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American women talk about being forced into arranged marriages in new documentary

A new documentary takes a hard look at forced marriages in the United States through the real stories of three women from conservative religious backgrounds who were forced to marry men they didn’t choose — or didn’t even know — as teenagers.

Directed by Kate Ryan Brewer, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story — which will be released in theaters and online on May 7 — ‘examines the truth about forced marriage in the U.S. through the complicated experiences of those who have survived it.’ 

The film shares candid interviews with Nina Van Harn, who was brought up in a conservative Christian community and forced to marry a stranger at age 19; Fraidy Reiss, whose Orthodox Jewish husband turned abusive; and Sara Tasneem, who was pregnant when her conservative Muslim father forced her to marry a much older man.

Serious subject: A new documentary focuses on forced marriages in the United States and shares stories of three women who were forced to marry men they didn’t choose

Strict: Nina Van Harn was in the Christian Patriarchy Movement, a conservative religious community that places men in positions of authority and women in subservient roles

Strict: Nina Van Harn was in the Christian Patriarchy Movement, a conservative religious community that places men in positions of authority and women in subservient roles

Young: When she was 19, her father said he'd found her a husband. She felt no choice but to agree, and was told she'd be shunned if she refused

Young: When she was 19, her father said he’d found her a husband. She felt no choice but to agree, and was told she’d be shunned if she refused

Nina Van Harn

Nina Van Harn grew up on a 40-acre farm in rural west Michigan with three siblings.

Speaking to the AHA Foundation, she said her upbringing was ‘fairly typical’ until about halfway through third grade, when her parents pulled her and her siblings out of school and began homeschooling them.

Directed by Kate Ryan Brewer, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story will be released in theaters and online on May 7

Directed by Kate Ryan Brewer, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story will be released in theaters and online on May 7 

‘We started living a more and more conservative lifestyle and only closely socialized with family and friends that held similar views,’ she said.

By the time she was 11, they had ‘fully adopted the beliefs and lifestyle’ of the Christian Patriarchy Movement, a conservative religious community that places men in positions of authority and women in subservient roles. 

‘Father was the absolute head of the home and the woman and children’s place was to support, honor, respect, and most importantly, obey him at all times,’ Nina said.

‘The concept of marriage, the concept that I was going to get married was a conversation that we started to have right around the time I was maybe 11,’ she says in the new documentary.

‘By the time I was 13, I firmly believed that the only role God intended for me to play in life, was that of wife and mother.’

Days after Nina turned 18, her father told her he found a husband for her. Nina was not involved at all in the arrangements, and instead, her father communicated with the man’s father.

But before Nina even met the man, the arrangements fell through. 

The marriage was not good. Nina alludes to abuse and sexual assault, and the documentary points out that forced marriage also means forced consummation

The marriage was not good. Nina alludes to abuse and sexual assault, and the documentary points out that forced marriage also means forced consummation

Awakening: She said that eventually, while seeing a counselor, she recognized for the first time that she hadn't had a choice in getting married and was forced to do so

Awakening: She said that eventually, while seeing a counselor, she recognized for the first time that she hadn’t had a choice in getting married and was forced to do so

When she was 19, her father came to her again and said he’d found her a husband. Though Nina dreamed of traveling, she learned that the groom her father has picked was a ‘homebody’ — yet her preferences didn’t matter. 

‘I was thoroughly trained to believe that my dad knew what was best for me, much more so than I ever could. I had learned to trust him with my life,’ she said.

Still, she said, her father gave her ‘ultimatums’ telling her she must marry this man or be ‘condemned by God and shunned by my family.’ 

She said she felt no choice but to agree, particularly because she’d never had the opportunity to make an important decision on her own before.  

‘I knew that I wasn’t going to say no,’ she added in an interview with PBS News Hour. ‘This was God’s will. God had spoken. And it was just not even an option. I didn’t think consciously in my head I’m being forced.’ 

Even on her wedding day, the most important thing to her was earning her father’s approval. 

The marriage was not good. Nina alludes to abuse and sexual assault, and the documentary points out that forced marriage also means forced consummation. 

Leaving: Nina — who shared children with her husband — spent six weeks planning to get out. Ultimately, Michigan declared the marriage illegal on the basis that it was forced

Leaving: Nina — who shared children with her husband — spent six weeks planning to get out. Ultimately, Michigan declared the marriage illegal on the basis that it was forced

Helping others: Nina is now an activist and advocate for other victims of forced marriages

Helping others: Nina is now an activist and advocate for other victims of forced marriages

‘At any moment, someone can just barge in and take your body,’ she says. 

She said that eventually, while seeing a counselor, she recognized for the first time that she hadn’t had a choice in getting married and was forced to do so. Days later, she had an epiphany that she was in a cult. 

‘It was terror and relief all at the same time. The people you thought were your protectors were actually your captors,’ she said. 

Actually getting out what ‘almost impossible.’ She had no one she could ask for help, and had been conditioned and ‘brainwashed’ to distrust the police or government agencies. 

So on her own, Nina — who shared children with her husband — spent six weeks planning to get out.

Ultimately, Michigan declared the marriage illegal on the basis that it was forced.  

‘It meant freedom. And it meant a peace in my conscience,’ she said. ‘I had to run very fast. And that was heart-wrenching thing to do. But I did it because staying was more frightening than leaving.’ 

Nina is now an activist and advocate for other victims of forced marriages. 

Arranged: Fraidy Reiss was married at 19 to a man she'd known for a matter of months and had never been alone with. They were set up by a matchmaker

Arranged: Fraidy Reiss was married at 19 to a man she’d known for a matter of months and had never been alone with. They were set up by a matchmaker

Limited: She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, where she, too, was told her whole life that her fate was to be a wife and mother

Limited: She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, where she, too, was told her whole life that her fate was to be a wife and mother

Scary: Her husband was abusive and would threaten to kill her, sharing details of how he would do it

Scary: Her husband was abusive and would threaten to kill her, sharing details of how he would do it

Fraidy Reiss 

Fraidy Reiss was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, where she, too, was told her whole life that her fate was to be a wife and mother.

‘Where I was raised, I was groomed basically from infancy to become a wife and a mother,’ she said.  

‘Your whole life, you have been told, you need to get married right away. You’re terrified,’ she told PBS.

But that didn’t mean that she was socializing with the boys are choosing a partner. 

‘My upbringing was so separated from boys and from men. I had very little interaction with them,’ she said. ‘You’re not going to find your own husband. The matchmaker is going to find you a marriage.’

When she was 19, she entered into an arranged marriage with a man she had only known for three months. She barely knew him at all, and had never been allowed to be alone with him or have physical contact before the wedding. 

‘It never occurred to me that I was doing anything other than what I had always dreamed of doing,’ she told PBS.

The honeymoon didn’t last long, if there even was one. Fraidy’s husband showed his temper within a week of their wedding, growing angry when he overslept and punching a hole in the wall.

No help: Family members dismissed it as 'a little bit of a temper,' and when Fraidy went to the police after a violent episode and requested a restraining order, she was pressured to drop it

No help: Family members dismissed it as ‘a little bit of a temper,’ and when Fraidy went to the police after a violent episode and requested a restraining order, she was pressured to drop it

Education: Fraidy, pictured with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, managed to get out by attending Rutgers University; she graduated as valedictorian with a journalism degree at age 32

Education: Fraidy, pictured with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, managed to get out by attending Rutgers University; she graduated as valedictorian with a journalism degree at age 32

The anger and violence escalated, and during the 12 years that Fraidy was married, her husband would abuse her and talk about murdering her. 

‘When he first threatened to kill me, he would describe to me in detail how he was going to kill me, and it was very graphic and very scary,’ she says in the documentary.

But family members dismissed her husband’s behavior as ‘a little bit of a temper,’ and when Fraidy went to the police after a violent episode and requested a restraining order, she was pressured to drop it.   

In fact, rabbis turned up at her house to drive her to court and tell the judge she wanted to drop the restraining order.

Fraidy managed to get out by attending Rutgers University, from which she graduated as valedictorian with a journalism degree at age 32. 

But her family, rather than being proud that she was the first to graduate college, declared her ‘dead.’

Fraidy came to file for divorce, and moved to New Jersey with her two daughters, of whom she won custody.

She has since launched a career as an investigative reporter and private investigator, and now runs a nonprofit called Unchained at Last, which advocates for laws ending forced marriage.

Shipped off: Sara Tasneem's father married her to a man 13 years her senior when she was just 15. She says he was part of a religious cult and picked the man himself

Shipped off: Sara Tasneem’s father married her to a man 13 years her senior when she was just 15. She says he was part of a religious cult and picked the man himself

After a religious ceremony when she was 15, her husband took her back to his native country and impregnated her. At 16, she was brought back to the US and the pair were legally married

After a religious ceremony when she was 15, her husband took her back to his native country and impregnated her. At 16, she was brought back to the US and the pair were legally married

She said: 'He essentially took custody of me, since I was underage, and took me out of the country. And once we left the country there was nothing that anybody could do to help me.'

She said: ‘He essentially took custody of me, since I was underage, and took me out of the country. And once we left the country there was nothing that anybody could do to help me.’

'I got really depressed, and I just remembered seeing kids my age going to school and thinking I want to be one of those kids. Why can’t I go to school?' she recalled

'I got really depressed, and I just remembered seeing kids my age going to school and thinking I want to be one of those kids. Why can’t I go to school?' she recalled

‘I got really depressed, and I just remembered seeing kids my age going to school and thinking I want to be one of those kids. Why can’t I go to school?’ she recalled

Sara Tasneem

Sara Tasneem’s parents divorced when she was five, and she grew up with her mom in Colorado. By the time she started high school, she planned to join the Air Force and go to law school.

But everything changed when she went to visit her father in California the summer after her freshman year, when she was 15.

‘My dad had become involved in a very … it’s basically kind of like a cult. It’s separate from the religion of Islam; it’s different in its practices and beliefs,’ she told TOA News.

‘Growing up in the group, it was your role as a girl that you would just be a wife and a mom.’

During that trip, her dad told her that since she was now drawing attention from boys, so she had to marry immediately.

‘My dad sat me down and told me that, “You’re not allowed to have sex out of marriage [and] you’re gonna get married,” she recalled.

He picked out a man who was 28, 13 years older than her, and the pair were spiritually married the night they met. 

‘After the ceremony, I was handed over to this man,’ she told Global Citizen. ‘He essentially took custody of me, since I was underage, and took me out of the country. And once we left the country there was nothing that anybody could do to help me.’  

Sheer will: Her husband was abusive. And though he told her he could go to school, he would make it hard for her. Still, she managed to get her GED and go to culinary school

Sheer will: Her husband was abusive. And though he told her he could go to school, he would make it hard for her. Still, she managed to get her GED and go to culinary school

When she graduated, at age 23, she got a job as a chef and was able to leave. It took several years for her to file for divorce

When she graduated, at age 23, she got a job as a chef and was able to leave. It took several years for her to file for divorce

Moving forward: Though she is now free from him and has since remarried (pictured), she is outspoken about the need for laws that protect this from happening in the first place

Moving forward: Though she is now free from him and has since remarried (pictured), she is outspoken about the need for laws that protect this from happening in the first place

Sara was 16 and pregnant when they returned to the US, and she was taken to Reno, Nevada, for the legal ceremony. She hoped that someone would notice something was wrong and help her, but no one did. 

In Nevada, a minor can 16 or older can get married with the consent of just one parent.  

'There’s really no way to make somebody whole after taking away their freedom,' she said

‘There’s really no way to make somebody whole after taking away their freedom,’ she said

Only after she was legally married was she allowed to call her mother and tell her what had happened. 

‘I got really depressed, and I just remembered seeing kids my age going to school and thinking I want to be one of those kids. Why can’t I go to school?’ she recalled.

Sara would go on to have two children, including a son when she was 19.

Her husband was abusive. And though he told her he could go to school, he would make it hard for her. Still, she managed to get her GED and take computer programming classes, and eventually went to culinary school.

When she graduated, at age 23, she got a job as a chef and was able to leave. It took several years for her to file for divorce, which she did when her husband was out of the country with their children.

Though she is now free from him and has since remarried, she is outspoken about the need for laws that protect this from happening in the first place. 

‘There’s really no way to make somebody whole after taking away their freedom,’ she said.

Knots: A Forced Marriage Story also spotlights the ongoing problem of child marriages in the US, which is in fact legal in most states

Knots: A Forced Marriage Story also spotlights the ongoing problem of child marriages in the US, which is in fact legal in most states

While only Sara was a minor when she was forced into marriage, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story also spotlights the ongoing problem of child marriages in the US, which is in fact legal in most states.

Only Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania require marrying parties to be at least 18 years of age without exceptions. Most states allow minors to marry with a parent’s permission, and 20 states do not even have a minimum age for marriage. 

The makers of the documentary say that between 2000 and 2010, nearly 250,000 children in the US were married, and 77 per cent were young girls married to significantly older men.

Event though Nina and Fraidy were both legal adults at the time of their weddings, both were raised in patriarchal communities wherein they were expected to continue to obey their fathers as even after turning 18.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk