The AHA Foundation Blog
Image via Marvel.com
There’s a new superhero in town, and she’s not your typical white guy in a cape. The newest addition to the Marvel Comics family is Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl from Jersey City. She discovers that she is a polymorph—a shapeshifter—and takes on the identity of Ms. Marvel. But evil villains aren’t the only challenges facing the new Ms. Marvel. Not only will she be negotiating the tricky web of high school, teenaged Kamala also has to deal with her conservative Muslim family.
In a news release, Marvel said, “Like a lot of children of immigrants, she feels torn between two worlds: the family she loves, but which drives her crazy, and her peers, who don’t really understand what her home life is like.”
When we heard about Kamala, we were thrilled to see some diversity coming to the world of comic books, which have historically featured superheroes that are white, straight, and male. Marvel, no doubt, hopes that having a character like Kamala will attract new readers and spark interest in the growing diversity of its characters. In fact, they already have several Muslim superheroes as well as characters that are black, Latino, or gay. But do Kamala’s superpowers make her any more equipped to reconcile her conservative Muslim background with her American lifestyle?
Introducing a character meant to represent a specific group always runs the risk of tokenism, and one worry is that Kamala and her family will become caricatures of Muslims in America. In the words of series editor Sana Amanat, “Her brother is extremely conservative. Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.” But just because this character speaks to a specific group of people doesn’t mean she speaks for that group of people. If not handled well, her home life might turn readers off.
This is a setup we’ve seen before in TV, movies, and books: a conservative family trying to maintain their values while their headstrong child tries to assert her independence. We’re interested to see what shape the conflict in Kamala’s life takes. Will Kamala face the same kinds of dilemmas that some of her peers grapple with and if so, how will she choose to handle them? Will her family’s concern for her happiness and for the greater good of the family conflict with her independent Western lifestyle? Will they support any decisions she makes for herself, and if not, how might they oppose her? Will they fixate on how she is acting too American and not adhering to their more conservative cultural ways? Will her mother punish her for wearing Western style clothing and makeup or for talking to boys? If she chooses not to be married young, will her decision be supported by her family, or will they say she is dishonoring them? We’re not sure Marvel Comics will delve too deeply into the critical subjects of honor violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation addressed by the AHA Foundation, but we hope that Kamala can open a dialogue about some of them. If the conflicts with her family don’t accurately reflect what it is like to grow up torn between two cultures, this Ms. Marvel might be short-lived.
Many girls whose lives are similar to Kamala’s will hopefully be reading these comics and will see themselves in her. “This story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American,” says Amanat. “Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today. This is ultimately a tale about what it means to be young, lost amidst the expectations bestowed upon you, and what happens when you get to choose.” That’s something her readers will definitely be able to relate to, even if not everyone has to make the same choices. So however Kamala’s story unfolds and whichever bad guys she fights, it’s how she’ll solve the more human problems that will make her a real superhero.
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Girls Not Brides (GNB) have examined the practice of child marriage -- a form of forced marriage -- around the world and found that 70 million young girls are currently married. This year, approximately 14 million child brides will be married off as children (click here for the full ICRW-GNB pamphlet). This is a devastating number, and yet there is some hope on the horizon. The scourge of child marriage (and the broader problem of forced marriage) has begun to attract the attention of the international community, national governments, and a host of advocacy organizations dedicated to combating the practice. Together, they have begun to develop concrete strategies to combat the practice of child marriage.
The ICRW and Girls Not Brides have articulated five specific strategies to reduce the incidence of child marriage in the developing world: empower girls with information, educate parents and the community, enhance access to education, provide economic support, and encourage legislation penalizing child marriage. These strategies may not seem groundbreaking, but they are changing the way the world thinks about child marriage. By focusing on the structural forces that perpetuate child marriage and by educating individuals on the harms of early marriage – not just to the individual, but to society at large -- ICRW-GNB is providing girls, boys, men and women with the information and tools needed to end child marriage in their own communities.
While the AHA Foundation’s mandate focuses on instances of forced marriage in the United States (as well as situations where girls from the United States are taken overseas for a forced marriage), we are deeply concerned with the global phenomenon of forced and early marriage. In 2010 and 2012, the United States Congress passed legislation that would authorize funding for international programs that would prevent child marriage and increase access to education for girls. This legislation passed with full bipartisan support. Given the current gridlock in Washington, it is heartening to know that legislators can come together to try and end this horrific practice. The AHA Foundation strongly encourages the continued funding of programs that address the root causes of forced and early marriage, and is proud to be a part of the network of organizations working towards a solution.
Fall is in the air and wedding season is drawing to a close. You may have spent the summer watching friends and family exchange vows, but forced marriage and arranged marriage have been in the news recently as well. Though the terms may sound interchangeable, arranged marriage and forced marriage describe vastly different situations. In many cultures, it is customary for families to arrange meetings between their children in the hopes of fostering a voluntary relationship that will lead to a marriage. In such situations, while the families arrange the initial meetings and a marriage is encouraged, the ultimate decision regarding whether to marry remains with the couple and both parties consent. A situation that begins as an arranged marriage can also become a forced marriage, sometimes without the family even realizing that their encouragement to marry a particular person has crossed the line to become a forced marriage. In other cases, the forced marriage can be a much more sinister story all throughout.
In Indianapolis recently, Lakhvir Singh was convicted of a number of crimes for abusing his wife, who came to the United States from India on the premise of visiting her brother. When she arrived, her mother informed her she was to be married to Singh, whom she’d never met. A hellish few months ensued, in which she was raped, beaten, verbally abused, forced to do domestic chores and unable to leave the house. The police intervened only when she was able to sneak a phone call to her brother to tell him how she was suffering. This is an obvious example of a forced marriage. The bride (whose name has not been released in order to protect her identity) was brought to the United States on false pretenses, was not informed of the marriage until it was already arranged, and never gave her consent. She was then left isolated from friends and family in a foreign country where she did not speak the language.
In a contrasting perspective, Slate ran a piece recently about the pros and cons of what the author refers to as her own arranged marriage. Debie Thomas describes selecting her husband from among other suitors after meeting each of them for only a few minutes. While she was tempted to reject her parents’ desire that she marry someone of their choosing, she ultimately felt she couldn’t: “I knew my arranged marriage was set in stone. Saying "no" (though I still longed to) was not an option—the stakes in our honor-and-shame-based family were too high.” The pressure to marry before she was ready, the threat of shaming her entire family if she refused a suitor they chose, the emphasis on “honor” and maintaining her family’s standing in the community: all of these factors indicate a forced marriage. As Thomas herself acknowledges: “He and I picked each other out of the proposals our families offered us…But what can "choice" mean in such restrictive circumstances?”
Seventeen years into her marriage, Thomas and her husband consider whether their incompatibility means they should divorce—an indication that her family and community may be more lenient about the marriage now, or that she is better positioned to assert her independence now than as a 22-year-old. She refers to her husband as a partner and a good father to their children; she was not raped or abused like Singh’s wife. And while she was forced, she was not tricked into marriage, as in many other cases. Indeed, it is possible that her family never even realized that their behavior and the pressure they placed on Thomas amounted to coercion.
Despite the fact that Thomas’s experience has been far different from the young woman in Indianapolis, both are cases of forced marriage. And, while the two women come from different cultural backgrounds, both cases exemplify the cultural expectations of honor and duty that underlie both forced and arranged marriages.
The two cases also highlight the sometimes hazy line between forced and arranged marriages, particularly where families are heavily involved in the matchmaking process. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction between arranged and forced marriage, and that is the freedom for the individual to consent to or refuse the marriage. As we at the AHA Foundation say, one party’s “yes” to a marriage is only as good as his or her ability to say “no.” There may be a gray line that makes it hard to distinguish to a family member at what point their influence, however well-intentioned, becomes coercion. Different as they are, these cases clearly illustrate two of the many iterations of forced marriage.
Last week, the State Department released its 2013 annual report on Trafficking in Persons, which found that 27 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. The Obama Administration has made a public commitment to combating human trafficking by issuing an Executive Order on Human Trafficking, and this new State Department report is another step toward identifying and rescuing trafficking victims around the world.
Many, if not most, Americans are now familiar with the concept of human trafficking. Over the past decade, the U.S. government has dedicated considerable energy and resources into addressing the scourge of human trafficking in both the international and domestic arenas. These efforts have helped shine a light on a serious global problem that affects millions of women and children around the world. Yet a closely related issue has received far less attention: forced marriage.
A forced marriage occurs when an individual is forced to enter into a marriage against her will and without her consent. A forced marriage differs from an arranged marriage, in which families arrange meetings between children in the hopes of fostering a voluntary relationship that will lead to marriage. In these situations, while the initial meetings are arranged by the families and a marriage is encouraged, the ultimate decision to marry remains with the couple. In contrast, in a forced marriage situation, the woman is threatened or coerced into marrying someone against her will, and may suffer honor violence if she resists or refuses the marriage.
Forced marriage has several important parallels with human trafficking. Each year, thousands of girls are removed from U.S. schools and forced to return to their families’ home countries in order to be married. Girls who resist or refuse these marriages may be subjected to physical and emotional abuse, confinement in the home, or even death at the hands of family members. Once married, victims experience include increased rates of infant and maternal mortality, rape, domestic violence and suicide. The coercion, exploitation and ongoing violence involved in these scenarios mirrors the key traits of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” This definition highlights the fact that not all trafficking victims are explicitly sold into sexual slavery or forced labor, the most widely publicized types of human trafficking.
In some situations, a forced marriage will qualify as a form of human trafficking. For example, if a woman is sent abroad and then repeatedly raped within a forced marriage, her experience could be characterized as a form of sex trafficking. In situations where a bride is treated as a servant or slave by her new husband and/or his family, the forced marriage could become a form of labor trafficking. Notably, money need not be exchanged in order for a forced marriage to be considered human trafficking. In some instances of forced marriage, the goods exchanged are immigration benefits alone.
One of the issues Secretary of State John Kerry focused on when releasing the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report is the facelessness of the millions of victims. Of the 27 million estimated victims worldwide, only about 40,000 were identified last year. The same silence and invisibility affects the victims of forced marriage, yet – unlike human trafficking – virtually no specific resources and services exist for these victims. Thankfully, the fight against forced marriage is gaining momentum; in terms of awareness, advocacy, attention and resources, forced marriage is today where human trafficking was ten years ago.
Whether a forced marriage results in rape, domestic servitude, or being forced to live in a foreign country against one’s will, it is crucial that we as Americans acknowledge that this is happening in our own communities. Like human trafficking, we must work to end forced marriage by bringing it out of the shadows.
Please support the AHA Foundation so we can bring these women and girls the freedom we all deserve.
Tags: forced marriage, human trafficking, The AHA Foundation, Trafficking in Persons, sex trafficking, Obama, immigration, TIPs Report, State Department, domestic servitude, John Kerry, Secretary of State
The AHA Foundation is committed to expanding resources for women such as the one mentioned in this New York Times article, who need support in leaving forced marriages and handling threats of honor violence. We train law enforcement and social services groups around the country, and our ongoing research project with John Jay College of Criminal Justice will further illuminate how many women and girls are victims of forced marriage and the specific dangers they face. To keep women like her safe and free, we must first build an infrastructure of resources that are accessible and specific to their needs. The AHA Foundation is here doing just that. Stay tuned for exciting innovations in protecting women and girls coming from the AHA Foundation soon.
The AHA Foundation is proud to announce that our founder, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is one of the featured speakers at this year’s Trust Women Conference, which opens today in London. Presented by the Thompson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, the Trust Women Conference aims to bring together leading voices in the fight for women’s rights to “help spark new collaborations and solutions” to some of the most urgent issues facing women around the world. Ayaan participated in a discussion about the clash between law and culture that arises in Western countries around issues like honor-based violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.
The tragic results of this clash between our Western democratic culture and legal system and more conservative, oppressive, and male-dominated cultures have been evidenced in recent cases of honor violence in the U.S. Increasingly, we are hearing stories of teenage girls who are brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age and raised in a conservative and oppressive household, while at the same time exploring and embracing American culture. We hear about girls like Noor Almaleki, who grew up to be a typical American teenager who wore jeans and make-up, had friends and boyfriends, and wanted nothing more than to make decisions about her own life. Tragically for Noor, her decisions to resist a forced marriage arranged by her parents, to move out of her parents’ home and have friends they disapproved of, and to resist their repeated demands that she conform her behavior to their strict expectations resulted in her brutal murder by her father. We hear about girls like Aiya Altameemi, who attempted to make her own decisions about her life by refusing to submit to a forced marriage and having conversations with boys that were not sanctioned by her parents. For these acts of defiance, Aiya was threatened at knifepoint, bound and beaten, and burned with a hot spoon by members of her family.
Noor and Aiya and all the other girls like them who suffer at the hands of their families want nothing more than what is promised to all American girls: the opportunity to work hard, dream big, and become anything they want to be. This sounds like a modest wish, yet for untold numbers of girls in this country, the desire to guide their own way through life represents an affront to their families and communities and places them in danger of physical harm and disownment. Around the world, there are women who cannot make their own decisions, who are bound to a male guardian to determine their destiny.
As Ayaan famously once said, “It is a matter of principle that women are free and equal.” At the AHA Foundation, we believe that these are more than just words – these are our marching orders. We will keep working – raising awareness, training, urging legislators to take action, supporting victims – until all of our girls are able to safely, confidently, fearlessly, and joyously forge their own way in this world. We hope you will join us in this mission.
Shaima Alawadi, murdered in California in what was widely though to be a hate crime is now suspected to have been the victim of an honor killing.
If you don’t think forced marriage and honor-based violence are real problems in North America, recent news stories may surprise you. This week alone, the following incidents were reported by the media:
In Arizona: Yusra Farhan was convicted and sentenced for tying her 20-year-old daughter to a bed with rope and a padlock and burning her face with a hot spoon when she refused to marry a man nearly 20 years her senior. The girl’s father and sister were also arrested for their complicity.
In California: Kassim Alhimidi was charged with the murder of his wife, Shaima Alawadi. While police initially believed the case to be a hate crime, investigators uncovered the fact that Alhimidi had plans to send his daughter to Iraq to marry a cousin, and that Shaima intended to divorce him. The case is now being characterized as an honor killing.
In Toronto: Peer Khairi was convicted of second-degree murder in the brutal stabbing death of his wife, Randjida. The trial heard that the killing was honor-based: Khairi was enraged over Randjida’s “disobedience” and her acceptance of their children’s Western attitudes to clothing and dating.
In Edmonton: Muhammad Rafi and Najma Khokhar were arrested and charged with assaulting and forcibly confining their 21-year-old daughter after she refused to be taken abroad to submit to a forced marriage.
At the AHA Foundation, we know that reported incidents of honor violence and forced marriage represent just the tip of the iceberg. Each year, untold numbers of young women and girls in the United States fall victim to these practices, and many more remain at risk of oppression and violence perpetrated in the name of religion and culture.
The AHA Foundation is dedicated to bringing these abuses to light, and protecting the women and girls at risk. We are working tirelessly on initiatives that include:
Strengthening U.S. criminal laws to protect women from honor-based violence
Training law enforcement, educators and service providers on how to identify these issues and protect victims
Investigating the frequency of these crimes through data collection and research partnerships.
Developing the first-ever forced marriage hotline in the United States
Providing direct assistance and referrals to girls who contact us to avoid a forced marriage or escape honor violence.
To support these programs, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the AHA Foundation today, or purchasing one of our HONOUR products. Your gift will go directly towards our crucial initiatives, and could help save the life of an at-risk woman or girl – before she becomes another headline.
Tags: honor killings, forced marriage, honor violence, forced marriage in the US, honor killing in the US, Yusra Farhan, Kassim Alhimidi, Peer Khairi, honor killings in North America, Shaima Alawadi, Randjida Khairi, Muhammad Rafi, Majma Khokhar
This blog first appeared on the Girls Not Brides website.
By the Executive Director/General Counsel for the AHA Foundation
Last month, I took my daughter to see the animated Disney/Pixar film Brave in theaters. Following in the footsteps of films like Aladdin, Brave depicts a familiar storyline: a princess whose parents believe she should marry a man of their choosing, over the young girl’s objections. The parents in these stories, however strict or traditional they may seem, are ultimately benevolent, and the tale typically ends with the King or Queen relenting. The princess’s desire to ‘marry for love’ (or not at all) is validated. The underlying message is simple: getting married is a choice. You have the right to make choices about your own life.
For little girls like my daughter, this message comes as no surprise. The idea of a family forcing a child to marry against her will is just a story, plucked from the pages of a bedtime fable. But for a staggering number of young girls around the world, this scenario is no fairy tale. It’s a harsh and chilling reality.
Each year, an estimated ten million girls are married before they reach the age of eighteen. Countless more are forced into marriage as young adults. These marriages are accomplished through violence, threats of violence, threats of disownment, emotional blackmail, and emotional abuse. The forced marriage itself is often just the beginning of the suffering: victims of forced marriage are at an increased risk for physical and mental health problems, and may be subjected to sustained physical and sexual abuse within the marriage.
There are myriad reasons why a girl or woman may be forced to marry. Parents or extended family members may see it as a means to restore the family’s honor, enhance the family’s status, or secure an economic/immigration benefit. Other families may cite cultural traditions or religious beliefs. Whatever the rationale, one thing is clear: forced marriage is a global human rights issue that threatens the health, well-being and autonomy of its victims.
As Western countries are beginning to realize, the problem is not confined to the developing world. In the United Kingdom, an estimated 5000-8000 forced marriages took place in 2009 alone. In September 2011, the Tahirih Justice Center found as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage within the United States in the two years preceding the survey. Many of these cases involved girls under the age of eighteen.
However, whereas Britain has a dedicated Forced Marriage policing unit and a national Forced Marriage Helpline to assist callers in crisis, the United States currently has no comparable programs. As a result, victims of forced marriage in the U.S. often find themselves with few options, and even fewer resources.
The AHA Foundation is tackling this problem head-on. We train service providers, law enforcement officials and educators to recognize forced marriage cases and ensure victims’ safety. We have commissioned a study to better understand the nature and frequency of forced marriage in the United States. We are also working to establish the first national telephone hotline to assist U.S. forced marriage victims. Our hotline will dispense emergency advice and connect callers with the appropriate law enforcement officials, social service providers, legal counsel, and emergency shelters. This much-needed service will provide a crucial lifeline to those at risk of forced marriage, as well as those who are currently living in a forced marriage situation.
Like the heroine in Brave, my daughter will have the freedom to choose whether she gets married, when she gets married, and whom she marries. The AHA Foundation is working to ensure that the same opportunities are afforded to every woman and girl in the United States. They deserve nothing less.
Chaz Akoshile, Joint Head of the UK's Forced Marriage Unit; Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana and Sabatina James, founder of Sabatina EV attend the AHA Foundation's International Women's Day and HONOUR Launch cocktail reception.
AHA Foundation staff have been hard at work during the first months of 2012 and we are pleased to report on our recent projects and accomplishments.
On November 17th, the AHA Foundation was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. State Department for our support and guidance in assisting victims of forced marriage. We continue to work with the State Department on forced marriage and keep in regular contact with them about their efforts to combat forced marriages and how we can work together on this issue.
Our legislative efforts are successfully gaining traction. We continue to receive positive feedback from federal legislators on our Violence Against Women Act proposal and have met with the offices of interested senators and representatives. On the State level, we are thrilled to report that New Jersey State Senator Weinberg introduced our Female Genital Multilation bill. That bill has now been introduced in both houses of the New Jersey legislature and appears to be on a track to passage. A state legislator in Louisiana has also recently introduced an FGM bill.
We have initiated a substantial research project with The John Jay College of Criminal Justice that seeks to quantify the incidence of honor killings in the US, and forced marriages and FGM in New York City - something that has never before been done. The honor killing portion of the study is moving along well and we expect to have at least preliminary results by early summer. Additionally, we met with the students working on the forced marriage and FGM studies and are very impressed with the team.
We have identified a number of opportunities to provide training to law enforcement and child protective service professionals on honor violence and forced marriages and are working to create training materials on these topics. This program will be a primer on these issues and provide basic information and best practices for handling cases of honor violence and forced marriage.
In February and March, we made significant progress toward creating a pilot national forced marriage hotline. We are in contact with non-profit organizations from both the US and the UK, with whom we are planning to partner. We are hopeful that this pilot will be up and running later this year.
Our Research Director has completed a nearly final draft on a report on Sharia law. The report describes why Sharia law is problematic from the perspective of women's rights, explains why there is cause to be concerned about Sharia in the United States and other European countries, and proposes legislative remedies to prevent a proliferation of Sharia law. The report also analyzes what exactly Sharia is and why it tends to be resistant to change.
We continue to connect girls that contact us for help to appropriate services. We recently helped a girl connect with a pro bono lawyer to help her avoid a forced marriage.
Last week, we attended the Women in the World Summit in New York City. The AHA Foundation has been listed on the Women in the World Foundation website as a Solutions partner, which is a great spotlight for us. As part of the conference, we hosted a cocktail party last Thursday evening to celebrate International Women's Day and launch our new HONOUR products. To date, we have an HONOUR tote bag, tie, pink and white candles. The cocktail reception was a major success, particularly in the caliber of guests who attended. We were thrilled to host Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana; Chaz Akoshile, Joint Head of the UK's Forced Marriage Unit; Phyllis Chesler, honor violence scholar; and Sabatina James, forced marriage survivor and founder of Sabatina EV.
We have begun planning our Annual AHA Foundation Conference, which will be held in New York City at the end of September. Last year's conference was a huge success and we are looking forward to an even bigger and better event this year!
We couldn't do all of our important work without your support. To help us continue in our fight against the oppression of women and girls, please consider making a donation or purchasing one of our HONOUR products today.
Tags: women's rights, honor killings, forced marriage, HONOUR, honor violence, female genital mutilation, The AHA Foundation, honor violence conference, forced marriage conference, Sabatina James, Sabatina EV, Jasvinder Sanghera, Karma Nirvana, Chaz Akoshile, Phyllis Chesler, forced marriage in the US, female genital cutting, FGM, Senator Weinberg, Forced Marriage Unit