Young girls being forced to marry is a practice usually attributed to other countries. Knots: A Forced Marriage Story documents the stories of three American women forced to marry at young ages. Director Kate Ryan Brewer expertly balances their personal stories while enlightening the viewer on the issue of underage forced marriages. The sad reality is that while most Americans assume that this does not happen within their borders, the practice has been legally—yes legally– occurring in the United States right under the noses of most Americans, and it is shockingly widespread.
Nina Van Harn, Sara Tasneem, and Fraidy Reiss reside in different parts of the United States. They had different religious upbringings. In all three of their stories, however, there is a marked convergence between the religions of their upbringing and a suffocating patriarchal ideology. Var Harn, now an adult, reflects that as a child she had to do whatever her father thought fit. All three women were educated to believe that their gender role required them to be good wives and homemakers, and nothing more beyond that. Tasneem’s odyssey was one that involved her marrying a man chosen by her father and getting pregnant by the age of sixteen.
Reiss’s story was reminiscent of the show Unorthodox. It involved her parents hiring a matchmaker that found a partner suitable enough for her parents. Reiss soon discovered that her husband was terribly abusive. It is Reiss that gives us the most detailed description of the ideological worldview that traps young girls. She notes that the early grooming that young girls are put through—gender specific schooling, homemaker training, restricting contact to only coreligionists—works more effectively than holding a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to marry. If you get them early enough, young girls internalize the patriarchal ideology fed to them. And of course, the biggest punishment is not necessarily physical, it is ostracism from the religious community.
Knots lays out the legal and structural landscape that allows underage forced marriages. While sex between a minor and an adult is considered statutory rape in all states, all it takes in some states for an adult to marry a child is a letter from a parent granting permission. The United States offers a patchwork of different loopholes and exceptions in the legal systems of different states that allow adults to marry minors. It is not uncommon for parents to do Google searches aimed at finding states with the laxest laws in order to marry off their daughters.
For those who wonder why the United States would legally allow the forced marriage of minors, the answer may lie in the country’s historical unease with sexuality. As one expert in Knots explains, the origin of all this may lie in the fact that in the 50s the country was very concerned with girls having sex or getting pregnant outside of marriage. When parents had evidence that their daughters were having sex or had gotten pregnant, the solution was usually a shotgun wedding, regardless of age.
As dire as the legal landscape may seem, activists such as Reiss have been tireless in their efforts to close loopholes. There has been some progress in states like Virginia. In most states, however, progress has been slow. Ideologies involving women’s sexuality and patriarchy are quite anchored in the American legal and political system. For those who find it silly to historically link the Salem Witch Trials to present day America, Van Harn gives evidence that traces of America’s sexual past can still be detected in the present.
Her coreligionists instilled in her the beliefs that God was male and that any deviation in her behavior was evidence of her being a witch. One cannot help but think that the latter belief is ludicrous while the former, in 2021, is well on its way to being ludicrous.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.