Opinion For the sake of a visa, I was forced into marriage in Arizona — at age 15

(Samia Ahmed for The Washington Post)

Sasha K. Taylor is a forced child marriage survivor and former FBI analyst based in D.C.

When I was 15 years old and living in Arizona, I was forced by my family to become a visa bride.

I am a U.S. citizen, ethnically Pashtun, born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Arizona. In the early 1990s, I was a girl like any other — one who loved writing in her diary, Stephen King novels and the New Kids on the Block (especially Joey).

Then one day, I got off the school bus and everything changed. My grandmother told me to dress for a dinner party at my uncle’s home. After dinner, a chair was placed in the center of the family room, and I was asked to sit. A woman walked up to me, put a gold chain around my neck and asked if the marriage proposal was okay. I didn’t understand. My grandmother and mother flashed me stern looks. I gazed down and didn’t speak.

Soon everyone started hugging and saying “mubarak” — congratulations. My heart sank. I realized I had just been forced into a marriage proposal, or “rishta” — a prelude to a “nikah,” or Muslim wedding — to a man who needed to stay in the United States when his visa expired. He was seven years older than me. I’d never met him.

Sasha K. Taylor discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

The nikah, a religious contract, is not legally recognized under U.S. marriage law. But Arizona’s marriage law and loopholes in U.S. immigration law meant my family still had avenues by which they could exploit and force me — a U.S. citizen and a minor — into marriage.

Marriage before age 18 is legal in 44 of 50 states, according to Unchained at Last, an organization working to end child marriage in the United States. In states with no age minimum, children as young as 10 have been forced into marriage. At the time of my engagement, the legal age of consent to marry in Arizona was 15. (Now it’s 16 with parental permission or legal emancipation.)

But let’s be clear: “Consent” simply cannot apply in this context. When minors are pressured by their families and have zero legal authority, it’s impossible for them to consent.

Within months of my forced engagement, I was married in an Arizona courthouse. Because I was a minor, my husband became my legal guardian and was able to fill out his own visa application, naming me as his sponsor.

The United States tolerates the forced marriage of minors in other contexts as well. Had Arizona refused to marry me, I still could have been forced into a nikah abroad, then had that marriage legally recognized by the United States — where the law says marriages are valid for immigration purposes if they’re valid under the law of the jurisdiction in which they’re performed.

In my family, there have been three generations of forced marriages. My grandmother was married off while in a refugee camp in Karachi. My mother was forced into marriage, also at 15, in Karachi. Many of the girls arriving from Afghanistan in recent months may be free from the brutality of the Taliban, but they are not free from families who believe in a culture of forced marriage.

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I spent my high school years living with my family but legally married. Once I’d moved into my husband’s family home, I couldn’t leave unless he was with me. I stopped seeing my family, though they lived 15 minutes away. His family would go out so he could be “alone” with me. Let there be no doubt about this: Girls forced into marriage are raped.

Victims of forced marriage face severe lifelong consequences including physical, sexual and economic abuse; medical and mental health problems; denial of education; and a loss of freedom to make their own futures. The United States must act to protect children from this fate.

Congress should reform immigration law by raising the minimum visa sponsorship age to 18; bills under review in the House and Senate would do just that. It should also close the loophole that allows families to isolate and exploit their children who are U.S. citizens by sending them abroad — first to marry, then to be used as visa sponsors.

To ensure against coercion, any visa application should require an in-person interview with a U.S. visa official for a minor about to be married, with no family member allowed to be present. And Congress should protect children across the country by passing legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, with no exceptions.

I escaped my forced marriage in 1996. Recently, I started a media company to tell stories of perseverance among South Asian women in the United States who have survived the worst of the worst. First up is a project on the women in my family — survivors all.

Sasha K. Taylor discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.