This was how my day went on February 14, 2017: I woke up at 3 AM Jakarta time, or 4 AM Kuala Lumpur time. I did some work as I wait for Fajr prayer. I had my breakfast: toast, milk, fruit salad, coffee, and coffee with milk. Then I started my field research where I met a Rohingya child bride.
She lives with her family in a small wooden hut in Gombak district, just a short distance from Kuala Lumpur. Her family consists of her parents and five children. She was the oldest. The youngest was, if I remember correctly, 8 months. The family left Myanmar for the same reasons as why many other Rohingyas did–a better future. But, as many other Rohingyas, in their journey to find asylum they were instead met with tragedies.
“She was taken at 5 AM”, the interpreter, a young Rohingya women, told me. (Name omitted for the moment, not sure if could/should put her name here. Nevertheless, she is a remarkable young lady who is an example of empowerment and dedication, but this is a story for another time)
She continued, “and then she was taken to another state.”
Fatimah, not her real name, was kidnapped by a neighbour who is also Rohingya refugee in Malaysia. She was threatened to follow him lest “bad things” will happen to her or her family. He then brought her in front of an ustadz–a religious figure in Islam–to marry her under religious ceremony.
In Malaysia, as Rohingya people do not have legal documentation with the occasional exception of a UNHCR card, they cannot marry legally and therefore resort to religious ceremony.
I asked her if the ustadz know that she was forced to marry the man. She told me that he did not know, and that she was too scared to told him.
And so she married the man.
She was 12 when all of these happened.
Meanwhile, the father tried to find her. He asked police for help with no results. He then turned to his own community to help him find his daughter.
“They did not help”, his jaw tightened as he told me. “They helped with other things, but they did not help with this.”
It was not quite clear what he meant by other things, but it seems he meant basic necessities such as food or electricity bills.
A family friend finally told him that he heard his daughter was in another state. The trip was expensive but he still went. However, he did not rescue Fatimah at once. He tried to let bygones be bygones as they are already husband and wife.
You might ask why.
What happened to Fatimah is not completely isolated. Well, the kidnapping part–hopefully–is, but the whole child marriage thing is not.
Indeed, Fatimah is not the only case of Rohingya child bride in Malaysia. Child marriage within Rohingya community in Malaysia has been widely reported by UNHCR as well as media. A 2015 report by UNHCR notes that at that time there are 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia. Furthermore, some of them are reported to be ‘mail-order brides’. Some of my interviews mentioned that the ones who order these brides are often Rohingya male themselves.
“The men believe Rohingya women are more submissive”, they told me.
This situation prompted the father to accept the situation as is. He told me that the husband also promised to protect Fatimah and that he truly loves her. The father decided to went home but was still in contact with her.
She was still 12 when all of these happened.
However, as you might imagine, the husband was a failure both as husband and as human. In fact, he is a general failure as living organism. He is a waste of oxygen and water. No human, animals, or plants should be cursed by his presence.
This shame of all species denied Fatimah from basic necessities. At times, she would starve with only small amount of rice to eat for the whole month. At times, this rotten meat would also beat her and denied her contact from her parents. The father, worried for what might happened to her, tried to find out what was actually happening.
She was 13 when her father took her back.
She was 13 years old when I met her.
Later that week, a friend who went with me in this fieldwork recounted the day in a small meeting .
“This man”, she looked at me, “met with a child bride and his face was just on the floor.”
Yes. I was on tears.
When I started my research on refugee issues in Southeast Asia a year and a half ago, I am already aware of the child marriage phenomena among Rohingya community. But this particular case caught me off guard.
I understand that we should not romanticize refugees. They are human and like other human beings they are also subject to our basest desires and in their vulnerability can also commit criminal or immoral actions. While this should not strip them of their human rights, it is important for those who advocate for this very rights to not put them on a pedestal. Refugee issue is complex and layered. And, as many social issues, the key is to combine two sides of a coin: assume goodwill but manage your expectation.
I can also understand the cultural logic behind child marriage. I think it is wrong and should be changed. But I get it. Where they are from it was cultural norm. Yes, they should not bring it to their new homes; but, hey, I get it.
However, just because I can follow the logic behind it, does not mean that I understand the actual phenomenon.
Why would anyone kidnap a child and forced her to marry them?
Why did the ustadz not ask about the whole arrangement?
Why did the police not help the father find his daughter?
Why did the community kept mum about it?
How on earth could this happen?!
I have the answers to most of the above. But I still do not understand. And here I am thinking I have a pretty big brain.
My mind was preoccupied with these questions for most of the interview. My friend picked it up. He asked Fatimah how is she feeling now, how did she manage to cope.
“I tried to feel nothing, i tried to forget”, she said through a forced smile.
She was 12 when she was kidnapped, beaten, starved, and raped.