Kidnapped for Marriage

Deepali Gaur Singh

Though still more young girls than boys are kidnapped for marriage, there are parts of India where kidnappings of boys for marriage occur more frequently than for ransom.

Marriage is an extremely critical social institution in the Indian context. For a majority of country it is traditionally viewed as the only way to continue the family and thereby repay one’s debt to his/her ancestors.

Unfortunately, over time it is invariably the bride’s family that carries the material burden that the reparation of these debts entail. Consequently, marriage has come to be symbolized as such a burden upon the girl’s family that it determines the "de-valuation" of girls over their lifetime.  

The tremendous social and financial burden of an impending marriage of a daughter 18 years later is enough compulsion for many to kill infant girls if they do not already have the wherewithal to selectively terminate pregnancies on the basis of the sex of the fetus. Dowry at the time of marriage and throughout marriage and the gender imbalance in nurture and care of children all eventually play itself out even in this social institution and gets manifested in the manner in which marriage is symbolized as a burden for the girl’s parents and a money-minting enterprise for the boy’s parents.

A rather peculiar and alarming practice that locates itself in certain parts of the country exhibits this same gender imbalance in a frighteningly unique manner. Poverty and the inability to muster a "decent" dowry for the daughter’s marriage; the scandalous possibility of an unmarried daughter at home and the social stigma attached to it has led to desperate measures in certain parts of the country. A recent government survey shows 209 men were kidnapped in the country last year. They were forced into marriage. The age group of these prospective grooms varied from 10 to 50 years.

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This is a trend that is more common in the less prosperous and backward state of Bihar in eastern India. Evidenced here for decades – it is a state where the kidnappings of men are at par with women, in fact even higher, according to the report, "Crime in India – 2007" of the National Crime Records Bureau of India. Though still more young girls than boys are kidnapped for marriage, there are parts of India where kidnappings of boys for marriage occur more frequently than for ransom.

The proof of the prevalence of this practice is in the fear that grips parents of "eligible" bachelors in certain parts of Bihar (which are known for this) as the wedding season approaches every year. One has personal memories tied to train journeys through this region when co-passengers secured doors of the train coaches when transiting here, less out of the fear of being robbed but more out of the fear of pakadua shaadis or the kidnappings of young men for forced marriages.

From what once sounded more legend, less fact, it is a menace that has assumed alarming proportions in recent years and spread to the neighboring districts too. The massive pressure of increasing dowry demands and the inability of most parents to fulfill them has resulted in families seeking the services of criminal gangs that kidnap unmarried men and force them into wedlock. Even as cases might appear rampant in certain areas many go unreported out of fear of these local criminals.

According to the police, over the years it has turned into a high-profit, low-risk business that many gangs thrive on as they earn a sizeable commission from these marriage-related kidnappings. And by stretching the saying of "honor among thieves" a little further, their responsibility does not end with the abduction alone. They ensure that the marriage is solemnized and the girl sent to the boy’s home.

Forced marriages in India tread a very thin line between approved and coerced because marriages are often arranged by the parents and the community with the couples hardly having a say in the matter. In fact, 40 percent of the world’s child marriages take place in India. And traditions and social mores ensure that a marriage once solemnized within the parameters of traditional requirements is considered legitimate. Over the years wherever this practice of abduction-for-marriage has been prevalent, even the village community has been known to have extended support to the girl’s side. And with the advent of modern technology, practices such as these have moved to the next level as the ceremony is videographed so that the tape can be used as evidence subsequently in a dispute between both parties.    

With 15 percent of girls in rural areas across the country married before 13, the pressure to find grooms for them in a country with a imbalanced sex ratio begins very early. Subsequently, the first pregnancy for a majority 52 percent is between 15 and 19. But what happens to the girls who have been forced into such marriages on the basis of deceit – in this case deceiving the boy’s family? What happens to them once they leave their maternal homes and are sent to their matrimonial homes? It is hardly surprising that in most cases they are not accepted by the groom’s side of the family. But with a greater social stigma attached to abandonment many of these girls do not even return to their native villages. The physical and mental torture inflicted at the matrimonial homes becomes more acceptable than having to carry the label of an abandoned woman. Many of the grooms actually go on to marry again with these girls reduced to the status of labor hands. Their vulnerability is heightened by the fact that they are a mere commodity in this coerced social contract, with physical and sexual exploitation, the punishment they bear for a crime committed elsewhere. And with "fate" being the compelling argument in the kind of groom they get, the fate of their lives too get relegated to the realms of a dark, mute corners of a fake domesticity that even their families rarely hear about.

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

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