Three years ago, Razan Fayez was working as a family law attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based non-profit organization that helps women and children around the world who are fleeing forced marriages, so-called “honor violence,” and genital mutilation in places like Togo and Pakistan find safety in the United States.
But things changed one Wednesday morning when Fayez got a call from an attorney working with a women’s shelter in Texas.
The shelter, said the caller, needed advice on how to help a 16-year-old girl who had run away from home because her parents were about to send her overseas to enter a forced marriage. Now, said the caller, the parents were threatening to sue the shelter if they kept the girl.
“I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of urgency,” says Fayez. “If she goes off to be married against her will, she’ll be raped.”
Fayez advised that the shelter could go to court and file an order of protection for the girl against her parents. She scrambled to make connections – child protective services has apparently said they didn’t want to get involved in a “cultural issue,” remembers Fayez – but it was for naught. When she came to work the next Monday, the attorney for the shelter said the girl had gone back to her family.
Two weeks later, the center received another call, this one by a woman trying to figure out how to save her step-daughter from female genital mutilation.
“I had heard that these things happened in the U.S., but this really opened my eyes to it,” says Fayez.
Although many Americans may think that phenomena such as forced marriages and so-called “honor killings” exist only overseas, social service agencies, educators, and a growing number of law enforcement personnel know differently. According to a survey the Tahirih Justice Center conducted of more than 500 social service, religious, legal, educational and medical agencies last year, 67 percent responded that they believed there were cases of forced marriage occurring among the populations they serve, but only 16 percent felt their agency was equipped to deal with the situation.
Photo: Noor Almaleki, 20, was run down in broad daylight by her father who was angry that she had become too westernized and did not want to accept a marriage her father had arranged for her in the family’s native Iraq, according to police. Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Prosecutor’s Office.