Sometime in mid-2017, Maarib Al Hishmawi’s parents told her they had found a man for her to marry.
Soon, he would pay the family $20,000, they said, according to investigators in Texas. After that, 15-year-old Maarib would move to another city and be his bride.
When Maarib balked, her parents insisted — violently. They beat her with broomsticks, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said. They choked her “almost to the point of unconsciousness.” They threw hot oil on her.
The only way to make the violence stop was to relent — or to at least make her parents think she had.
Maarib said she would go through with the marriage. But as her wedding date neared, she was working on a plan. On Jan. 30, Maarib walked out of Taft High School in San Antonio and disappeared.
Authorities began to search for the 5-foot-5, 150-pound girl and speculated that she may have been returned to the Middle East, according to San Antonio ABC affiliate KSAT. They asked the FBI to assist, in part to help navigate language and cultural barriers that were impeding the investigation.
The increased scrutiny turned up the girl and what Salazar called the “heartbreaking” reason for her disappearance.
“This young lady … was subjected to some pretty bad abuse because she didn’t want to be married to this person,” Salazar said.
On Friday, authorities announced that her parents — Abdulah Fahmi Al Hishmawi, 34, and Hamdiyah Sabah Al Hishmawi, 33 — were arrested and charged with continuous abuse of a family member.
Maarib, now 16, has been placed in the custody of child protective services along with her five siblings, ages 5 to 15. Police have not said whether they suspect those children were also abused, Salazar said, and they won’t say where Maarib fled for help.
But for more than a month, they had suspected that abuse was a factor in her disappearance.
“I cannot speculate on who [abused her] or when or how severe,” BCSO Assistant Chief Deputy Ronald Bennett said in a February news conference, KSAT reported. “I do understand that this has been a recurring issue for her, according to some interviews.”
Authorities have not detailed what they know about the marriage agreement.
Women’s advocacy organizations warn against using the term “arranged marriage” to describe situations like Maarib’s. Marriage is an agreement between two people, and, in some cultures, an arranged marriage can include significant input from family members.
But anything that is “characterized by coercion, where individuals are forced to marry against their will, under duress and/or without full, free and informed consent from both parties,” is not arranged marriage, it’s forced marriage, according to the Canada-based South Asian Women’s Centre (SAWC). Forced marriages include those involving any child under the age of 18 — the age where she can make an informed decision.
Such marriages can also mask human trafficking and domestic violence — and such unions involving minors can be especially onerous, the organization said.
“Her right to education is violated as she likely has to abandon her education, effectively halting her development,” the SAWC said of girls involved in such arrangements. “Child brides who are forced into marriage also find their health at risk as they tend to have children very young, usually before their bodies are ready for childbirth. They also have a higher chance of contracting HIV/AIDS and other STIs.”
Authorities are still trying to decide what to do with the man on the other side of the marriage agreement. Salazar said investigators know who he is, they and told the San Antonio Express-News “it’s highly likely that he’ll be facing charges as well.”
It was unclear on Sunday when Maarib’s parents would face their next court date. Authorities told the Express-News that the family had been in the United States for two years on visas, but they have not revealed which country they emigrated from.
As Maarib’s parents were being led away in handcuffs, the Express-News reported, her father could be heard shouting at the media, blaming his daughter for their arrest.