Sana stood outside Benazir Bhutto International Airport, watching as the security guard looked over her ticket from Islamabad to New York.
She was so close. Just as she was about to step inside, she heard a shout from a familiar voice–her brother’s.
“Don’t do it!”
Sana turned around, dread creeping into her body. They’d found her.
Three men rushed towards her–her older brother, her uncle and her male cousin. They told Sana she had to come with them, that she didn’t have a choice.
22-year-old Sana was fleeing a marriage proposal from her first cousin, one she had been forced to accept seven months earlier. It had taken her weeks to plan her escape, but her family had somehow tracked her down, seconds before she could get away.
Sana is one among thousands of young American women forced into marriage. The concept of forced marriages is hardly new. There were 3,000 documented cases of forced marriage from 2009 to 2011 in the United States, according to a 2011 report published by the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that works to protect immigrant women and girls escaping gender-based violence and persecution. A 2017 report by the organization identified India, Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq as countries with high rates of forced marriages.
Sana’s story begins in the American Midwest, where she grew up. Sana describes her upbringing as extremely conservative. Her parents were strict Muslims who had immigrated from Pakistan and started a successful hotel business. Sana and her older sister were required to cover their faces with hijabs and wear traditional, modest clothing.
When Sana was in the eighth grade, she met someone on Facebook–a girl. She realized she identified as lesbian but couldn’t tell her family about it because she knew they wouldn’t approve. Not too long after that, Sana went through depression and anxiety, something she says her family never understood.
In November 2016, when Sana was 21 years old, her mother caught her getting intimate with a girl she had been dating at the time.
“She beat the crap out of me,” Sana said. “She told me if I told anyone, she would bury me alive.”
Less than a month later, Sana’s parents put her on a flight from the US to a small village outside Islamabad, Pakistan. They told Sana her older brother was getting married and she had to attend the wedding.
Sana was initially suspicious of going to Pakistan because her parents had tried to force her older sister into marriage not too long before that. She thought perhaps her parents would force her into a marriage too, especially because she was lesbian. Before she left the United States, Sana checked that her father had bought her a return ticket back to America after the wedding.
To her horror, once Sana arrived in Pakistan, her father burned her return ticket in a tandoor, a clay oven. He told her she would get married a week after her brother’s wedding. She would marry her first cousin, whom she’d met a few times before but with whom she’d never had a conversation.
Sana resisted her parents’ decision, but her father threatened to take away her passport and other legal documents. A few weeks later, Sana’s family returned to the United States leaving her in Pakistan with nothing but a $100 bill.
“My dad and I were best friends,” Sana later recalled. “He had diabetes, so I’d wake up early to give him his insulin shots. But he was the first one to throw me under the bus.”
After Sana’s parents left Pakistan, Sana’s fiance’s mother postponed the wedding by a year because she wanted an extravagant ceremony that the family would have to save up for.
Sana spent the next six months under lockdown in her future in-laws’ home. She called her father every night begging to return home, but he refused. Sana’s parents covered up her absence by telling anyone that asked that she was in Pakistan to study the Quran.
In Pakistan, Sana’s routine was monotonous. She’d wake up at dawn every day to pray. After making breakfast, she and the other women in the house would do the daily cleaning and cooking. There were many power outages throughout the day so Sana would spend a lot of time just lying down. After dinner, she’d pray and go to sleep.
Sana was not allowed to interact with her future husband.
“He’d come to the house but I couldn’t be outside in front of him because my uncle was very traditional,” she said.
Sana said she has never held anything against her cousin she was set to marry. In fact, she recalled feeling guilty when she began planning her escape.
“I didn’t want him to think I thought he was a bad guy,” she said. “I hoped that he would move on and not be too affected.”
While still in Pakistan, Sana had limited contact with her girlfriend back home. Because of the distance, their relationship was constantly on and off. Besides this, Sana knew that if she came out, her parents could disown her because in their eyes, homosexuality was sinful. Growing up, Sana would imagine ways to be her queer self if she was forced into a heterosexual marriage.
“I’d tell myself, if I ever got married to a guy, I’d have a girlfriend on the side,” she said, her face serious.
There are many reasons parents force marriage on their children. Shyda Rashid is a domestic violence program manager at Sakhi, an organization that works to eradicate gender-based violence in South Asian communities. Before joining Sakhi, Rashid worked closely with Bangladeshi forced marriage survivors in the United Kingdom. Parents that immigrate cling tightly to their customs and traditions and force their children to adapt to these values, according to Rashid.
“South Asian youth don’t want to let their families down,” Rashid said. “So when there is emotional blackmail involved, they accept it.”
Rashid said parents abroad also want to marry their children off to cousins and other extended family because it’s a way for families back home to live abroad through family immigration. Most of these forced marriages don’t work out because there are many cultural and language gaps between husband and wife, according to Rashid. Yet people forced into marriage accept the situation and try to make the most of it by trying to make the relationship work, she said.
It’s hard to say if the number of forced marriages in the United States is increasing.
“More cases may come to light but perhaps people are simply feeling more empowered to share their stories,” said Janine Zweig, the associate vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute.
Zweig co-authored a study in 2018 on the challenges of researching and providing services for forced marriage. She said her research team faced numerous challenges in finding survivors of forced marriage. Part of this comes from forced marriages being interpreted differently across cultures. People could perceive a troubled marriage that was actually entered into voluntarily as a forced marriage, she said.
Because forced marriage is a criminal offense in most places, many consular services offer help to victims. This was how Sana began to plan her escape.
Sana didn’t have access to a phone in Pakistan, but she convinced her uncle to allow her to contact her childhood friend, Morgan Brennerman.
Brennerman remembers the day Sana called her very clearly.
“I was really scared because I was 20 years old and had no real experience with the world,” she said. “All of a sudden, one of my friends was suddenly kidnapped. It was a very real-world situation to be thrown into.”
Brennerman helped Sana get in touch with the American embassy in Islamabad. After a few weeks, the embassy told Sana they would send officials to pick her up and put her on a flight to Denver, where her girlfriend at the time lived. But escaping was hardly easy.
The embassy sent a car to the village where Sana was living to pick her up. She snuck out of the house, wearing a traditional light red and black salwar kameez suit and purple shoes with green laces–“you could see them a mile away.” Sana also covered herself with a burkha that covered everything but her eyes.
She slipped through a foot-wide gap in the garage gate with all her documents folded in a tiny black purse tied around her waist.
Once she was outside, she ran.
Sana ran until her body was covered in sweat.
“All the what-ifs were running through my mind,” she said.
Sana knew that if her family found her, they could make drastic decisions. Honor killings, when a member of a family is murdered from bringing shame or dishonor upon the family, remain prevalent in Pakistan. Human rights campaigners estimate over 1,500 killings took place between 2016 and 2018. Sana knew there was a chance she could be killed because her escape would cast her family in a negative light.
Eventually, Sana found the car, a white Corolla, and jumped in, giving the two women and one man sitting inside the password: New York. One of the women handed her an orange scarf with black polka dots–which she has to this day–to cover herself. As they drove to Islamabad, each time they crossed a toll, Sana covered her face and looked down. She felt so nauseous she vomited in the car.
The officials brought her to a townhouse in a hidden cul de sac. There, they gave Sana a selection of clothes, all donations. None of them fit her properly with the exception of a half-sleeved green shirt. She wore her own blue jeans and a donated pair of white sneakers with pink laces. Over her body, she wore a dark blue dupatta, or scarf.
A few hours later, a large van took Sana to the airport. She carried nothing except for the purse she’d escaped with, tied around her waist again, and a plastic bag with an extra shirt and all her paperwork.
Sana was about to go inside the airport when her in-laws and brother found her.
As they continued to yell at Sana to come with them, Sana said the airport security guard sensed her mounting distress. He ushered her into the airport, blocking the men from following her.
Just as she was about to board her flight, an airport official told her she couldn’t board the plane. Her ticket had been cancelled.
Desperate to stop her from escaping, Sana’s parents had used her social security and birthday to get into her bank account. They cancelled her credit card, effectively cancelling her ticket too. Sana was in limbo.
Sana got in touch with the embassy officials who had helped her leave the village. They told her she’d have to take out a loan from the embassy to pay for a ticket. Sana said she didn’t care what it cost her. After hours of waiting, Sana got a call. A U.S.-based organization, Unchained At Last, which worked with forced marriage survivors, had decided to sponsor her ticket to New York.
A few hours and several delays later, Sana was on the Emirates flight. She had escaped.
Over the next few months, Sana lived in and out of shelters, shuffling from one place to the next. Her family had filed a missing person’s report and hired a lawyer to find Sana. Unchained At Last, the organization that had sponsored Sana’s ticket, informed them she was taken care of and that she didn’t want to return home.
To ensure her safety, Sana deleted her social media accounts and changed her name. She shaved one side of her head, started wearing glasses and abandoned her piercings. She was able to get back into her old bank account and withdrew enough money to support herself for a while.
But her parents didn’t stop looking for her. Sana said they would make fake Facebook accounts and emails to try and get in touch with her. She’d received a message from them even the night before we talked.
“They’ll say my dad is dying, that my brother is getting a divorce. They’re using guilt to get me to come back,” she said as she scrolled through screenshots of the messages on her phone.
After a few months, Sana got a job at an Indian restaurant. She moved out of the shelter into her own apartment. She bought a car. She also applied for a new social security number and officially changed her name.
It has been two years since Sana escaped. She now works as a sales representative at a local business. She recently passed her real estate exam and is working to save enough money to become a realtor. She is out as lesbian to everyone she knows. She celebrates pride festivals and volunteers with Garden State Equality, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights.
I asked her if she misses her family. She was quiet for a moment before she answered.
“Sometimes I use a fake Facebook account to look at their pictures,” she said. “I haven’t seen them in almost three years. I want to show them how I’m succeeding.”
But Sana can’t reach out to them because she says she knows what they’re capable of.
“I left a life that I’d known to be who I am,” she said. “And I don’t regret it one bit.”