Sarah, of Somali descent but born in the Netherlands, was 16 when she was forced to marry her uncle in Somalia. After several attempts she managed to escape from Mogadishu last month and go back home. She now lives in hiding in a women’s shelter in the Netherlands.
Sarah’s mother was pregnant when she fled war-torn Somalia, in 1994. Growing up in a middle-sized town in the Netherlands, Sarah had a pretty carefree youth. But when she was around eight years old, the situation at home became tense.
“I went to a Roman Catholic school, so I didn’t wear my hijab in class,” says Sarah, who requested not to use her real name. “But my mother felt the pressure to raise me as a proper Muslim girl. So after school I had to wear my headscarf and I was not allowed to hang out with the girls in my class. I wanted to be like my friends; I repelled the idea of being different.”
The local child welfare office started to interfere when Sarah was 12. This made Sarah’s mother flee once again. She took her daughter to London and its big Somali Muslim community. “There were mosques everywhere, and every single Muslim girl wore hijabs and [other] covering clothes,” says Sarah. “I couldn’t use my friends as an excuse not to wear these clothes. Still I didn’t want to. I refused to wear a hijab. My mother made my life a living hell. She was angry and kicked me out of the house several times.”
After finishing secondary school, home wasn’t such a bad place for Sarah anymore. “Suddenly, my mother was nice to me and very understanding. She even bought me a dress for the end of school party. And when the summer came, she told me we’d go to Somalia, to visit my sick grandmother.”
Little did Sarah know that her mother bought for her only a one-way ticket to Somalia. “I thought Somalia was weird, I could not adapt. I was the strange, bad girl from Europe. As it turned out, my grandmother wasn’t really sick. My mother told me we would stay in Somalia for one year, so I could learn about my culture. And then we would go back. But that was never the plan. She had arranged my wedding.”
Three days before her wedding party, Sarah learned she was about to marry her mother’s 35-year-old cousin. “Everybody had warned me, but I really thought my mother had changed. I didn’t think she was going to leave me there.”
Sarah had to marry her uncle, because in her mother’s eyes he was a good man, and a rich man, too. In the wedding pictures Sarah produces a faint smile, but her heart was torn by grief. “It’s something I like to forget. It was a good wedding, to be honest. Not for me personally, but it was a sumptuous party in an expensive hotel. I was a sad bride, however. I thought this was the end. And he was my uncle – that was the worst thing. I was marrying my blood, my relative.”
Sarah says that her husband was a horrible, cruel man. “He treated me like an animal. I was just his whore from Holland, that’s what his whole family called me. In our community a woman has to be deflowered within seven days after the wedding. In my case that didn’t happen – I told him I had my period. I told him that for two weeks and then he raped me. And after that he did it all the time. I didn’t feel anything. I was numb”.
Sarah was not the only woman in the family. Her husband had two other wives, who are now 45 and 16 years old, respectively. He would be with a different wife every two days. “I was the only one who felt bad about it. The other ones liked it, because over there it’s not a bad thing. But I found it was disgusting and I felt very ashamed I told my friends in London to help me, to get me back. But I could never tell them why because I was too embarrassed. Until today, they don’t know I was married to that guy.”
She decided to take matters in her own hands by asking help from her country of birth, the Netherlands. Along with five other Somali girls, who grew up in London, she fled to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where she went to the Dutch embassy. “[The embassy] told me, ‘We can’t help you because you’re 17 and they’re still liable. So either we call your parents or you go back [to Somalia]’.”
The British girls were first put in a hotel and then brought to London, but, Sarah says, “[at the Dutch embassy] it didn’t look as they were willing to help me. They were very offensive.” Sarah kept trying her luck at the embassy, to no result. In the meantime, her family-in-law had found out she was in Addis Ababa and brought her back to Mogadishu. At first she became depressed and developed an addiction to sleeping pills. But somehow she managed to regain hope.
Sarah used the London Olympics as a target. “I thought, I have to be in Europe before the Olympics start. If I have to, I’ll walk there.” She started to look on the internet for solutions and got in touch with Shirin Musa, who-co founded the Dutch women’s rights organisation Femmes for Freedom.
Musa bought Sarah a plane ticket to Amsterdam. “I went to the travel agency to validate my ticket. There, I met another Dutch-Somali girl who also wanted to escape. We agreed to meet at the airport on the day of our flight. I was nervous, I couldn’t eat. I was so sure [my relatives] knew what I was up to. It had never been that scared before.”
“The day I left I told my husband I am going to see a friend, but went to the airport instead. While the other girl and I were sitting there, a policeman approached us. He was carrying a picture, so I was 100 percent sure he was looking for me. But he looked at the girl and told her she had to go with him to the reception desk. She never came back. I think her family gave the policeman money to find her. My family didn’t know I had left, but she had been gone for two weeks, so her family knew she was about to escape.”
Living in hiding
Now, Sarah is living in a women’s shelter in the Netherlands. She is thinking about going to college in February next year. The only thing that matters to her now is to persevere. One day, she wants to marry another man, but that means she has to divorce her husband. “In my religion it’s not a marriage if the girl has been forced into it. I’ll have to consult sheiks and imams, but I heard there is a way. No matter what happened, it doesn’t mean that Islam is wrong.”
She hopes that in the future the Netherlands will be more helpful for (towards) girls in her situation. “People hardly speak about it, which I find disappointing. I was born here, I’m proud to be Dutch, but when they sent me away at the embassy [in Ethtiopia] I felt embarrassed to be Dutch.”
In the meantime, Sarah’s husband and mother have tracked her down and keep on pestering her. “He sends me nasty messages on Facebook, saying that he will ruin my life, that he’s never going to divorce me and that I’ll never find another husband. My mother contacted me as well through other people, saying that I should come back, that everything will be OK. But no, I fell for that once, I won’t do it again.”