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November 20, 1994|JENNIFER BINGHAM HULL | Jennifer Bingham Hull is a Miami-based writer who reports on women's issues and international affairs

A short, shy woman of 25 with dark hair, Aminah will not tell me her last name or where she is from. She will only say that she is from West Africa. Initially, she cancels several interviews with me, telling her lawyer she's sick. The attorney suspects a case of nerves. When we finally do talk by phone, the young African woman speaks softly, hesitatingly. When Aminah (her name and others in her account have been changed) was a child, her father arranged for her to marry Abdul, a man 11 years her senior. Aminah's mother is from an Islamic tribe that practices arranged marriages. Families promise their daughters to men frequently in exchange for money or property.

Though Aminah's father died when she was 9, her family felt honor bound to uphold his agreement. Aminah knew nothing about it until, at 14, she was told she couldn't enter high school because she was to marry. She was shocked--Abdul had stayed at Amihan's home when he was attending school in her village. She considered him a brother.

"Becoming his wife felt wrong. I didn't love him," says the young woman. "I felt and still feel that a marriage should be based on love." Aminah had seen her sisters enter arranged marriages to men who later physically abused them. Determined to become a lawyer like her uncle, she persuaded her family to delay the marriage so that she could continue school. In 1986, when she was 16, she began seeing a young man named Omar.

A year later, Aminah still refused to marry Abdul, and her mother and sisters began to beat her. "They slapped me with their hands, and when I fought back, they hit met with sticks or shoes," she says. "Every time they beat me I would miss the next day of school because my body hurt so badly."

Yet, Aminah went on seeing Omar. "We fell in love and decided we wanted to get married, but we knew my family would never agree," she says. "While his family would have supported our marriage, within my culture, one family cannot accept a woman into their home without the permission of her family."

Aminah's mother took her to the police, who informed Aminah that she must marry Abdul or be incarcerated. But Abdul looked less appealing than ever: he had married. (Polygamy is common in Aminah's country.) "His wife said he went out at night and drank. He would come back changed and beat her. She said he was an alcoholic," Aminah says. Horrified, the young woman continued to resist the marriage despite pressure from both her family and the police.

The family grew more outraged when Aminah gave birth to Omar's daughter in 1989. Aminah gave her to Omar's family to raise after her mother rejected the baby. "It hurt very badly, but I knew I had to for her own sake," she says. Aminah's mother continued to press the marriage to Abdul, finally turning her over to the police.

"I was put in a large cell with other women. Many were prostitutes," recalls Aminah. "During the day, we were taken in a big truck to the main police station where we were made to clean the toilets."

Ill and frightened, she gave in to her mother's wishes. Her family set a wedding date and Abdul delivered money for the dowry. Then, in the summer of 1992, when Aminah's sister was about to take her to buy a wedding dress, Aminah slipped out of the house with the money intended for the dress. She reached a cousin who helped her get a U.S. visa and bought her a plane ticket to New York.

Last fall, the Immigration and Naturalization Service discovered that Aminah's visa had expired when she went to pick up a package at the airport. The agency began deportation proceedings. With no children, parents or spouse who are U.S. citizens, Aminah cannot legally stay in the country. But in a hearing this February, Aminah's lawyer, Nancy Kelly, will ask an immigration judge to grant her client political asylum. Kelly, who works with Harvard Law School's Women Refugees Project, points out that the African woman's family abused her with the help of the police and says there is no way Aminah can return to the country.

"If I go back, my mother would make me marry that man. That life would be very hard because he's abusive," says Aminah, her voice shaking. "And because I refused him, I know he will take it out on me by hitting me."

She now lives with her sister in Massachusetts and is looking for a job. She would like to join Omar in Europe but can't get legal status there because the two never married. If she gets asylum, Aminah can retrieve her daughter from Omar's family and avoid her family's demands. "There is no way I can return to the country without my family knowing, and there is no place for me to stay."

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