Forced Marriages in Our Own Backyard
by Phyllis Chesler
On February 22, 2011, Jessie Bender, a 13-year-old southern California girl, ran away from home. No, Jessie was not into "sex, drugs, or rock n' roll." On the contrary. Jessie was terrified that her American-born mother, Melissa, a convert to Islam, and her mother's Pakistani boyfriend and acting stepfather Mohammed "Mo" Khan, had decided to send her to Pakistan to be married against her will. Had Jessie gone, her mother and "Mo" would have received $3000.00.
Initially, her mother told police that Jessie had been abducted by a Facebook predator. Melissa, in full hijab, made a tearful plea for the television cameras. "If you are holding my daughter, please let her go…Please, I beg you to let my daughter go. She's just 13 years old."
This tearful, public, pseudo-honesty reminds me of the Afghan-Canadian Safia family who wept in public, mourning their three dead honor murdered daughters: 13 year-old Geeti, 17 year-old Sahari, and 19-year-old Zainab, and Safia's first wife, 50-year-old Rona Amir Mohammed. In a bid for sympathy, and to throw the police off their trail, the three murderers shed copious tears, grieving, loudly.
Jessie Bender's mother went on television and lied about her daughter. Yes, it is true, Jessie had communicated with an adult male on Facebook, but that is not where she ran. Jessie's uncle had hidden her at an Apple Valley motel. Within a week, it became clear that Jessie's mother, Melissa, and her pseudo-stepfather "Mo, " had both been lying. Melissa herself had visited Pakistan and may be seen in a photo smiling broadly, wearing very serious hijab and standing next to a turbaned tribal elder who is holding a gun. Possibly, she is also standing next to "Mo."
Patricia "Tissy" Said in Dallas, assisted her Egyptian-born husband Yasir who honor murdered their two daughters, Sarah and Amina, for refusing such arranged marriages.
Like Texas's "Tissy" Said, California's Melissa Bender also seems a bit…dim-witted, easy prey for a smart or charming Muslim man who wants (or needs) to bring his Pakistani brother over to America. "Mo's" brother is, apparently, in some kind of trouble and has to get out of Dodge City pronto.
Yasir Said hatched a similar plan: He wanted to marry his American-born, American-citizen daughters off to hand-picked Egyptian men who would then be able to become American citizens. Whether Said was doing this for money, "honor," or jihad is unknown. Tunisian-born Samia Labidi, who lives in France, describes such marriages between under-age Western girls and older Muslim foreign men as part of a larger jihadic plan. This may not be true in the California Bender case, but it may be true in other cases.
And, by the way, "Tissy" Said herself married Yasir in Texas when she was only 14 years old. She did so with her father's permission. I have no doubt that both she and her father believed that Yasir was the Sheikh of Araby and would provide for "Tissy" royally. Instead, he did what many Muslim Arab men do: He sent his wife out to work and lived off her pitiful earnings.
Melissa has six children from six different fathers. She has also lost custody of two children to their maternal grandmother. I do not justify her stupidity and cruelty but it is clear that she may not be in good mental or intellectual health. Nevertheless, her children are at her mercy.
Jessie was found hiding about 30 miles from her home. Since then, Jessie and her siblings have been in child protective custody.
An estranged family member confirms that Jessie indeed "was going to be married off to [the stepfather's] brother over in Pakistan because he was in some trouble and they wanted to bring him over to the states. They were going to get paid $3000 for this."
It is common for Pakistani fathers to sell their young daughters into marriage in order to make a quick buck. Bride prices range from Rs. 80,000 to Rs. 200,000 (1,400-3,500 USD), and younger girls receive higher prices. For example, one ten-year-old Pakistani girl was sold into marriage by her father in order to settle an outstanding debt. According to Amnesty International, a medical examination showed that she had been subjected to rape and torture. I am sure there are thousands of such cases throughout the Islamic world.
According to one blogger, "Had ["Mo"] Mohammad Khan taken [Jessie] to Pakistan and married her off, it would have been almost impossible for the child to escape again. Particularly from a rural area. She would have been repeatedly raped by her 'husband', beaten by her in-laws and turned into a slave. And Khan would have likely profited from the exchange. Khan didn't just marry or live with a middle aged American woman; he married a woman with at least one girl at home. And in Pakistan that translates into a salable commodity."
This is not the first time that young American girls have been spirited away as unwilling brides to a Muslim-majority country. In 2004, 26-year-old Philadelphia resident Omar Rashaad Bey, an American citizen, entered into an "Islamic marriage" with a 14-year-old girl and then moved with her to Cairo. While in Egypt he had an affair with her sister. He then "married" another 15-year-old Philadelphia girl via the Internet and brought her to Cairo too. American officials started an investigation after the first "wife" brought their one-year-old son to the Embassy to register him for an American passport. Bey eventually returned to America, where he was arrested and indicted on three counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. In March, 2011, he was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender.
Europe is plagued by many more such cases of forced child marriage. According to the BBC, the police in South Wales have dealt with 49 cases of forced marriage in the past year (2010) alone.
"Strategies for helping victims included supplying them with a secret mobile phone if they feared they were being lured to their family's country of origin as a prelude to a forced marriage….The [special police] force had also set up a 'buddy' system where forced marriage 'survivors' were a role model to those who were now going through the trauma."
Even Saudi Arabia, which is rife with child marriage and has no law against it, has begun taking baby steps to stop the practice. According to the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, 40 cases of child marriage were prevented in the eastern part of the country when authorities spoke out against it. In 2009, the Saudi Minister of Justice issued a statement saying that it would soon implement a ban on the practice, although it has failed to do so. The Facebook group, Saudi Women Revolution, which I have written about before, has a petition on its website demanding that the Justice Ministry follow through on its initial promise.
While the American State Department occasionally rattles its rusty saber on behalf of Muslim women's rights, if our government has, so far, refused to get involved in Libya, (even after the Arab League has asked for such involvement), and refused to get involved in Darfur—then I doubt our country will go to the mat for women in Muslim countries.
According to Newsweek, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors women's rights everywhere. She is quoted as saying:
"I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century….We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings."
When challenged by Egyptians who argued that her many references to women's rights in Egypt constitute meddling in Egyptian internal affairs, she responded: "If a country doesn't recognize minority rights and human rights, including women's rights, you will not have the kind of stability and prosperity that is possible."
However, on her watch, the American State Department is backing away from its verbal commitments to women in Afghanistan.
In 2010, when the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sought bids for a land reform program in Afghanistan, it initially insisted that the winning contractor meet specific goals to promote women's rights: "The number of deeds granting women title had to increase by 50 percent; there would have to be regular media coverage on women's land rights; and teaching materials for secondary schools and universities would have to include material on women's rights."
Later, however, USAID backtracked and eliminated the requirements. According to J. Alexander Thier, the director of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, "If you're targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives….The women's issue is one where we need hardheaded realism…if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble." Another "senior official" said: "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities."
Brava to California's Jessie Bender for saving herself and at least two of her siblings. She lives in America and believes that she has certain rights. So young—so brave. But what will become of her? She has a mother—the only mother she will ever have—who was ready to sell her down the river for $3000.00. Who can, who will, ever take her mother's place? The cruelty of this American-Muslim mother to her American (probably non-Muslim) daughter is breathtaking. I have written about this phenomenon in Woman's Inhumanity to Woman.
Child marriage is opposed by the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is a toothless document. The United Nations does not enforce individual rights over the objections of its member nation states.
Child marriage is an abomination. Think of the girls you know who are 10, 12, 14 years old. Can you imagine how a forced, arranged marriage to a much older stranger, probably one who believes it is his absolute right to rape and beat his wife, would psychologically cripple them for life, stunt all growth, demoralize them forevermore?
Who can ever forget the film Osama? It is set in Afghanistan and concerns an 11- 12 year-old girl who must dress as a boy in order to work to feed her widowed mother and younger siblings. (Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work; they starved or turned to prostitution which meant degraded and dangerous lives).
However, the dreaded Taliban drag the girl Osama away from her job in a small shop and into a madrasa. She is only found out when she begins to menstruate. The imam who runs the madrasa is old enough to be her grandfather. He is fat, gross, coarse, cruel, and ugly. However, he is very attracted to this 12 year-old boy/girl, marries her, and locks her up together with his other, three much older wives.
We should not want to consign young American girls, Muslim and non-Muslim to such cruel fates.
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