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Saturday 1 November  
Sarah was forced to marry her uncle.
Saskia Houttuin's picture
Hilversum, Netherlands
Hilversum, Netherlands

Holiday in Somalia turns into nightmare, part 1

Published on : 17 August 2012 - 12:51pm | By Saskia Houttuin (Photo: Saskia Houttuin)
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Sarah, of Somali descent but born in the Netherlands, was 16 when she was forced to marry her uncle in Somalia. After several attempts she managed to escape from Mogadishu last month and go back home. She now lives in hiding in a women’s shelter in the Netherlands.

This is part 1 of a two-part story. Read Part 2 here.

Sarah’s mother was pregnant when she fled war-torn Somalia, in 1994. Growing up in a middle-sized town in the Netherlands, Sarah had a pretty carefree youth. But when she was around eight years old, the situation at home became tense.

“I went to a Roman Catholic school, so I didn’t wear my hijab in class,” says Sarah, who requested not to use her real name. “But my mother felt the pressure to raise me as a proper Muslim girl. So after school I had to wear my headscarf and I was not allowed to hang out with the girls in my class. I wanted to be like my friends; I repelled the idea of being different.”

The local child welfare office started to interfere when Sarah was 12. This made Sarah’s mother flee once again. She took her daughter to London and its big Somali Muslim community. “There were mosques everywhere, and every single Muslim girl wore hijabs and [other] covering clothes,” says Sarah. “I couldn’t use my friends as an excuse not to wear these clothes. Still I didn’t want to. I refused to wear a hijab. My mother made my life a living hell. She was angry and kicked me out of the house several times.”

Forced marriage

After finishing secondary school, home wasn’t such a bad place for Sarah anymore. “Suddenly, my mother was nice to me and very understanding. She even bought me a dress for the end of school party. And when the summer came, she told me we’d go to Somalia, to visit my sick grandmother.”

Little did Sarah know that her mother bought for her only a one-way ticket to Somalia. “I thought Somalia was weird, I could not adapt. I was the strange, bad girl from Europe. As it turned out, my grandmother wasn’t really sick. My mother told me we would stay in Somalia for one year, so I could learn about my culture. And then we would go back. But that was never the plan. She had arranged my wedding.”

Three days before her wedding party, Sarah learned she was about to marry her mother’s 35-year-old cousin. “Everybody had warned me, but I really thought my mother had changed. I didn’t think she was going to leave me there.”

Sarah was forced to marry her uncle.
Sarah was forced to marry her uncle.

Sarah had to marry her uncle, because in her mother’s eyes he was a good man, and a rich man, too. In the wedding pictures Sarah produces a faint smile, but her heart was torn by grief. “It’s something I like to forget. It was a good wedding, to be honest. Not for me personally, but it was a sumptuous party in an expensive hotel. I was a sad bride, however. I thought this was the end. And he was my uncle – that was the worst thing. I was marrying my blood, my relative.”

Repeatedly raped

Sarah says that her husband was a horrible, cruel man. “He treated me like an animal. I was just his whore from Holland, that’s what his whole family called me. In our community a woman has to be deflowered within seven days after the wedding. In my case that didn’t happen – I told him I had my period. I told him that for two weeks and then he raped me. And after that he did it all the time. I didn’t feel anything. I was numb”. 

Sarah was not the only woman in the family. Her husband had two other wives, who are now 45 and 16 years old, respectively. He would be with a different wife every two days. “I was the only one who felt bad about it. The other ones liked it, because over there it’s not a bad thing. But I found it was disgusting and I felt very ashamed I told my friends in London to help me, to get me back. But I could never tell them why because I was too embarrassed. Until today, they don’t know I was married to that guy.”

She decided to take matters in her own hands by asking help from her country of birth, the Netherlands. Along with five other Somali girls, who grew up in London, she fled to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where she went to the Dutch embassy. “[The embassy] told me, ‘We can’t help you because you’re 17 and they’re still liable. So either we call your parents or you go back [to Somalia]’.”

The British girls were first put in a hotel and then brought to London, but, Sarah says, “[at the Dutch embassy] it didn’t look as they were willing to help me. They were very offensive.” Sarah kept trying her luck at the embassy, to no result. In the meantime, her family-in-law had found out she was in Addis Ababa and brought her back to Mogadishu. At first she became depressed and developed an addiction to sleeping pills. But somehow she managed to regain hope.

Next week we’ll feature a story around Shirin Musa and the organization Femmes for Freedom.


byron.ryder1 29 March 2013 - 5:34pm

It`s sad to hear this

Abdi 15 February 2013 - 7:09pm / Canada

I am truly sorry for for all the pain you suffered but our Somali community has many cultural stigma's that result in the pain and suffering of women. Unfortunately in Somalia sexism is prominent I must note what happened to you is nothing close to what Islam is about and to be honest I don't mind anyone not liking the religion you are born into. I rather you find yourself rather than being forced to believe a religion that you do not connect with. But the main thing is there will always be wrongs in every belief and ideology their is but do not turn your back to all of Somalia because there are still good people there. Just some 2 cents from Somalia boy :)

Ismail - london 6 February 2013 - 7:17pm / United Kingdom

I feel bad about this story, and i am really on your side, and i believe they should treated you better and that was very scary. I condemn what ever you family did to you again, but do you believe any mother loves for her children to suffer ???! she tried to change you. Sister, life is hard and some time you have to make choices, not living like a move. Somalia women are the pride of our nation specially when we muslims. I understand that you have grown in Non Muslim country, but it was you mother choice to bring to a country where you could live better life than the rest of your family in somalia, but you betrayed her. In reality, there are large number of youth somalian became living like European, not getting married and just have a sexual life with different men. Do you know what african and other european call somalia women that sleeps with other men, cheep somalian meet. European the developed this style just 2-3 decades ago and many of their parent force they children to no developing this culture (most indirectly), special the rich once. Life is hard when you are away from allah you life will be harder and harder. One final point, i believe that you uncle is not your first nucle, but second or third uncle can married you...

Dick Hoogendijk 21 August 2012 - 2:07pm / Netherlands

I feel assumed to be a dutchie. Shame on the embassy!

Anonymous 13 April 2013 - 2:01pm / england

I'm soo sorry to hear about that, no one deserves to go throw what you did.. as you can imagine there is a lot of young girls going throw what you did and haven't survived... you are one of the lucky once, as a survivor keep spreading what happen so that everyone is awarded of the situation in Somalia..its really sad and shameful the story you hear about Somalia now a days ..its up to us young people to change that,,but obviously that's not happening as our youth are busy trying to copy American gangster..that's why we gota keep praying to Allah to help US improve out all honesty the hall world is messed up big time and the reason being is because islam is getting weaker, more and more people are denying Allan a result of this muslim are becoming enemies to each other subhanallah!..and everytime a war kicks of a MAN starts the war however woman and children become the victims of a horrible crime ..Again I'm so sorry to hear what happen to you but inshallahi when judgement day comes Allah will get you justice ,,as for the time being understand life is a test and Allah does not let anything happen unless he what's it to happen<3

Anonymous 18 August 2012 - 11:19am / Kenya

Am just wondering why Sarah didn't get any assistance from the Embassy,what a shame?

Job 18 August 2012 - 10:01am

It would be good to get the reaction from the Embassy in Ethiopia about why they did not help Sarah.

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