence was to come. At the time, Amina – who, by now, at the age of 13, could speak uninhibited – was working with her father at the madrassa, helping to teach classical Arabic and the Quran. She was late for a class. "My dad was furious with me," she remembers, describing how he beat her so badly that he broke her wrist. Her aunt took her to the hospital because of the pain, and Amina was interviewed by a case-worker from CAS. "I said I had accidentally tripped."

A year later, when Amina was 14, her father had tried deporting her to Saudi Arabia, where she was to be married. The prospect of this horrified Amina, who confided her fears to a close friend. Concerned, this friend told her mother, who promptly contacted CAS, which this time intervened and took Amina into foster care. But the whole arrangement was a sham. Amina's father would visit her unsupervised, and when she moved in with her aunt and uncle after two months in care – an arrangement encouraged by CAS – he would take her back home to live, returning her to her aunt and uncle's house whenever her caseworker was due to visit.

During this period away from home, Amina was also harassed by people from her local area. "I got a lot of threats from my old Muslim friends and random people from the community." She felt unsafe travelling to school by bus, because she'd been abused many times by fellow passengers who knew her father. "I had to take taxis instead, but most of the taxi drivers in my city are Muslims and part of the community, and there would be times when they'd drive me to my parents' house instead of to my school."

Amina reported this harassment to CAS, but "nothing happened": the harassment continued and eventually she caved in because she couldn't take it any more. So, after three months away, she went back home.

Amina is convinced that CAS was scared of her father due to his powerful influence in the local Muslim community where her family lives. "I was really angry with CAS because they just tried to avoid my situation, yet they had a reputation for throwing kids into foster care for cases like neglect, but they wouldn't intervene with mine."

It was at this point that the exorcisms began. "My father believes I'm possessed by shaytaans [demons] and jinns [supernatural creatures in Islamic mythology], and that's the reason for my rebelliousness," says Amina.

She recalls how, on a number of occasions, her father, with eight to ten "random" men from the community, would hold her down and make her drink "holy" water – a mixture of water and spit. The men present would also spit directly on Amina, covering her in their saliva. Sometimes she would be beaten so as to "drive out" the shaytaans and jinns from her body. One time, she says, her father enlisted two men to strip her naked and to cover her in a "purifying" oil. Amina recalls telling her CAS case-officer – a Muslim man who was actually friends with her father – about the exorcisms, "but he never did anything". For the entire time this was going on, Amina wasn't allowed to leave the house, and missed an entire semester of school.

Amina was gradually worn down by all this. But she wasn't broken by it, because the second time her father tried to force the issue of marriage she seized the initiative and left. Since leaving, she has had to adjust to shelter life and its hectic "drama". She has also had to deal with the hardship of severing contact with her mother, whom she deeply misses. And there is the lingering worry that her father will somehow find her. "If my father finds me, he'd most likely kill me."

"It's not so simple to go to a shelter or call the cops when you've been raised in a family of ten people living in one house and you have a role and are expected to take care of your younger siblings."

Kiran Opal, a human rights activist and a co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), is intimately familiar with Amina's case, not only because she has directly helped her but because she has been there herself and has had to fight off similar parental pressures, despite coming from what she describes as a "liberal" Muslim family.

EXMNA, which was founded in 2013 in Toronto and Washington, provides a support network for ex-Muslims, helping them deal with the loneliness and stigma associated with leaving Islam. "There's great animosity towards ex-Muslims", Opal says. "You're treated like a traitor, just for not believing the same thing. And you're expected to keep your mouth shut and not criticise the religion."

Speaking to the issue of forced marriage in Muslim communities in Canada, Opal says that for many young Muslim women "there is no option: if they want to have a choice in who they marry and who they have sex with for the rest of their lives they have to break out".

But breaking out is not easy: "Girls from Muslim immigrant families are trapped, financially and emotionally," she explains. "It's not so simple to go to a shelter or call the cops when you've been raised in a family of ten people living in one house and you have a role and are expected to take care of your younger siblings; and you have this strong emotional tie to your community; and you don't want to hurt your mum and bring shame on her, or hurt your little sister, because now your parents have to be even stricter with her."

It is necessary to emphasise that forced marriage is not an exclusively Islamic problem. There are many other non-Muslim cultures in which marriage is highly regulated.

However, it is definitely a problem for Amina, who has had to exile herself from her family and friends so as to avoid it. It is also a problem for Amina's parents, who, when they came to Canada as refugees, brought with them the honour codes of their native Yemen and must now negotiate the shame of having a "rebellious" daughter. And, as Amina was keen to tell me, it is a problem for many other young girls in Canada, too. "There's a lot of girls in my community who've been through the same thing," she says. "Forced marriage is just so common."

When asked about the allegations made by "Amina", Ontario's Children's Aid Society declined to comment, saying they have a policy of not speaking about specific cases.

Dr Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University. He has conducted his research with the support of a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. His book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam is out this month, published by Hurst & Co.

Roberto Dassoni is a filmmaker and photographer.

@simonrcottee

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