At only 15-years-old, Sara was married off by her father to a man nearly twice her age who she’d just met that morning. Forced to leave school, abandon her education, and give up on dreams of serving her country in the Air Force, Sara spent seven years trapped in a coerced child marriage before she was finally able to divorce her violent husband. Ever since escaping her underage marriage, she has fought to regain custody of her two children, return to school, and take back ownership of her life.
My name is Sara Tasneem, and at fifteen years old, I was forced to marry a man almost twice my age.
He was 28-years-old, and thirteen years older than me. We were legally married six months later in a wedding chapel in Reno, Nevada.
My father introduced me to my husband-to-be that morning, and I was told I would marry him that night. After a spiritual wedding ceremony that evening, performed by the leader of the group my father belonged to, I was handed over to my new husband and left in his care. He became my guardian, husband, and the father to my children. I lost my childhood, my freedom, and myself that night.
I would never be the same person again.
I had just finished my freshman year of high school when my mother told me that I was going to visit my dad for the summer in California. I did not know that my father had been planning to marry me off for quite some time, but I did know that my father was extremely abusive, and I was scared to go to California because of what he might do to me when he found out that I had been seeing a boy my age.
My dad had been very abusive to me in my earlier years, and I had good reason to be scared. My mom had left their marriage when I was five years old, so I was raised mostly by him. I went to live with my grandparents when I was ten, and my brothers and I had only reunited with my mother after I turned twelve. The abuse in my father’s house was so horrible that I had never wanted to go back, but after three years of living with my mother, my brothers and I went to visit my father.
As soon as my brothers and I arrived in California, my dad sat me down and told me that I had to get married.
He said that I would go to hell if I had sex outside of marriage, and that the Sheikh would pick my husband to be. I had no idea what my dad was even talking about, but I did not question it because I was so afraid of him.
Six months after our spiritual ceremony, I was pregnant and legally married to my then-husband at the age of 16. My mom, who I was living with before that fateful night, did not even know that I was being married.
None of it felt like a real marriage to me, and it began to feel more and more like a prison. Every aspect of my life was controlled by my husband. I could not drive. I did not have my own money or any way to earn money. I had to ask him for everything. I was not allowed to speak to my mother until after our legal marriage, and by that time, the damage had been done. I felt alone and lost.
At times, I felt like I did not know who I was anymore.
After I had my first child, a beautiful baby girl, I became very depressed. I saw young girls my age walking to school and thought about how I wanted to be like them. I slowly began my fight to go back to school but was shunned by the community I was living in. They told me that my place was at home taking care of my husband and daughter and that it would threaten his manhood if I went back to school.
This time, I did not listen to them and realized I had the power to choose. Seven years after legally marrying, I was able to separate from my ex-husband. I was twenty-three years old then, and he was thirty-six. He left the marriage and went back to his life with no repercussions, while I was left with the aftermath.
With little education, and little means, I had a long road of survival ahead of me.
Finding the strength to leave my marriage was difficult but the hardest part was yet to come. Leaving the marriage was the first obstacle I had to overcome to find my own freedom. Getting a divorce took me three years, and I did not have the financial means to hire an attorney. But my ex-husband did. I did not have the money to fight him in court, and I ended up giving him everything we had, which was not much. He gladly gave me all the debt, which he had racked up over the course of our marriage, under my name. He left the country and went back to where he came from.
At first, he tried to keep my kids. I had to fight to get them back. That meant an expensive ticket abroad to convince his family to let me have back my babies who desperately missed me. After our divorce, he became a distant father to my children who saw him in only the summers if he decided he could “afford” to send for them.
My ex-husband had a hard time keeping a job during our marriage and afterwards, and I was never sure if I was going to receive the minimal child support that I desperately needed as I had no way to enforce a child support order in another country. There were times I had to choose between paying for gas to go to work or buying dinner for my kids.
Even after leaving my marriage, I was years behind my peers in education, work experience, mental health, and life experience.
I had to learn how to navigate life as a single mother, starting from zero. During my marriage, my ex-husband had controlled the finances. I had never even had my own bank account. Luckily, I had learned to drive at 22, and I had an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts by the time I left my marriage. Without these tools, I am not sure that I would have been able to leave and survive with my kids on my own. I am one of the lucky ones.
Most of the community I had grown up with shunned me because I had divorced. I was left a shell of human being because of years of physical abuse starting from my early childhood, and from the emotional and sexual abuse I suffered throughout my marriage. I was so used to surviving my circumstances that I no longer knew how to live a life without being scared, anxious, depressed, and angry. It took years to overcome the mental obstacles that were holding me back. I suffered from severe and debilitating depression, PTSD, and anxiety for years after I left my forced marriage.
My children grew up with a mother who was still in survival mode.
I felt ill equipped to navigate the adult world most of the time. Despite these circumstances, my children and I found a way to move on and rebuild our lives step by step. It took years of suffering alone and thinking I was the only one. It was not until I had gone back to school for my bachelor’s degree that I uncovered the truth. Child marriage was not just an exception in Nevada, it was allowed in all fifty states when I started researching this topic in 2016.
I was shocked to find that child marriage was legal because of the loopholes built into marriage age laws. I was also horrified to find out that it was happening with great frequency. Since finding out about this issue, I was able to connect with non-profit organizations, Unchained at Last, and Tahirih Justice Center. These organizations help survivors and fight to end this abusive practice in the United States and worldwide.
My own children have grown up to become independent, free thinking adults and are in control of their own futures. I am so proud of the human beings they are, and they have been my motivation to always move forward, and to never give up.
You can help! We can end child marriage in the United States. Each state has different marriage laws, find out what your state laws are and contact your legislators. Get involved, if I can do it, so can you! <3