"I repeatedly asked my parents not to marry me against my will as my religion, Islam, also allows me to choose the man of my choice for marriage but my parents rejected all of my pleas and they married me to a relative," 21-year-old Aasia Bibi told the Associated Press, after she was forced into a horrific decision. Feeling trapped, with her autonomy and choices ripped from her, she followed what she felt was her only option—to poison her husband. But when he didn’t drink the poison, her mother-in-law used the poisoned milk to make the traditional drink, lassi. And as a result, 17 members of her family died.
Bibi is not alone. In Pakistan, India, and other countries, forced marriage is still commonplace and pushes girls and women to extremes. According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, 33,796 women and 16,695 girls were forced into marriage in 2016 in India alone—some of them kidnapped in order to do so. Those who refuse their marriage face huge—sometimes deadly—consequences. In fact, almost 1,000 Pakistani women are killed by close relatives each year in honor killings, some of whom are killed for marrying men of their own choosing. Why are women pushed to such lengths to escape a forced married? Well, their options are more limited than many of us could ever imagine.
According to UNICEF, many victims of forced marriage will be young, poor, and uneducated—in other words, incredibly vulnerable. When they are ripped from their families, often in childhood, they are completely isolated without any access to support or advice.
Some women do find help—but it’s not easy to come by. And even with help, escape can be a traumatic process. “As a woman, I did everything I could do to please my husband,” 27-year-old software engineer Haritha Khandabattu told Broadly. “It’s an Indian thing—respecting your marriage—and I did that wholeheartedly. But it was never reciprocated. Every person has a threshold, and when they reach it, they cannot take it anymore. I reached mine, and decided to look for my own happiness.” But when she decided to file for divorce and escape, she had to ask her company to relocate her to the Netherlands—and cope with her family stealing her passport and travel documents. Still, she was able to start a new life but feels she can never return to India.
Khandabattu’s case showcases one of the most deeply-rooted problems with forced marriage—one that it is so deeply ingrained in certain countries that even the victim’s families support their oppressor or even arrange the marriage (and, ultimately, the abuse that can come with it) themselves. It is such a deeply held belief that many parents truly believe they are doing nothing wrong.
“I had to hold countless counseling sessions with [a woman’s] father to convince him that if his daughter was standing up against her child marriage, she wasn’t in the wrong,” Dr. Kriti Bharti, the founder of the NGO Saarthi Trust that helps women in forced marriages, tells Broadly. “Parents in such cases are usually reluctant to support their daughters because they fear humiliation and the consequences of being ostracized by their communities.” With families playing such a huge role in the forced marriage process, and with many unable to see why it is such a violent and virulent problem, it’s hard to see numbers of forced marriages shifting in any real way.
Bibi didn’t mean to poison 17 members of her family—she had pleaded with her family not make her get married in the first place. If poisoning her husband seems like an unthinkable choice, consider this: on the same day that Bibi was arrested for murder, Mahwish Arif, 25, was fatally shot by her younger brother, Samar Ali, for marrying a man who she chose without her family's consent. With so few options and such a high price to pay for disobedience, it’s easy to see where Bibi’s desperation came from. For some, the choice is to face violence if they disobey, to face violence in their arranged marriages, or to choose violence themselves.
Not all women in arranged marriages resort to violence to others—some turn it inward. Selvi, who was forced into an arranged marriage, contemplated and nearly attempted suicide. “I realized that if I killed myself, people would blame me,” she tells Broadly. “[They’d] say all sorts of things about my upbringing. I wouldn’t have a chance to prove to them that I wasn’t in the wrong.” And many don’t. In India, more than 20,0000 housewives took their own lives in 2014.
A forced marriage may seem beyond the realms of so many of our experiences, but it is still deeply embedded in the foundation of some societies. With limited choices and means, it’s harrowing—but not surprising—that so many women turn to violence. Until there are more accessible systems in place to stop forced marriage and help its victims, there will always be women left with unthinkable choices.