When Sara Tasneem was 15 years old, she met the 28-year-old man she would marry. They met over a glass of orange juice and were married by nightfall.
The marriage was arranged by Tasneem’s father, when he learned she had a boyfriend and feared she might engage in premarital sex.
“I was really scared of my dad,” Tasneem told The Epoch Times. “I grew up in a household where he was extremely abusive towards me. So I never questioned him. I also didn’t really realize what he was talking about.”
Tasneem is now 40 and she is one of several former child-brides who are now rallying behind legislation to ban child marriages in California.
Since a statewide bill failed in 2017, advocates have taken a city-by-city approach that recently has swept through Orange County, as well as other parts of the state. Fullerton’s ban on Nov. 17 was the most recent.
In California, it’s legal for minors to get married as long as they have parental or guardian consent and judicial approval. It allows sexual relations between minors and adults, which would be illegal outside of marriage.
“I didn’t realize what was going to happen after that ceremony occurred,” Tasneem recalled. “I just thought like, ‘Oh, let me just get through this so I can go back to my mom’s house.’ I had no idea at that age how to even process that.”
While bans on child marriage have met with much support and virtually no opposition in Orange County, legislators and advocacy groups in the state and nationwide have expressed concerns that such all-out bans could limit freedom.
Opposition has come from both sides of the political spectrum.
Liberal groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood, as well as Republican officials and groups have said a ban can put undue constraints on the right to marriage and religious freedoms.
A common hypothetical example that has been raised by the opposition is that of two teens in a consensual relationship, in which the girl becomes pregnant. Some say they should be allowed to marry, especially if their faith calls on them to not have the child out of wedlock, as long as they have parental consent.
Ending Child Marriage in SoCal
Rima Nashashibi, founder and president of Global Hope 365, is leading the effort to ban child marriage in Southern California.
Irvine was the first Orange County city to do so, on Aug. 11. It was followed by Anaheim on Aug. 25, Newport Beach on Oct. 13, and Yorba Linda on Nov. 3. In each city, the ban was approved unanimously by the city councils.
Nashashibi said Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan was “a champion within the city council.”
Khan told The Epoch Times: “Child marriage should be unlawful. When I heard about Rima’s organization and their efforts on ending child marriage, especially in California, I had to step in and support it.”
“I got sick and tired of waiting for someone to do something about it,” Nashashibi told The Epoch Times. “So I decided I’m going to do it. Our mission is to end these harmful practices against women and girls like child marriage … starting with California.”
Nashashibi first became aware of forced child marriages when she read a 2017 op-ed about child bride Sherry Johnson in The New York Times—a story “which made my hair gray,” she said.
The op-ed detailed how Johnson, an 11-year-old Florida resident, was pushed by her mother into marrying a 20-year-old at her church who had raped her.
“You’re thinking: ‘Child marriage? That’s what happens in Bangladesh or Tanzania, not America!’” the op-ed’s author, Nicholas Kristof, wrote.
Child marriage is legal in 46 states.
Child Marriage in the US
Between 2000 and 2015, at least 207,459 minors were married in the United States, according to Frontline.
California has the fifth-highest number of child marriages (following Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, in that order), according to Pew Research. Out of every thousand youth aged 15 to 17, 5.5 were married in California, according to data Pew collected from 2010–2014.
Pew’s information comes from surveys. In seven states—one of which is California—the official data isn’t available.
“When we try to obtain that report from this state, a lot of the counties said, ‘No data available,’” Nashashibi said. “[They] ended up pointing fingers at each other with the county saying the state didn’t ask for the information, and the state saying [the county] has to supply us [with] that information.”
The Epoch Times interviewed three women in California who were wed as children and are now advocating for a statewide ban.
Dawn Tyree: ‘Isolated, No Support’
Dawn Tyree, a writer and founding member of the national organization Coalition to End Child Marriage, said she was coerced into marrying a 32-year-old family friend who had been sexually abusing her.
He started abusing her when she was 11 and she became pregnant when she was 13, in 1985.
She said her parents and her abuser decided that marriage would be the best legal solution for the adults involved. Her parents wouldn’t be vulnerable to charges of child neglect and abandonment and her abuser wouldn’t be charged with rape.
“Marriage frees everyone except the minor,” Tyree told The Epoch Times. “It’s not like I wanted to marry him. … [But] seeing my abuser and parents in fear over the situation—again, children just want to remedy things and patch it up and make everyone happy.
“My three years with him were very traumatic,” she said. She was basically a “sex slave,” she said.
She gave birth to her first child at the age of 14, and 13 months later “to the day” she gave birth to her second child.
“So at 15, I now have two children, and I’m still a sex slave to him,” Tyree recalled. “[I was] isolated—no support, no friends, because the moment you make friends and their family finds out about your living situation, obviously, as any parent would, they’re going to forbid the child from spending time around that family.”
At 16, she devised an escape plan. Her children were staying with their paternal grandparents, and Tyree took the chance to find roommates and secure a job assembling bicycles at Toys R Us. With a new living situation in place, she picked up her kids from their grandparents’ house and never returned.
“It was a scary time,” she said. “We lived far below the poverty line. And we lived in situations where we didn’t have electricity. I couldn’t afford the basic needs such as soap, shampoo, or toilet paper.
“And to add to all the stress and pressure, I was terrified that somebody would find out that we were living that way, and then I would lose custody of my children.”
Elizabeth Sitton: No Escape
When Elizabeth Sitton, 53, reflects on her early life, she sees a series of doors closing on her ability to get out of a forced marriage.
“I lost consent over my body and my life because of this,” Sitton told The Epoch Times. This is the first time she has spoken to the media about what happened to her.
After her parents divorced when she was 5, her mother remarried and started a health clinic with her new husband. Eventually, the clinic transformed into a commune known as the “Fellowship,” located in Murrieta, California.
“The culture there was one of being extremely strict to certain guidelines that included celibacy unless married. There was a lot of dominance over people in this commune. Women were to be receptive to the men and people were regularly told to marry each other.
“I really hated being there. It was a very oppressive culture,” Sitton said.
She wanted to leave the Fellowship from the very beginning, but it seemed impossible. At age 11, her stepfather adopted her and prevented her from contacting her biological father—with whom, up until that point, she was very close. Sitton said they even confiscated mail from her father and forbade phone calls.
At the end of eighth grade, she was removed from public school. Then, she took the California High School Proficiency Exam and began teaching younger children in an outdoor classroom at the Fellowship.
“We were not allowed to have any sort of relationships without approval,” she said.
Her situation became more complicated when, at age 16, she fell in love with a 19-year-old visitor. Although they had a non-sexual relationship, the commune assumed they had broken the celibacy rule.
“[They] literally kicked him down the hall and off the property the very evening we were discovered together,” Sitton recalled. Members of the opposite sex were not allowed to be together without chaperones.
Her punishment included being isolated in her room under lock and key for two weeks. The only way for her to be “accepted again” by the community would be to marry one of the members, a 28-year-old man who had already been divorced.
Within three days, they were engaged and then driven to the Candlelight Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas to be legally married before returning to the commune for the wedding ceremony.
“After the wedding, they took us to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji to search for a new property to relocate the commune to as they were afraid of the nuclear arms race that was happening,” she said. “And we were there for two and a half years. There they took my passport. So, again, there was no way I could escape.”
Once they returned to California, her husband actually became her ally in escaping. One evening, he expressed doubts about living at the Fellowship and Sitton saw her chance to convince him to leave. It worked.
They contacted his mother in Los Angeles and asked her to deliver a car that day with a key hidden on the tire.
When they were discovered trying to leave, they made a break and ran to the vehicle—“burning rubber out of the front gate with very few of our possessions and no money except for a $20 bill left in the glove compartment for gas.
“It was Independence Day, 1986. We drove first to his mother’s and then on to Oregon to be reunited with my father.”
Two years later, she finalized her divorce and moved to Paris where she studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a model. Sitton now holds a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of California–Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in organization development from Pepperdine University.
“My story, I’d say, is one of resilience because I was lucky enough to escape. … I survived because I was a rebel, to the extent that I could be.”
Sara Tasneem: ‘I Was His Property’
Within hours of her father’s decision, Tasneem was taken to the presidential suite of a hotel where a sheikh presided over the ceremony.
After that point, everything became “kind of a blur” because it was happening so fast, Tasneem said. Her mind was a tangle of thoughts. She felt she had to do what she was told. She had to be a good daughter. She had to be a good Muslim. She wanted her dad to be proud of her.
Then the ceremony was over and she was “handed over to this … complete stranger. … I felt like I was his property.”
“That was kind of the end of my entire childhood,” she said. “My life just changed completely.”
If she had been allowed to contact her mother, Tasneem knows her mother would have intervened.
“She would have probably called the cops immediately and … the FBI and asked to file statutory rape charges,” Tasneem said. “I have no doubt that she would have done that.”
Shortly thereafter, Tasneem’s husband whisked her away to another country (which she declined to identify). She didn’t speak the language there and was completely dependent on him for everything.
When they returned to the Bay Area six months later, Tasneem was pregnant. She was about eight months into her pregnancy when they went to a drive-through wedding chapel in Reno, Nevada. Their earlier ceremony had been of a spiritual nature and not legally binding, but this one was.
“As soon as that legal marriage certificate was signed, there was nothing anybody could do,” she said. “The sad thing is that when you think of child marriage, it’s not a marriage at all. It’s more like a kidnapping.”
Around the time she turned 17, Tasneem became deeply depressed. She recalled taking her infant daughter to a nearby park and seeing other teenagers attending school. Witnessing their freedom made her upset. That’s when she decided to fight for her education.
After the sheikh informed her husband that he could allow his wife to pursue her education, she started taking public transit to school—“sometimes two, three hours one way,” she said.
But she was hampered by a lack of support and interrogated by her husband every time she came home.
“It was not an easy situation for me to deal with and try to go to school, but I did. I kept going. And as time went on, it got a little bit easier.”
Gradually, she built a support network with her classmates. She reconnected with her mother. Tasneem cautiously began to separate herself from her husband and the “very cultish” religious group her husband was involved in.
“It wasn’t just leaving the marriage,” she said. “It was also leaving that group and a lot of the brainwashing and trying to get out of that mindset. … It’s really a process to undo a lot of that programming in your own mind.”
It ultimately took Tasneem ten years to get out of the marriage—seven years to separate from her husband and three years to finalize the divorce.
“I didn’t have the financial ability to hire an attorney, [but] he did. Again, he had all the advantages.”
Religious Rights and Government Overreach
Efforts by lawmakers and advocates to end child marriage under 18, no exceptions, have not been universally embraced. Today, only four states—Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—have passed legislation to ban the practice.
California State Senator Jerry Hill made an attempt to prohibit minors from marrying in 2017, but Nashashibi said the effort met with resistance.
“[Hill] thought it was a no brainer,” she said. “Well, he encountered opposition from astonishing quarters, like ACLU and Planned Parenthood. So it [the bill] was watered down so bad.”
Hill received an opposition letter from ACLU Northern California stating that the bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause.”
The bill was also opposed by Children’s Law Center of California. The center did not reply to inquiries, nor did ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
According to a report from Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending child marriage, Idaho has the highest rate of underage marriage in the United States (which differs from Pew’s survey data). But a bill to end child marriage in Idaho failed in 2019.
Rep. Bryan Zollinger was one of the lawmakers who opposed the legislation.
He told The Epoch Times: “Typically, a marriage is a … religious ceremony. It’s a religious contract. Families and a lot of religions play a big role. And the government—rather than the parents—making that decision just doesn’t seem like the proper role of government, frankly.
“It’s tough to balance because I get the safety of kids. We’re worried about that, abusive relationships and stuff like that. But then it’s balancing that with the role families play and the role government should play.”
Zollinger, who initially agreed with the intent of the bill, began to see more nuances to the issue when he met with constituents and heard their stories.
“A lot of these people were the older generation, but they were saying, ‘I was married at 17, and we’ve been married 40 years, and we’re happy,’” he said. He heard a story of a 27-year-old woman who was happily married after 10 years. She got pregnant at 17, married the father of her child, and told Zollinger “We’re so blessed.”
“So we just got to thinking that, at that age, it should be a parental decision,” Zollinger said.
However, he did co-sponsor a bill to set a minimum age of 16 to get married. Before the bill was signed into law in early 2020, Idaho had no minimum age. California has no age floor.
“We agree there should be a minimum age,” he said. “Thirteen-year-old brides didn’t seem right.”
While Unchained at Last reported data showing a decline in child marriage between 2000 and 2010, its website says the decrease isn’t happening quickly enough: “It will not reach zero until every state passes laws to end child marriage.”
Currently, over 75,000 minors aged 15 to 17 are in marriages in the United States, according to Students Against Child Marriage.
A Form of Sex Trafficking
“It’s not about religious freedom,” Sitton said. “From my perspective, it’s a child protection issue. As survivors of child marriage, we often lose our ability to get an education and, ultimately, to succeed in life. I worked very hard for the success I achieved and was very intentional in driving my healing process.”
In Tyree’s view, child marriage of any kind is a form of sex trafficking. Furthermore, she said, it prevents children from achieving their full potential.
“Something that weighs heavy on my heart is that we keep these laws in place because we believe that the 16-year-old that got pregnant in high school deserves the opportunity to be a married mother,” she said.
Tasneem believes some 16-year-olds go that route because they don’t think they have support outside marriage. “The moment [a child] marries and leaves her parents’ home, she drops out of school, stays at home, the resources are tight, [and] she can’t figure out how to work.”
She pointed out that the U.S. State Department classifies forced marriage of minors as child abuse.
“The barriers to leaving a marriage as a minor are so extreme, that it’s basically a trap,” she said.
“Right now, the law is allowing minors to enter into a legal trap,” she said. “And that is the case right here in California.”
In 2019, she earned her master’s degree in public administration. Her thesis examines the services available for victims of forced child marriage in the Bay Area.
“If I had wanted to go to a shelter, I would have been turned away,” she said. “I called about 20 shelters in the Bay Area, and none of them took minors. They would refer them out to youth shelters, [but] youth shelters don’t have the same services that young mothers who are experiencing domestic violence need.”
Sitton echoed this point: “There are many social service options for women in distress, but there is nothing for children in this situation.”
Tasneem said the legal right of the parent or guardian is a loophole that puts the minor into a compromising position.
“[For] almost every single survivor that I know, the parent has forced the child into that relationship,” she said. “A lot of these children are not coming from healthy family situations. There’s usually abuse happening in that household. And so you grow up with having a lack of autonomy and a lack of ability to say, ‘No.’”
Picking Up the Pieces
Thirty-five years later, Tyree is still picking up the pieces.
When her son graduated from high school and joined the Navy, she was 32-years-old and still “trying to catch up” on the process of being a parent.
“The first year that he was away from home, I had all these thoughts of like, ‘Wait a second, I forgot to teach you this,’ or ‘I didn’t tell you how to manage that or do this,’” she said. “I kind of feel like that’s still going on because I was so young when I was raising them. … I didn’t have the life experiences to offer to my children or to teach them.”
Sitton, now the mother of a 15-year-old, cannot help but reflect on the disconnect between her experience and her daughter’s childhood.
“When I think about her being just a year younger than I was at the time of my wedding, I notice just how childlike she still is,” she said. “She still likes her stuffed animals and has only been on one date so far.
“People need to know that doors close and psychological issues erupt when you marry off children.”