This is part one of a four-part series originally published on Al Jazeera America. Reported with Mary Zarikos and Sarah Fournier.
Vidya Sri was a typical American teenager in the Queens borough of New York. She went to school, hung out with her friends and took dance classes. But all that changed when she was 18 and started dating her first real boyfriend, a sweet Irish Catholic boy.
That was in 1987. Alarmed that Sri was dating someone who wasn’t Indian, her father shipped her off to India to live with relatives. Nearly every day for four years, she was pressured to get married. It became a condition of her return to the United States. Finally, she gave in and married a man she did not know.
“I was introduced to him, and a week later we were married,” said Sri, now 44 and divorced.
The marriage was recognized by the U.S., and the couple moved to New York. But Sri didn’t love her husband, wasn’t attracted to him and said she felt as if they came from “two different planets.” Despite not wanting to consummate the marriage, Sri gave in to family pressure and had two children with her husband.
Sri was a victim of forced marriage, a practice in which women — and sometimes men — are forced to marry against their will. The Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who have been abused, determined that there were as many as3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011.
That the numbers aren’t clear is part of the problem.
“We hide. We hide very carefully,” said Sri, who now works at her own organization to help prevent forced marriages like hers. “This whole thing is so humiliating. It’s so shaming, all you really want to do is drop dead.”