“They thought I was crazy when I said I was married.”
January 5th, 2005. The day when Naila Amin’s life was cruelly snatched. Her innocence wrenched by the very people who should have protected her.
The structure of Asian weddings means months of preparation results in weeks of various different functions and parties. Day after day, Naila was paraded in front of relatives and friends who had travelled from afar; she was given gifts of gold and money from beaming relations who wished her and her new husband well.
At the time of her marriage, Naila was only fifteen years old.
Naila comes from the Pashtun region of Pakistan and immigrated with her family to Queens, New York at the age of four. The particular tribe that Naila comes from is extremely patriarchal and women are treated like- in her words- “garbage”.
“Life dramatically changed for me,” Naila says as we conduct our interview over Zoom. After living in the US for four years, Naila was taken back to Pakistan for a cousin’s wedding. Whilst she was there, she found out that she was going to be married to another cousin who was 13 years her senior. Before this discovery, Naila had called him Lala, a term of endearment used for an older brother in Pashto, unknowing that he would soon become her husband.
Although the physical wedding ceremony had not taken place, Naila’s marriage papers had been signed and these were sent to the United States Immigration Service to allow her husband to enter the country. Currently, in the United States, a person of any age can sponsor an individual using a spousal visa. Naila is in the process of creating a federal bill to challenge this irrational law. Upon returning to the States, the union meant little to Naila until she found she had a schoolgirl crush on a Greek boy in her class.
“I had a stamp on me, I belonged to someone,” she says, as she explains the awful realisation she had when it dawned upon her she had been promised to a person; she was not love in with. However, she knew the prospect of being with anyone else was imaginary, she was trapped.
Despite this, when Naila was in the ninth grade, her parents found out she was dating a Spanish boy. “They lost it,” she says. “When the social workers saw my bruises, they told my parents that they would take me away.”
In Naila’s parents’ eyes, she had committed zinnah, the Arabic term for adultery as she was already married. Through the glass doors, as she saw her parents leaving Baldwin High School in handcuffs, Naila knew it would be a memory that would be too powerful to leave her.
Placed into foster care, Naila struggled due to a lack of cultural competency and no understanding of the abuse she was facing from her parents.
“They thought I was crazy when I said I was married,” Naila says, as she recounts the hardships she endured; no other child was like her, and it became apparent that Child Protective Services did not know how to handle the case.
The most poignant memory of her time in care was the Trader Joe’s pizza she ate for six months, a minor issue in the eyes of some, but the absence of any ethnic proficiency and the lack of halal food meant it was all she could have.
“I was the first Asian American child in foster care in Nassau County, and probably in New York at the time,” says Naila. The lack of understanding affected her deeply. After being placed in a group home, Naila struggled with the rules and ran away continuously over the month she was there. Angry and upset, Naila returned home, desperate to make things work with her parents, who suggested she go to Pakistan and age out of the system. When she was 18, the law would have no jurisdiction over her. “I got on a plane on October 14th, 2004. Little did I know it was the child marriage trap,” she says.
Naila travelled to Pakistan to attend the forced marriage of her older brother. Three months later, she too was married.
Having turned 15 in Pakistan, Naila was taken shopping for a lengha, the traditional Asian bridal wear. Whilst sitting in the bazaar, thoughts came rushing back and fragments began to fall into place.
“Naila your wedding is in a week,” her mother said to her as they were leafing through dresses.
Nearly all of Naila’s relations had been entered into forced marriages, it was the done thing. But she knew that this was not what she wanted. Nevertheless, it was nearly impossible to escape from her village. She knew that the consummation of her marriage would need to take place; and the thought of a man touching her paralysed her with fear.
Feeling truly alone, Naila was desperate to escape. On the tenth day of her marriage, she wanted out. But with no passport, she turned to the streets of her village. As she tore through the winding alleys, she came across a small mud hut in which was a woman and her family. Naila begged her son for a horse and carriage and was taken to a bus station. At this point, the Taliban were roaming free and the threat of abduction or even murder had become all the more real. Trying to book a hotel room in early 21st century Pakistan was easier said than done, and they refused Naila a room because she was an unaccompanied female without a national identity card.
The scent of freshly fried pakoras and bustling streets shrouded Naila as she frantically sought a way out of her situation. The hours ticked by slowly and gradually, Naila knew she would have to seek help from a relative. The image of one of her younger uncles sprang into her mind; he was a lot younger than the rest of her male relatives and perhaps he could help her. Having called her uncle who agreed to help her sort out the issues, a horrific realisation occurred.
“I thought to myself, they are going to kill me.” Naila says.
Naila had run away from her marriage, an act which brought shame on her deeply traditional family and thus she knew there would be repercussions. She ordered her uncle to call her Child Protection Officer if she was killed and tell her what had happened.
“I was ready to die,” Naila admitted. The industrial city of Attock was busy and alive with life, but at that moment, a young girl was contemplating her own life’s end. In that moment, Naila wondered if the bullets would hurt.
Would they burn? What will it feel like?
When she returned with her cousins, the anger her father felt meant he had to be locked in a room with his loaded pistol, whilst Naila was dragged from one part of the house to another. Whipped and humiliated in front of her entire family, the scars of her torment never healed.
That night, Naila was raped by her husband.
The very next day, her husband forced her to apply make-up and paraded her in front of relatives and friends at various functions. Naila knew she had to get out.
A plan began to formulate in her head quickly. If she could access her case worker, then perhaps, there would be a small possibility that she could be rescued. One day, after yet another barbaric beating, Naila swiftly made a phone call using a number she had memorised.
Waiting for what felt like an eternity, Naila was at yet another marriage function when the long awaited call arrived from her mother-in-law. She told Naila that there were some white people in the village looking for her.
The US Consulate officials had arrived with a Pashtun translator. After her husband had been ushered out to get a glass of water, Naila quickly detailed the abuse she had been delivered at the hands of her so called ‘husband’. The female agent stated that they could not remove her immediately as she was legally married, however help would be on its way.
Back in America, on March 7th, 2005, Naila’s mother was arrested as Naila had not been attending school. Infuriated that his wife was in jail, Naila’s father ordered her and her husband to get on the next available flight so her mother could be released.
A week later, the plane touched down in JFK airport. As Naila pulled on her jeans, her name was called out over the PA system. A group of around 30 border force, social workers, homeland security members and FBI agents greeted her as she walked down the steps back on to American soil.
After nearly a year of being abused, dehumanised and mistreated, the wait was over. Life would never be the same for Naila, but those few seconds before she was taken to be searched, Naila knew that she was finally home.
A short article such as this cannot do justice to Naila Amin’s story. The woman sitting across from me through a screen is a fighter. She will never be a victim. She emerged from the flames stronger. And although the scars will never fully heal, Naila is living proof that survival is possible.
You just have to believe.
Naila has set up her own foundation and you can learn more about it here. She also has a petition currently running to end child marriage in her home state of New York which you can sign here. To prevent girls like her from ending up in a care home which lacks understanding, Naila aims to create the first group home catering for honour based abuse and forced marriage; donations are appreciated and can be sent here.
You can watch the full interview with Maryam Rana and Naila Amin:
Written by Maryam Rana, Savera UK Youth Advisory Board