I picked up Zainab from the motel where she had been abandoned by her husband, Said. Married only a year earlier in Amman, Jordan, she could not drive and spoke little English. Zainab, whose name I’ve changed to protect confidentiality, had left friends, family, and a job behind to be with a man who had promised her a life of comfort in the United States. They had met at a wedding two years before, when her cousin had wed one of his brothers. Punctuated with the romance of the wedding, one of the few instances when young men and women could socialize in Amman without the usual restrictions, they had a few clandestine conversations.
During one of these, he had slipped her a small gold ring and asked her to marry him. The act was unusual. Marriages were nearly always initiated by elders in Zainab’s conservative family and the fact that he had taken the step of asking her himself, even if secretly, was indescribably winning to a young girl who had never before been the subject of such attentions.
The couple’s marriage was arranged by Said’s family, who showed up at Zainab’s home a few months after Said’s departure. Zainab remembered well serving tea to his mother, as the old woman inspected her from head to foot without any hesitation at all. Said’s family was known to Zainab’s, but this was the first time they had visited. A little daunted by the severity of her potential mother-in-law’s black attire and scrutinizing gaze, Zainab consoled herself with the thought that she would not have to live with the old lady. When her father called her to his room later that night to formally ask her if she wanted to accept Said’s family’s proposal, Zainab was delighted to say yes. Even though she had exchanged a bare twenty words with Said and had not been alone with him for a single moment, Zainab called their match a “love” marriage.
The departure of many young males abroad has made the transnational marriage a common occurrence. Embellished with the glamour of life abroad, these young men return to their home cultures and are often able to have their pick of brides. Young girls like Zainab, daunted by the specter of marital futures defined by meddling mothers-in-law, expectations of producing broods of children, and often also juggling careers in tough economic times, covet a proposal from abroad. Many imagine that the man himself, after having lived abroad, is likely to have less traditional views and be less dominated by the views of his family, adding to the allure of the match. In the piles of glossy wedding pictures that Zainab and I pored over the days that followed our first meeting, I saw an opulent ceremony attended by hundreds, and a resplendent bride who barely resembled the drawn and terrified woman I saw before me.
Sitting in the brand-new Nissan Altima that Said had bought with the wedding money they had received in Jordan, he looked at Zainab calmly and in Arabic pronounced the words “I divorce you” three times.
Things had unraveled fast after her arrival in the United States. During a hurried “honeymoon” in Chicago, Said appeared preoccupied, a marked and drastic change from the attentive groom of a bare week earlier. Several times during the night, he had stolen outside to talk on his cell phone in rapid English, which Zainab did not understand. It was after one of these conversations, when Zainab insisted on knowing who he was speaking to, that Said struck her across the face for the first time. A stunned Zainab lay in her bed crying for the rest of the night, suddenly filled with trepidation about this new life in which she was all alone. After months of nights spent imagining what America would be like, and how she would decorate her new home, Zainab longed for her childhood room and the bed she had shared with her younger sister.
It was not long after arriving at their suburban condominium that she discovered that Said had an American mistress. He made no effort to hide either his phone calls, his visits to her or the fact that he had no intention of leaving her. In a photograph stuck in a kitchen drawer, Zainab saw that she was an older woman, perhaps even older than Said, who at thirty-five was ten years older than Zainab. Zainab had confronted him that night when he returned home. Why had he said nothing in their long conversations and internet chats over the ten months of their courtship? Why had he married her and told her he loved her when he was in love with someone else? She had many questions for him that night, but in exchange she received only blows. Later that night, he raped her.
This became a pattern. Every time she confronted him about leaving her alone while he went to visit his girlfriend, she was punished. After one fight during which she threatened to tell her parents and his family what was going on, he imprisoned her in a closet for two days. He disconnected the land line in the apartment and only allowed her to call home through his cell phone with a phone card. He watched her the entire time and did not let her speak for more than ten minutes. If she gave any indication of crying during the conversation, he promised to punish her. But despite the pain and humiliation, Zainab did not leave. Even as she recounted the story in tears in the shelter office that first day, she insisted that she had wanted desperately for the marriage to work because she did not know how she would face her friends and relatives at home if she were sent back a divorced woman.
Zainab had not spoken to her family in over three months when Said dropped her off that day in front of the Extended Stay America motel where I would pick her up a week later. Sitting in the brand-new Nissan Altima that he had bought with the wedding money they had received in Jordan, he looked at her calmly and, in Arabic, pronounced the words “I divorce you” three times. Then he had gotten out of the car and unloaded her things on the sidewalk. Before driving off, he had handed her a stack of legal papers. In the long days that Zainab spent sitting alone, hungry, and frightened in the motel room, she had gone over each page. They were civil divorce papers from a court in Indiana that pronounced her divorced.
Said had signed Zainab’s name fraudulently several times, alleging in the papers that the divorce was mutually agreed upon. Only once did she remember signing a page, which Said had pulled out after a rare meal at a restaurant. Zainab had been so delighted at his affectionate behavior that evening, reminiscent as it was of better days in Jordan, that she had not even read the page before she signed it, only glancing at the English lettering before printing her name. Through this trail of deceptions, Said had managed to legally divorce Zainab without ever entering a courtroom.
(This is the third article of a four-part series. Parts I and II appeared here and here. Part IV will be run next week. Photo credit: Hani Amir)
Rafia Zakaria is the first Muslm woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. This article was previously published at Guernica Magazine.