PARENT TRAP

A forced marriage: “I met him on Monday. On Wednesday, we were engaged. On Friday, he went back to America.”

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and certain identifying details may have been changed or omitted to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Zarah, early 20s

I attended a top school in my country—a co-ed school that specializes in STEM education. There were only 15 women in my class, in a sea of men. I am the first woman in my family to go to university. I had envisioned a very different life for myself—a fulfilling career, some travel, and perhaps marriage and children, later in life. I abandoned hope when, a few months into college, my parents told me they’d started looking around for possible marriage proposals.

My mother approached me one day and told me they’d found a nice match in the UK. I frantically searched his name on Facebook and LinkedIn, but found nothing except photos of fast cars and a sparsely populated work history. In a panic, I told them I knew nothing about him—that I couldn’t just be expected to marry anyone.

“He’ll be here in a week, for his sister’s wedding,” my mother told me. “And you’ll have a chance to meet him and then we can have your engagement ceremony.”

The day came quickly. I spoke to him for a few minutes and went back to my parents in tears. I told them, categorically, “No.” They sat me down over the next several weeks and, underhandedly, made it clear that I had no choice in the matter: “This is what we’ll do for your wedding,” my mother would say, showing me photos and brochures.

The more I tried to resist, the more they began to taunt me: “Do you think you’re too good now—because you’re educated? You’re becoming arrogant.”

Thankfully, I convinced a close family friend to look into this guy I was meant to marry. She had family in the UK, and word came back that he was barely employed and not the most reputable character. “Don’t pressure your daughter,” she told my mother meaningfully. Days later, my parents told me they’d decided to refuse his proposal.

I breathed easy for the first time in months, thinking the worst behind me. I went back to school and was a couple of months shy of graduation when my parents came to me with another proposal—this one, from the US.

I was distracted with finals and the months went by quickly. Before I knew it, I was sitting across from him in our living room and he was asking me about my plans after college. The next day, our parents announced our engagement. The next, we were engaged; at the end of the week, he went back home to America.

My parents wanted the marriage ceremony to happen quickly—within the next three months. I was so depressed, and so in denial about what was happening, that I decided I would try to kill myself before we had a chance to marry. I started taking Panadol, the equivalent of Tylenol, after Googling its cumulative effects. On any given day, I’d take anywhere from 8-12, hoping that, by the time my marriage arrived, it would have killed me. But it didn’t—I threw up many times, lost a lot of weight, and I probably destroyed my liver, but I didn’t die.

I was terribly depressed, with no way out. I looked to my parents to save me, but they had no mercy. My grandmother had an arranged marriage; my own mother had an arranged marriage. This is all they knew—and if it had been good enough for them, it would be good enough for me. Whenever I spoke out, my mother or father beat me. And my little sister looked on fearfully.

The day of my wedding came. In a haze—I don’t remember much—I signed the nikah and was a married woman. Just like that—to someone I’d spoken to once before, for less than a half hour. I was trapped. If you get divorced after you sign the nikah, you become a pariah, “a bad woman.” I’ve never known anyone to get divorced.

My husband went back to America a couple of days after our wedding, and then he added me on Facebook—which is how we communicated for the next couple of months, while he filed a visa application to bring me to the States. Once the application was approved, he came to pick me up and then we flew back together—a brutal flight, about 24 hours in all.

And that’s how I ended up here—in a big city, married to a complete stranger, living with his parents and his siblings. On the way over, I kept thinking, “If it’s not tolerable, if he beats me, I will leave him, or I will kill myself,” to set my heart at ease.

But he’s a really wonderful person. He’s not conservative—with his encouragement, I’ve gone back to school. He tells me that he wants to see me be interested in life; he wants me to be happy. His parents are amazing: his father cooks for us—“you’re both my children,” he says, and his mom, who is an entrepreneur, encourages me to stand up to her son: “Fight with him when you disagree; don’t just say yes.”

When my parents call, my heart won’t allow me to talk to them. They didn’t see what it was like here for the first few months—how lonely I was, how much I wished for death. They will see the situation now—80% luck, and 20% determination to survive—and take credit for it. My father will say, “You see? I arranged marriages for six of my siblings, and I was never wrong.” I am happy with my husband—as happy as I can be with someone I didn’t know when I married him—but I’m not ready to thank my parents for that. How can I? I could have very well ended up with the guy in London—the one who couldn’t even hold down a job.

I met with my friends from college the other week—they’re both attending graduate schools in the States. I can’t help but envy them. I could have been in their position. I try not to live in the past; what happened, happened. But I fear for other women who don’t fare as well as I have. My heart aches for them. My heart aches for my little sister.

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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