In September 2013, Sarah Fournier, then a journalism master’s student at New York University, was looking for a subject to explore for her investigative journalism class. Interested in women’s issues, she thought of one of her previous interviews: an American woman of Indian descent who was forced to marry against her will. Angered that his daughter was dating a boy who wasn’t Indian, the woman’s father shipped her off to India to live with relatives at age 18. She endured four years of constant pressure to conform, and was only allowed to return to the US after she agreed to marry the man her family selected for her.
Fournier noticed that forced marriage, and its impact on Americans, received little coverage in the US. So she teamed up with two classmates, Alyana Alfaro and Mary Zarikos, to report the story. They spoke to women coerced into marriage by family and friends, to police officers who specialize in helping victims of forced marriage and honor violence, and to advocates trying to raise awareness about an issue that many don’t even realize exists in the US.
Initially, Fournier’s family helped inspire her interest in forced marriages.
SF: I’m French and my grandmother was in the Jewish community in France, and got into sort of an arranged marriage—but she didn’t really have the choice to say no. She wasn’t threatened or anything, or what we describe in the article, but it’s a slippery slope…It was weird for me to think about the fact that my grandparents and my mother and me wouldn’t exist without that marriage.
I started looking into those marriages, because I was so sure it couldn’t only happen elsewhere. Because we always think it happens elsewhere, but I felt like with all the different kind[s] of people we have in the US, it doesn’t stop at the border.
One of the main characters in the piece was Vidya Sri, an Indian-American woman from Queens who had been the victim of a forced marriage. Sri now runs a nonprofit to help immigrant women and girls who have been abused.
SF: It was hard to convince her to talk to me obviously, because it’s not an easy topic, and she didn’t want any publicity or anything. She just wanted to help other women in her situation. So, I did a video interview with her…The original interview I think is like two hours and a half without the B-roll. We talked a lot and it was quite emotional.
A few months after the interview, Fournier decided to revisit forced marriages, this time with help from Alfaro and Zarikos. But getting accurate statistics on the issue proved difficult.
SF: Forced marriage is not a crime. You can’t go to the police and say, “I’m forced into a marriage. Help me.” And if you go to court, it’s not going to be a trial for forced marriage: It’s going to be a trial for murder, for domestic violence, for threats, for everything else but not forced marriage. So it’s virtually impossible to find a number that you can rely on.
Fournier, Alfaro and Zarikos pitched their project to several news outlets, and Al Jazeera America’s Katherine Lanpher took an interest in the piece. She encouraged them to profile the Arizona detectives who specialize in investigating forced marriages. Working on the story was a challenging, and ultimately, emotional experience for all three journalists.
SF: The interview with Fraidy Reiss [whose story is featured in the second article] was very intense. I remember I was interviewing and filming, but Mary and Alyana were sitting behind me. And I remember Fraidy looking at Mary at one point, and I didn’t turn around because I was checking the camera, but actually Mary started crying and had to go to the bathroom…I didn’t realize that before we got out of the house and she told me, “You know, I started crying. I had to leave.”
I feel like I’m always honored when someone wants to share their story with me. I’m always very thankful and very honored because I really believe in what I do. I really believe it can change people’s minds. And, you know, we have over 3,000 shares on Facebook on the article. So even if the article changes 10 people’s minds, I’m happy with that: That’s okay, that’s why I do that.