Sara Tasneem was 15 years old when she was married off to a 28-year old stranger. Her parents were divorced, and her deeply conservative father was a member of a Muslim sect in California. When she went to visit him during high school, “He told me I was going to have to get married and the Sheikh was going to pick who I was going to get married to,” she recalls. “I never questioned my dad, ever.”
Thousands of U.S. teens are married before they turn 18 every year. Sometimes the practice coincides with religious traditions, as conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims often encourage early marriage. But even nonreligious adolescents marry before they’re legal adults, sometimes because of a teen pregnancy. Most states require parental consent or the approval of a judge in order for a minor to get married — but in many cases, the parents are driving the match, and a judge will often defer to the wishes of the parents.
Tasneem’s case illustrates how few protections are available to young brides if their parents are the ones encouraging early marriage. She met her husband the same day as their spiritual marriage ceremony in 1996. “I was introduced to him that morning and I was handed over to him physically that night,” she said. “I remember asking, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ and they wouldn’t answer me. They just handed me over to this guy that I didn’t know.” She suspects that her husband, who was a new convert to the group, was enticed to the sect by the possibility of marrying a virgin.
Tasneem says her father concealed the marriage from her mother by demanding she tell her mom she was going to live with her dad permanently. “They made me call her and forced me to lie to her on the phone. And for me as a 15 year old, that was horrible,” she recalls, adding that her husband and father stood over her as she made the call. “I didn’t feel like I had the power to stand up to all these adults.”