Naila Amin is a survivor of forced and child marriage. She is currently pursuing a degree in human services to help survivors of honor-based violence.
I don’t actually know whether the date of birth on my birth certificate is exact or approximate. That document says I was born to my mother on October, 24, 1989, in the remote village of Formulli, Attock, in Pakistan. My father was away as a merchant marine and was living in America. I was birthed in the privacy of our home by the local midwife.
When I turned four years old, I traveled to America with my pregnant mother and 3 siblings. The first place we ever lived was Astoria, Queens. I remember starting kindergarten and getting used to wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I did not face any real racism from other children until I was about 7 years old. During the summer before second grade, I got my nose pierced. It was common in my culture because when we get married, we wear a jewelry piece called a “Naat”.
I come from the tribal region of the Pashtuns, who live more by the code of Pashtunwali than the religion of Islam. At the age of 8, I was betrothed to my first cousin Tariq, who was 13 years older than me. I went from calling him “lala” – a term of endearment for ‘big brother’ – to suddenly looking at him as my future spouse. It did not really hit me; I mean I was only an 8 year old child.
All of this happened while I was back in Pakistan for a visit. I returned to the United States and started fourth grade. I remember I had a crush on this Greek boy named Leo, I sat there thinking to myself: “Why even bother Naila? You are spoken for. Game over.”
I continued living a relatively normal life up until 2003. I went back to Pakistan for my older brother’s wedding. He was emotionally blackmailed into marrying my mother’s first cousin. People often ask how you can be forced to marry someone you did not want to marry. Sometimes your parents don’t have to put a gun to your head. They just say one word and you feel compelled to sacrifice your whole life to their decision. My parents always used to say they will die or disown me. Losing my family was one of my biggest fears – and a fear so many other young women who have been in my position share. We do not know anything other than our family, so when we are threatened with an ultimatum, we pick our families.
You can love your parents and live your own life accordingly. In Islam, as our Prophet P.B.U.H said, the best thing you can do when two people are in love is to get married. Religion plays no part in forced marriages. It is all cultural and actually forbidden in Islam to force your daughter to get married.
That dreary visit to Pakistan in 2003 changed my life forever. 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 unhappy, and my oldest brother was very well aware of this.
I came back to New York with my family and started high school. 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 basically committing adultery by being with Edy.
I returned home shortly after, just as things got worse. My parents and I got into a physical altercation and I ran away again. Edy took me to the high school the next day. The social worker saw my bruises and called Child Protective Services. I was taken into custody and became a ward of the state.
The foster care system had no idea on what to do with a child like me. There was a lot of turmoil. They were not culturally competent enough. I was probably the first case they ever had of a child bride. There was also a lack of therapists who really understand me. Most importantly there was a lack of resources. They could not even find me one Muslim foster home. They did not even know what halal food was. I remember eating pizza for 3 months straight in the beginning.
I was in these group homes with girls of every ethnicity except for someone like me. Everyone had similar issues, except me. I was the only one there because I had cultural differences with my parents and was there for being too “Americanized.” No one knew how I felt or what was going through my head.
So I ran away from one of the many group homes I was in and I actually went to my parents’ house. I hid out there until my parents got me a ticket to go to Pakistan. I figured I will stay there until I turn 18 and then come back. Then the state won’t have any jurisdiction over me. I totally hated the group home life.
I left for Pakistan in October 2004 while I was still a ward of the state. Three months later came January 5, 2005, the day a part of me died forever. I was sent to go live with my husband Tariq that day. My dad gave him his 15 year old daughter to rape and beat. The first night Tariq 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, my parents as well as his 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 got the ultimate beat downs after I was found, always in front of the whole family. My mother would watch my husband and my father kick me together in the head, yet her screams were never heard.
After one of many attempts to escape, my uncle brought me back and said it will all be okay. I told him: if something happens to me, call Child Protective Services and let them know that I was here and killed in the name of an honor killing, so that they could stop looking for me as a missing person in the U.S.
Luckily, when I returned with my uncle, my husband blamed him for eloping with me. My uncle was furious and called CPS. I was left in Pakistan by myself, while my husband had my passport and my parents returned to the U.S. My mother was arrested, and eventually I was brought back here.
I am extremely lucky to be alive.
We need more resources for survivors of forced marriages and honor killings. My dream is to open up a home for teenagers that want to speak out against these issues. They need a safe haven where their cultural needs will be met so they don’t have to marry someone that they do not wish to. Education and awareness is key.