My Forced Marriage
All I ever wanted was to be a normal Toronto teenager. But when I was 17, my parents brought me to Pakistan and married me off to my cousin. How I escaped an abusive relationship and found my way back home
I was born in 1987 in Sargodha, Pakistan, the same small city where my parents had met and wed in an arranged marriage the previous year. My father was a photographer and a painter, but work was scarce and low-paying, so he moved to Canada to carve out a better life for our family. When I was five months old he got a job at a men’s clothing factory in Montreal; four years later he sponsored my mother and me to join him. In Pakistan, I was one of the only kids I knew without siblings, and my mother promised me that would change once we got to Canada. When my father came to get us from the airport, I asked if we could stop and pick up my siblings on the way to our new home.
About a year after arriving in Montreal, I got my wish—a brother—and a few months after that, my mother became pregnant with my sister. My father decided to move the family to Toronto, where we could get by with his English—which, though shaky, was better than his French. He believed there was good money to be made driving taxicabs.
We found a dingy two-bedroom apartment on the 16th floor of a building at Wellesley and Parliament, in St. James Town. I started elementary school at Rose Avenue Junior Public School, a five-minute walk from our apartment. It was big and wonderfully diverse, with students from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, just like me.
I was a solid B student—not the brightest, but I got my schoolwork done. Sports made me feel alive and free and I joined every team I could: baseball, basketball, track and field. But my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t head home the minute the bell rang. As the eldest child, I was expected to give my mother a hand in the kitchen and help look after my siblings.
Ceding to their wishes, I quit sports and started coming straight home. I took pride in being of use to my mother, but there was another force motivating me: fear. As much as my siblings and I loved and admired our father, we were terrified of him. He had a quick temper and expected things to be orderly. If we knew he was on his way home, we would start tidying the apartment in a frenzy. When we heard his key in the door, we arranged ourselves in a neat row and pretended to read.
While my father was demanding, he could also be tender. Once when I was sick, he bought a heating pad and sat at the foot of my bed for hours, telling me stories about his early days in Canada until I felt better. My mother’s love was tougher, sometimes cold. If I was sick or hurt, she would say, “Too bad. Get up. You’ll be fine.” Fundamentally, my mother and I did not get along. I could be emotional and she was headstrong. Still, we had our moments—like the time she bundled us up and trudged to a toy store in a snowstorm because she’d promised to buy me a doll set I desperately wanted.
Even though I was a kid myself, I tried to shield my brother and sister from our parents’ harsh moods, and became a sort of surrogate mother to them in the process. I was the one who dropped them off at school and picked them up. I looked after them when my mother ran errands and my father—who by then had started his own taxi business—was at work. It was a big responsibility, but spending time with my siblings was the highlight of my day.
In 2000, my mother had another boy, and it was around that time she and my father decided I would go to an all-girls Islamic school in Scarborough rather than attend the nearby public high school with my friends. My parents said it was time for me to learn about my religion and my culture. I pushed back, to no avail—the matter was settled. It suddenly became clear to me how little my opinion counted.
Although my father went to mosque with my brothers on Fridays, our family’s adherence to Islam was more cultural than it was religious. Islam was just one part of my identity, which is why the transition to my new school was so difficult. The building was located in an industrial wasteland, its walls paper-thin and painted a bright, sickly green. There weren’t any windows. Accustomed to wearing Western-style clothes, I now had a hijab and an abaya. Recess was only 15 minutes long and the girls weren’t allowed to spend it outside. We read the Quran and prayed five times a day. Our curriculum covered the standard high school subjects, but there was a heavy emphasis on Islamic studies.
I commuted an hour and a half by bus to and from Scarborough, waking up at 6 a.m. and getting home more than 12 hours later. My life fell into a predictable rhythm: transit, school, transit, chores, dinner, homework, sleep, repeat. Over the phone, my public school friends would tell me about the new clothes they were wearing, the music they were listening to, the coffee shops they were hanging out at and the boys they were dating. And there I was, covered up with not a boy in sight, yearning for everything I’d left behind.
After a year or so of the madrasa, I’d had enough. “I have no life,” I complained. “My commute eats up all my free time!” My parents’ solution was to buy a house in Scarborough, 10 minutes from my school. If we lived nearby, they reasoned, I wouldn’t be so resistant to the life they wanted for me.
It didn’t quite work out that way. By Grade 10, I was done with the restrictions at home and outside of it. There was a Coffee Time next to the school, and one day I decided to go there during recess to experience that minor teenage ritual for myself. I was back before the end of recess, convinced no one had noticed. The next day, I got a letter of suspension.
I couldn’t even spend five minutes at a coffee shop without getting punished. I stuffed the note in my bag and didn’t show it to my parents. The next day, after my siblings and I were dropped off at school, I snuck off to the Scarborough Town Centre. I had never been to a mall before—I wasn’t allowed. I spent hours wandering around in a happy daze, lost in the window displays. When it was time for pick-up, I lined up with the other kids and got into my father’s car like nothing unusual had happened. I did the same thing the next day.
When the school eventually sent a letter home, my parents were furious. On one hand, I understood their reaction—I had lied—but on the other I thought my behaviour was hardly unreasonable considering their restrictions. My parents’ expectations were grounded in life in Pakistan, whereas I aspired to a Canadian brand of teenagedom full of exploration, experimentation and self-discovery. I felt like a caged bird, watching the world through metal bars.
Partly out of resignation and partly in protest, I stopped studying and ended up failing all my classes. I got so used to my parents’ yelling that it became meaningless. One day, after being called into the school yet again to discuss my dismal performance, my father, exhausted, asked, “Maria, what is it that you want?”
I told him that I wanted to go to a public school. Eventually, my parents relented. But they had conditions: I had to improve my grades and I had to wear a hijab.
When I started Grade 11 at the neighbourhood high school, it felt like I had re-entered the real world. Girls wore makeup and low-cut jeans and went on dates and to parties. I was prohibited from doing any of that, but I did join the volleyball and track and field teams, and hung out with my new friends at Tim Hortons during lunch hour.
Academically, I was still flailing. The Islamic school had focused so heavily on religion that I had fallen behind in every other subject. One day at school, I decided to remove my hijab, which I had come to consider just one more thing that had been forced upon me. I started hanging out with my new friends after class instead of going straight home, telling my parents that I was studying at the school library. I had to be careful—my social circle included a mix of boys and girls, and I wasn’t allowed to have male friends. My mother, who had grown skeptical, dropped by the library one afternoon, only to find that it was closed. When I got home she blew up at me for disobeying her.
Rather than atone, I started skipping school and coming home later and later. I couldn’t deal with the constant surveillance. Then someone—I have no idea who—called my parents and told them I’d been spotted without my hijab. That was the last straw. Fearing that my siblings would follow my lead, my parents announced they were moving the family back to Pakistan.
The plan was for my father to go back and forth between Pakistan and Canada to run his taxi business, which by then employed more than a dozen drivers. I pleaded with my parents to delay the move at least until I finished high school; I may have been born in Pakistan, but Canada was my home. They, in turn, tried to placate me with promises of a leisurely life. “In Pakistan, girls don’t have to work. You can shop all day and focus on looking pretty,” my mother said. Their decision was final, and at the end of my Grade 11 year, we moved to Lahore, the nation’s second-largest city.
My home country couldn’t have felt more foreign. As we were driving to our new house from the airport, I was shocked to see kids hanging out of the open trunk of a car beside us. The city teemed with people and vehicles, colours and sounds—a kind of controlled chaos that was totally different from anything I was used to.
I enrolled in an Urdu-speaking government school, even though I couldn’t write a single word of the language. I met my huge extended family—my mother has nine siblings, my father eight—who lived in Lahore and Sargodha. Everywhere we went, we were treated like celebrities. In Pakistan, anyone who has lived in the West is treated with reverence. Everyone wants to be your best friend or marry you for citizenship.
Almost immediately, I started getting marriage proposals—more accurately, my parents started getting marriage proposals on my behalf. People I’d never met would show up at our house and say, “Hey, we know you have a daughter who is of age.” My mother politely entertained these notions, but it never seemed to go beyond that. I thought it all very bizarre and didn’t take it seriously. I was only 17, and I trusted my parents to protect me from these frothing, aspiring mothers-in-law.
My mother had one sister with whom she’d been especially close growing up. My aunt’s eldest son, Sonny, as he was known to family and friends, was 22. She was constantly saying to my mother, “I want my son to marry Maria.” My mother told me that she would wave her off, saying, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” As my aunt’s visits increased, she turned her attention to me. “Why do you need to go to school, Maria?” she asked. “You’re so pretty, you have so many options.” I insisted that my education was important to me, but she was an immovable force. In Pakistan, from the moment a girl is born, her life is set on a single-minded path toward marriage. I wanted to work and earn my own money. Money, I’d figured out, was freedom.
As the weeks went by, I started to notice a shift in my mother. She was taking the proposals more seriously, telling me, “You’re already 17. It’s time you start looking for a husband.” Then she revealed the horrible truth: my hand had been promised to my cousin when I was a baby. “The family is very wealthy,” she said. “You’ll never have to worry about a thing.”
A few days later, my parents sat me down for a talk. My father said he thought the match was a great thing, and that I would be very happy. I told him that I didn’t want to marry a strange cousin I didn’t know. I wanted to go back to Canada and finish high school. His face darkened. “If you don’t marry him, I’ll never speak to you again,” he said. Then he got up and walked out of the room.
Sonny and I were married in January of 2005. I wasn’t involved in any of the arrangements; all I did was show up at the appointed time in a dress and jewellery that had been chosen for me. The whole day I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m getting married at 17 years old. After the wedding, I moved into Sonny’s family home, which had separate quarters for his parents, his brothers and their families—about 24 people in total. In some ways, it was a relief: my mother and I fought constantly, and my moving out gave us a reprieve. Sonny and I had our own bedroom and bathroom, but with so many people around, we had little privacy. Sonny’s family was supportive of my wish to continue my education, and they even offered to cover my expenses and have their driver take me to and from school.
I had never so much as kissed a boy before I got married, and no one, including my mother, had ever spoken to me about sex. The lead-up to my wedding night filled me with anxiety, and once it was over I tried to think about sex with my husband as little as possible. I suspect this was my mind’s way of protecting itself. I wasn’t in love, but Sonny was gentle and nice enough, at least in the beginning. I understood also that I had taken a vow, and that I had a responsibility to uphold my end of the deal.
Then, one year after arriving in Lahore, and three months after my wedding day, the unthinkable happened: my parents decided to move back to Canada. Unaccustomed to the food and water, my siblings were constantly sick, plus they were struggling in the government school. As for my parents, they weren’t as close with their relatives as they’d once been. The prospect of my family leaving me behind was crushing. No matter how isolated and estranged from my former life I felt, at least I got to see my family every few days. I cried every night leading up to their departure, and for many nights after it.
I was 18 years old, in a foreign country and married to a man I barely knew. For the first few months of our marriage, Sonny’s family treated me like a queen. He went to work with his father, who built and managed shopping malls, and I became friendly with his sisters. I went to school, and when I came home, the house was clean and the servants had prepared dinner. Sonny and I didn’t spend much time alone together. Romantically, we didn’t speak the same language—I craved emotional connection and Sonny’s idea of marital affection was showering me with lavish gifts—but we began to form a pleasant bond. As much as I had initially resisted the marriage, I was invested in the security and stability it promised. Besides, it’s not like I was left with much of a choice.
Things started to change after my family left. My final exams were in Urdu, and I couldn’t understand a word. I left everything blank and failed all my courses. When my in-laws found out, they said, “What’s the point of you going to school?” I explained that I needed to be in an American or British school, because I would never pass in Urdu. They refused, saying that private schools were too expensive—it was the Urdu-speaking government school or nothing. So I dropped out.
Shortly after that, my mother-in-law came into my room and asked for my passport, ID cards and jewellery. She took everything away, saying she would keep my belongings safe for me. At the time, I had no reason to distrust her, but I suspect now that this was a deliberate effort to keep me under my in-laws’ control. I didn’t even have a cellphone to call my family. I tried to talk to them on the house line, but someone was always around listening to my conversations. It was impossible to speak openly about how scared and isolated I felt.
After a few weeks, my mother-in-law decided that it was time for me to learn to cook and run a household. I obliged; I wasn’t against doing chores. From then on, I spent my days in the kitchen with her, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for the massive family. Once I had the routine down, my mother-in-law stopped helping me. She also ordered the servants not to clean my room so I would learn to do it myself. I wasn’t particularly bothered. I figured if I had to be home all day, I might as well clean. When I told my husband about my burgeoning domesticity, he encouraged it: “You’ll be running your own household one day. You need to learn these things.” I couldn’t picture having a life like my mother-in-law’s—nor did I want one—but I was afraid to cause trouble.
One day, when my husband was napping, I saw a message from a woman pop up on his phone. I scrolled through it, a flirtatious exchange filled with “I love you” and “I miss you.” This happened a few more times with other women, but I tried to convince myself that there had to be an innocent explanation. Eventually, it became impossible to ignore the fact that my husband was cheating on me. I was livid, and also hurt—he was the only thing I had in Lahore. I called one of the women to confront her. She claimed she didn’t know my husband was married, and promised never to contact him again.
That night, I faced off with my husband. “It’s nothing,” he said, brushing me off. In Pakistan, it’s not uncommon for men—especially those with money—to have extramarital affairs. Wives tend to look the other way. At first, I did too. He won’t do it again, I told myself. Except the messages didn’t stop.
We became stuck in a cycle: I’d see a message and bring it up, he’d downplay it, and then I’d catch him again a few days later talking to another woman. I told my sisters-in-law, who in turn told my mother-in-law. She denied everything, unwilling to admit her son had done anything wrong. I then realized that this was how life would be: my husband would cheat, the family would lie for him, and there was nothing I could do about any of it. Sonny’s cheating may have destroyed the possibility of real love developing between us, but he was still my husband and leaving him wasn’t an option.
I found solace in literature. There was a bookstore not far from the house, and it was there that I discovered the American novelist Sidney Sheldon. The store stocked dozens of his books and I devoured each one. Sheldon’s protagonists were women who were struggling in an amoral, male-dominated world but nevertheless managed to find their voices and stand up for themselves. I didn’t know it at the time, but Sheldon’s fearless heroines were burrowing deep into my consciousness, leaving an impression.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Sonny was in tatters. We couldn’t make it through a conversation without arguing about his lying and cheating, and Sonny’s temper began to show itself. On several occasions, he pushed me up against the wall of our bedroom and held me there, once going so far as to punch the wall inches from my face. Next time, it won’t be the wall, I thought. During another outburst, he hurled a remote control at me. His mood swings and controlling nature eroded my confidence until there was nothing left. I felt utterly powerless.
One night, it all became unbearable. I saw yet another message from a woman on my husband’s phone and suddenly I’d just had enough—of everything. I was disgusted, my spirit shattered. I locked myself in our bathroom, grabbed the glass shelf off the wall and smashed it against the countertop. Then I picked up one of the shards of glass and started cutting myself. Bright-red drops began to soak through my white nightgown. I found a vein to cut, but missed. Blood poured from my wounds, but still I kept going.
My husband heard the glass smash and banged on the door. When I didn’t let him in, he went around the house to the bathroom window and shouted at me to stop. Zoned out, I couldn’t hear him. Time slowed. Eventually, Sonny and his father broke the door down and yanked the glass out of my hand. They called the family doctor, who came to the house to treat my wounds. What I really needed was a therapist, someone who would listen. But I lay there, numb and silent, my eyes swollen from crying, as my cuts were stitched up and my husband looked on from the foot of the bed.
The next day, I spoke to my parents. Because my in-laws were hovering, I couldn’t tell them exactly what had happened but they knew I was distressed. They decided I should return to Toronto for a couple of months.
As I was getting into the car to the airport, I glanced at my husband. He was on the terrace talking on his phone. I decided to go upstairs to say goodbye to him. As I approached, I overheard him arranging to meet up with another woman. I couldn’t believe it. When he turned around and saw me, he went pale. “I’m just speaking to a friend,” he said. We both knew that was a lie. I’m done, I thought. I’m never coming back.
It had been two years since I had seen my family. They came to greet me at the airport with flowers, and I started crying as soon as I saw them. My sister had grown so tall that I hardly recognized her, and my brothers had regained the weight they had lost while living in Pakistan. Even my stoic mother cried hard as she hugged me. I told my parents pieces of what my life had been like after they’d left, but not that I had tried to kill myself or that my husband was a cheater with a violent temper. They were warm and comforting, telling me I could stay as long as I needed. I got back in touch with some of my old friends, who were now in university, and told my parents that I wanted to graduate high school. When they said I needed to ask Sonny for permission, I lied and told them he had already given me his blessing.
I went back to my old public school, got a tutor and started taking night classes. I was determined to pass Grade 12. This is my second chance, I thought. Failing is not an option. I knew I would always be a wife, but I clung to the idea that a diploma would grant me some form of sovereignty. Even if I wasn’t fully aware of it, throwing myself into my studies was also a way of distancing myself from the trauma I’d experienced in Pakistan.
When my parents noticed I wasn’t taking my husband’s calls, I opened up to them about what my life had been like after they’d left. They were shocked and upset—my parents may argue but my father would never lay a hand on my mother. Still, in their opinion, it wasn’t grounds for separation. Instead of sending me back to Pakistan, my parents decided to sponsor Sonny to come to Canada, where they could keep an eye on things. The thought of seeing my husband again filled me with panic, but I was also relieved not to have to go back to Pakistan.
I graduated from high school with solid grades and quietly applied to a handful of universities. I was accepted to all of them: York, Ryerson, the University of Toronto. When I told my parents, they were appalled. “Your husband will be here any day now,” my mother said. “You’ll need to start having children.” Eventually, I convinced them to let me attend classes at U of T’s Scarborough campus two days a week.
I slowly upped my attendance to three, then four days a week. I was determined to catch up with my peers, and I flourished. I settled on a double major of political science and English, with dreams of one day going to law school. I got a job that I loved at the school library, made wonderful friends, joined the dance team, and ran for the student union and won. My life was finally on track, and I had never been happier.
Then, toward the end of my first year of university, my husband’s immigration application was accepted. He arrived in Toronto a few weeks later. We had spoken very little over the past year—the contact we’d had was brief and emotionally distant—and I dreaded seeing him again. I feared Sonny’s arrival would ruin the life I had built for myself. When my parents and I picked him up at the airport, my mother nudged me to go and hug him, but I couldn’t even look at him.
On my turf now and living with my family, Sonny reverted to showering me with gifts. He was showing off for my parents, and it made me uncomfortable. Sharing my childhood bedroom with my husband, I was once again a wife first and the rest of my world shrunk down to nothing. I stopped spending time with my friends and at school clubs, and instead came home after class to cook and clean.
After a while, Sonny and I moved into our own apartment. We had separate bedrooms, and I installed a lock on the door of my room. Every night, I bolted the door shut and put a chair under the knob. I was afraid something would trigger Sonny’s anger and cause him to explode. One day, I came home to find that the lock had been broken. Sonny had rifled through my belongings, which was nothing new—he often went through my purse and my laptop, checking to see who I was talking to and where I’d been. I went straight to Home Depot and bought an even stronger lock.
As my university graduation approached, Sonny announced that I would need to give up thoughts of a career. It was time for us to start having children, which meant I had to stop sleeping in a separate room. I reminded him of his cheating and lying, and the lack of trust or goodwill between us. “How can we bring a child into this?” I asked. All of the anger Sonny had been suppressing erupted. He started shouting and then smashed the glass table in our living room. Afraid that he might attack me, I grabbed my purse and ran out to the car. Sonny followed, but I managed to get inside the car and lock the doors. With shaking hands, I turned off my phone and began driving around aimlessly. I knew Sonny would call my parents, and they would try to convince me to return home. It dawned on me that I had nowhere to go. I pulled the car over and sobbed uncontrollably until I eventually fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was dark out. I thought about staying at a shelter for the night, then turned my phone on. There were dozens of missed calls and voicemails from my mother. She was crying, apologizing and begging me to come home. My siblings had left messages too, asking me to let them know I was all right. I called my mother and told her that I was fine but couldn’t go back—I couldn’t live in fear for my life anymore. That’s what it took for my mother to finally hear me. “Just come home,” she said. “We won’t make you go back to him. We’ll protect you.”
As soon as I got to my parents’ house, my siblings ran out to hug me, but my father was furious, demanding that I return to my husband. I realized this was my moment. I looked at him squarely and told him I was never going back, and my siblings all stood up for me. They said if our parents didn’t support me, they would leave too. That shocked my father so much that he acquiesced. My parents agreed to let me stay at the house while we figured out what to do. Exhausted, I crawled into my old bed and fell asleep.
Over the next few months, Sonny came to the house many times to try to see me, but my parents turned him away. He even sent his family and friends, who begged me to give him a second chance, but I stood my ground. In the midst of all this, I wrote my final university exams. After the last one, I sat outside in a patch of sun and cried. I’m going to graduate, I thought.
Even in 2007, I’d never met a divorced Pakistani person. My parents warned me that if I got a divorce, no Pakistani man would ever marry me and I would be ostracized from the community. Simply put, I could have my freedom but it would come at a steep price. I accepted that fate because being alone for the rest of my life was preferable to staying married to my husband. My parents had their own choice to make: they could support me in my divorce, or they could lose me forever. They chose me.
I officially moved back in with my family, got a job at an insurance company and started saving up money. Any free time I had was spent with my siblings and school friends. When I was 27, I met a wonderful man named Saad through a mutual friend. He was a Pakistani-American living in California, and we started dating long-distance. He was everything I had ever wanted in a partner: kind, loving, patient and, most important, he accepted me for who I was. In 2017, he proposed, and I moved to San Jose to be with him. This time, I got to plan my entire wedding and pick out my dress.
I had always wanted to work at a university, so I got a job as an administrative assistant at Stanford. I was soon promoted to research administrator and worked with brilliant professors and faculty members, helping them secure grants for their curricula. I gave a lot of presentations and discovered a passion for public speaking. I was good at it; afterwards, people would thank me and comment on my confidence. After decades of not being heard, it was empowering to have a roomful of people listen to what I had to say.
In 2020, I started my own business helping people develop their public speaking skills. I wanted others to find their voices, like I had. I became interested in the psychology of public speaking—what are we afraid of and why do we get nervous? Last year, I started a master’s degree in clinical psychology so I can better support people in overcoming their anxieties.
My life couldn’t be more different from what I thought it would be. I have a fulfilling career, an amazing husband, a warm and loving home and a dog—all on my own terms. My parents have come a long way from the people they once were. Now their philosophy with me and my siblings is to help us, no matter what we want to do. My sister went to the University of Guelph for her undergrad and lived on campus all four years. She’s now pursuing a degree in medicine. One of my brothers decided to become an actor, and my parents proudly watch every TV show he appears in. My other brother is still finding his path, and my mother and father just want him to be happy. As for me, my parents have apologized over and over again. “We don’t know how you did it,” they say of the life I’ve made. They thank me for setting such a strong example for my siblings. Everything I went through becomes worth it when I see my brothers and sister thriving.
I think there’s a cultural shift happening in the Pakistani community toward acceptance and openness, especially when it comes to gender roles. Change won’t happen overnight, but my hope is that young Pakistanis at home and abroad will be able to make their own decisions without compromising their relationships with their family and friends. I love Pakistani culture for all it has given me: a great appreciation for family, a strong work ethic, grit, faith. Like any other culture, it is also flawed. If there’s one thing I do know, after everything I’ve gone through, it’s that there’s always the hope of a second act. I thought my life was over after my arranged marriage, and then again after my divorce. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Makeup by Lupe Moreno, hair by Kelsey Petersen