Naila Amin, who was forced into marrying a 28-year-old cousin in Pakistan in 2003 when she was just 13 years old, said she would have preferred life in the Rikers Island jail to being beaten by her husband every morning and raped by him every night.
“I was 8 years old when I found out I was engaged,” she said. After escaping from her parents’ home in Queens, where they had moved from Islamabad, she was placed in foster care until 2005, “when I was forced to go live with my rapist. I literally lived a life of hell.”
Now, at the age of 27, Amin said “I am sick and tired of the crap. No religion, no book, nobody says you can be with a little girl while he is 30 and she is 15.”
Amin spoke these words on June 3 to a crowd outside the Passaic office of State Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), protesting his role in blocking the vote of a bill that, if passed, would raise the minimum age for marriage in the state to 18. As of now, couples in New Jersey may get married when they are as young as 16 with parental consent, while minors younger than 16 also need the approval of a judge.
Schaer is the only Orthodox Jewish member of the State Assembly and an outspoken opponent of the bill. Since Sunday’s protest, a vote on the bill was rescheduled for June 7, and Schaer told NJJN he expects it will pass.
Twenty-nine protesters — 24 of them dressed in wedding gowns and other bridal adornments — stood outside the assemblyman’s office on a cloudy midday. Many wore plastic chains on their wrists to symbolize the slavery of forced marriage,
marriage, and some pasted black, X-shaped tape over their mouths to symbolize the forced silence of child brides.
In May Delaware became the first state in the nation to prohibit the marriages of people younger than 18, but those at the rally believe their state should have held that distinction. In May 2017 former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed the measure, declaring that it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state.”
In April, the State Senate approved the measure by 38 votes to 5, and Democrat Phil Murphy, who replaced Christie in January, promised to sign the bill. However, because of Schaer’s objection, an Assembly vote set for last week was delayed.
Schaer told NJJN the bill was “too broad in scope” and ignored traditions in some Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish communities that permitted females younger than 18 to get married. “But there is no reason for someone to be married at 13 or 14 or 15,” he said.
Schaer also said the current bill would forbid a pregnant woman under 18 to marry her unborn child’s father, and it wouldn’t stop them from living together without being married. He added that it wouldn’t even be all that effective, as “anyone under 18 who wants to get married can always cross the bridge to Pennsylvania or New York.” In Pennsylvania, the minimum age is 15. In New York, it is 17.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, the New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America, representing the “political arm of the Orthodox people” in the state, he said, also opposes the bill in its current form.
“We favor a law that places regulation on marriage, but it should take cultural and religious concerns into consideration,” Schnall told NJJN.
Schnall said there are some cultures, including sects of Judaism, which have long permitted women to marry before they reach 18. He supports an amended bill that will allow exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry provided they have parental consent and the permission of civil court judges. “I understand that there have been abuses when girls marry young. That is why a judge must give permission.”
The rally began with a chant by its prime organizer, Fraidy Reiss, who led the other 28 protesters and shouted, “Unchained. Mouths taped. Trapped in silence. This is what life looks like for a girl in New Jersey or across the United States who is forced to marry.”
Reiss, a 43-year-old N.J. resident and former Satmar chasid, told NJJN she was forced into a 12-year marriage at age 19. In 2011, she founded Unchained at Last, a secular organization dedicated to raising the minimum marital age in the U.S. to 18. A tattoo of chains encircles her right wrist.
“We are not going to let Gary Schaer stand in our way,” she said at the rally. “Before the age of 18, children can be easily forced into a marriage because they cannot legally get into a domestic violence shelter, get an attorney, or begin legal action to get a divorce,” she said, adding, “Say goodbye to the Dark Ages. Don’t let girls marry their rapists.”
Several protesters discussed the issue with NJJN prior to the start of the rally.
Documentary filmmaker Mark Fellner-Erez of Los Angeles, one of two male protesters in attendance, who wore a borrowed wedding dress, said, “An adult is an 18-year-old and you have to be an adult to make the decision to get married.”
Jane Geissler of Queens said, “In the United States people are forcing children to marry their rapists and bear their children. To me, it’s slavery. It is legal rape. It is legal pedophilia.”
Deb Huber, a spokesperson for the National Organization for Women of New Jersey who lives in Tewksbury, led a call-and-response chant at the rally, asking “Patriarchal religions and patriarchal cultures for millennia. Is that OK?”
“No,” the crowd answered back.
Following Huber was Rachel Gallagher, spokesperson for the Women’s Action Committee of Westfield 20/20, a local group devoted to “tolerance, diversity, environment, health, and fiscal responsibility.”
“Girls who are married before 18 do not have any rights if they are stuck in an abusive marriage,” she said. “These girls need our protection.”
Kelly Flannery, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, told the crowd that “child marriage does severe harm to children wherever they live, whether in Afghanistan or here in the U.S. No child should be pressured or compelled to marry for any reason. Married girls are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to get an education than unmarried girls.”
He added, “Girls need to be girls, not brides.”