Mariam was a sixth-grader in Toronto when her family started pressuring her to get engaged. They sent her on a summer trip to their native Pakistan, ostensibly to study but actually to meet a fiance chosen by her aunt. When she protested after returning home, she said, her mother kept insisting and wearing her down.
“She cried a lot. She prayed loudly to God that I would change. She refused to speak to me for days. She told me the family’s honor was at stake,” recounted Mariam, now 20, who asked that her last name not be published. “I wanted to finish school and go to college, but at times I almost said yes, just so she would stop crying.”
Finally, when she turned 17, Mariam decided to leave home — an unthinkable act in her culture. With encouragement from a women’s rights group, she slipped out early one morning, taking a small bag. No shelter would accept her, because she had not been physically abused, and she felt wracked with guilt and loneliness. Eventually, though, she found housing, friends and a measure of emotional independence.
Today, Mariam is active in a growing movement in the United States and Canada to promote public awareness and legal protections for victims of forced marriage. She visited Washington last week as part of a nationwide tour organized by the Tahirih Justice Center, a legal aid and advocacy group in the Virginia suburbs that helps immigrant women facing abuse.
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