Becoming a child bride

The journey of a San Francisco student and her persistence through an arranged marriage and years of abuse.


Khalid Kishawi

Feminist activists and activists against child marriage often use child-sized heels and flower petals as symbols for child brides. This is a recreation of some symbolic pieces they have created.

Content Warning: This article discusses child abuse and violence, topics that some readers may find triggering.

Zahra Mansour* was being closely observed by her mother, father, and Hasan Taleb*, her father’s close friend. She nervously poured hot tea and passed around traditional Arab pastries as Taleb commented about how her hospitality would make a great wife for him. 

This conversation usually happens at the beginning of the process of intermarriage between Arab families. 

Mansour was only 12 years old. Taleb was 24.

Now that Mansour looks back on it, she is filled with anger and disgust.

“I was a really sweet kid,” she said. “I was born and raised in San Francisco, California. I always had friends from the same background – Arab and Muslim.”

She recalls her early childhood memories being positive. She giggled and said, “I remember egging people’s houses. Everyone did that; that was normal.”

But from the time she was a toddler, Mansour’s home life was never easy. Mansour’s parents immigrated from Iraq to California to raise her and her older brother. When she was two years old, her dad decided to return to Iraq.

“My dad left for Iraq when I was two and got married to another woman, but he was still with my mom,” Mansour explained. “My mom would just hear rumors about it and I just guessed she was okay with it.”

Katherine Tsvirkunova

Mansour grew up with two other siblings, and her mother had no choice but to work long hours and multiple jobs to support the family. She wouldn’t see her mom for much of the time, but when she was home, physical punishment was a part of her everyday life.

“My mom would beat us with random stuff from around the house, like spoons. I remember one time after we had returned from a long flight, I was really tired and went to bed. I awoke when she started beating me, just because I was sleeping,” she said.

It was enough trouble with only one parent at home. When Mansour’s dad came back from Iraq, she faced more physical abuse.

“All of the memories I have with my father are of him chasing me around the house with either a stick or sandal,” Mansour said.

As she and her brother transitioned into middle school, pressure and abuse from their parents only increased.

“One time, my dad, mom, and brother all got into a fight. My dad pulled a knife on my brother and had threatened to stab him. From that point on, my brother would always get beaten with thick wires and laptop chargers,” Mansour explained. 

As Mansour continued through middle school, it became clear to her that nothing would please her strict, conservative parents.

“In Islam, girls start wearing hijabs when they reach puberty –when they get their period,” Mansour explained. “I started covering up and wearing a hijab when I was nine. I felt like there was pressure from my family and from the older Muslim men and women to do so. But I also felt like I needed to act older than my age and grow up faster.”

Katherine Tsvirkunova

Mansour was always a stellar student. She stood out to her teachers for being ahead of her age in a number of subjects.

“Math was my favorite subject in school,” Mansour added. “Math came easy to me, and that made my brother mad. He would hide my math homework from me and make it hard for me to do my schoolwork.”

“When I was 14, I decided that I didn’t want to wear my hijab anymore, so I took it off,” she said. 

Mansour felt that uncovering her hair was an inconsequential choice; however, her parents found it unforgivable.

“My parents would be furious when I stayed out with my friends, even though I always came back home before dark. One time, I came home wearing ripped jeans and my dad literally ran over and ripped my ripped jeans apart, off my legs.”

“The summer after [my] freshman year, my dad and mom told me that we would be visiting family in Iraq for a few months. That was all I knew,” she recalled.

While many immigrant parents often romanticize their childhoods in their home countries, Mansour didn’t quite know what to expect. She laughed, saying, “We went to my dad’s home in Al Rumaitha, a city in southern Iraq. It was extremely hot. Every day it would be about 120 degrees, and at night it would be almost 100 degrees.  I was so shocked, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be here. Take me back, I can’t stay here for one night!’ When you drove anywhere, it was basically all desert.”

Although her family was not impoverished, the reality of being in a developing country hit Mansour immediately.

“I was so shocked when we arrived, and I instantly wanted to go back home. We were still in the airport when I noticed that the toilets were in the ground, and that you had to squat every time to use the restroom. After we left the airport, I saw the streets were dirty and there was trash everywhere.”

After three months of living with their family, Mansour and her brother were ready to go back to San Francisco to see their mom, who had left one month prior. But then, their dad shared some unexpected news.

“My dad had turned the WiFi off and told us that we were staying, and that we had no more contact with our mom or anyone in America for that matter. After hearing the news, I stayed at home crying. I cried all day, every day. There were also three other kids, my siblings and half-siblings, that I had to look out for since my mom wasn’t there. That was the moment I felt I grew up. That was the moment I felt like their mother.”

Mansour was quickly enrolled in school for her sophomore year, where she struggled with language and cultural barriers.

“I went to an all-girls Muslim school where everyone would make fun of me because I couldn’t speak Arabic. I was the only American they had ever seen, and so they looked at me like I was some type of goddess,” Mansour said.

Katherine Tsvirkunova

A year after Mansour had first arrived in Iraq, her father finally gave her an option to go back to her home in San Francisco.

She recalls him saying, “If you ever want to go back to America and see your mother, you have to get married.” 

He told her that she would be marrying Hasan Taleb, who now lived in the U.S. 

Taleb was now 28, while Mansour was just 16.

“I felt disgusted,” Mansour said. 

Plans were rapidly being made for all aspects of the wedding and the rest of Mansour and Taleb’s lives. While Mansour’s father spent many hours communicating with Taleb’s family, Mansour had almost no say in the arrangement. She was engulfed in a feeling of hopelessness, but to her surprise, the planning had to be delayed.

“We thankfully didn’t get to planning the wedding because Hasan’s mom got really sick, and we didn’t want to have the wedding before she got better. She ended up dying,” Mansour burst out laughing at the irony that this tragedy brought her relief.

However, that would not be the end of her struggles with forced marriage.

“There were many guys in Iraq who tried to use me to move to the U.S.,” Mansour said. “Hasan, who was already in the U.S., had money, which he would use to bribe my dad. As a result, all of those other guys became disregarded.”

Many organizations have been working towards combatting the ongoing issue of child marriage. Every year, 12 million girls around the world are married under the age of 18. But this issue doesn’t go unnoticed. Numerous organizations such as Girls Not Brides have worked to rescue girls on all six continents. 

This global partnership of over 1,300 civil society organizations is committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential. Their members are based throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.

Unfortunately, Mansour did not have any of these resources or a way to escape.

Mansour was being forced to do incredible amounts of physical labor in preparation for being a housewife. This took a massive toll on her mental and physical health, as she had little to no time to herself.

“Ramadan was the hardest,” Mansour said, referencing the holy month in which Muslims are required to fast all day. “I would walk to school in the heat, in my abaya which covered everything but my face. And over time, school became harder for me. I would come home to cook with my stepmom or sometimes alone. My dad never worked. Instead, he would go out with his friends and then come home, demanding that we serve him. We were slaves to him.”

Once again, violence became normal in Mansour’s house. Her father’s second wife always sided with him when he would beat his sons for not being masculine enough. 

After nearly two years of being mentally and physically abused by her father, Mansour finally received a glimpse of hope for returning to the U.S. without an arranged marriage.

Mansour’s father, 51, had lost interest in his second wife, and he had given Mansour the task of finding a third wife for him. In return, he promised to send her back home.

Mansour soon found a 30-year-old woman who was ecstatic to be married.

As soon as the wedding passed, Mansour’s mother flew back to Iraq to take back her children. 

The morning they were supposed to return to the U.S., Mansour and her mom woke up early to pray fajr, the first prayer of the day. The flight back to the U.S. was the only thing on Mansour’s mind. 

However, when she went to wake up her father, a new set of problems arose.

“He was asleep but smiling, so I was like, ‘Baba stop playing around, wake up! I’m never gonna see you again,’” Mansour joked. “Drool started dripping from his mouth. We tried waking him up for 30 minutes, and obviously something wasn’t right. Everyone started bawling their eyes out and screaming because we thought he was dead. After a while, my cousin came over and carried my dad over his shoulder to the hospital, because there are no ambulances there.”

After hours of anxiously waiting, the doctors announced that Mansour’s father had suffered a stroke. He was eventually stabilized but remained in the hospital for weeks. Mansour was shocked to see her mother constantly at her father’s bedside. Despite all of the fighting and abuse she witnessed as a child, her family was more united now than ever.

Katherine Tsvirkunova

At 17 years old, Mansour returned to San Francisco, in time for her senior year of high school. She felt robbed of her childhood, education, and happiness for two years. 

Despite the challenges she faced in that two-year period, Mansour, who is now 18, managed to make the most of her new life and finish school.

“Mentally, I’m better. I don’t stay up all night crying,” Mansour said thoughtfully. “I still talk to my dad once in a while. He’s nicer now, which is weird. He always tells me, ‘I love you, Baba, be safe.’ I feel like after everything that happened, he became a better person.”

Although Mansour’s circumstances and mental health improved once she returned to the U.S., nothing ever returned to “normal.” She acknowledges that she often uses humor as a coping mechanism when telling stories from her childhood, but Mansour never got the chance to heal from her experiences and her trauma. And despite the many factors that kept her down, she still has high aspirations for the future.

“In freshman year, I never got below a 101% on my math tests,” Mansour said. “I am still really good at math. I want to get a job working with numbers. Also, I want to help people like me. At my school in Iraq, all the girls would be put in arranged marriages. I remember one girl who got married at 14 to a 13-year-old guy and she was pregnant really soon after. There’s so much that happened that I can’t control, but I want to do what I can to help.”

*This name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the source, in accordance with Carlmont Media’s anonymous sourcing policy.