Engaged at 14: "I was worried about science class. And now I'm getting married?"

Sadia Rafiquddin was a Grade 9 student in Mississauga when her mother said to her, "Your dad and I got a proposal from my sister. Would you agree to marrying her son?"
Sadia Rafiquddin was in Grade 9 when she agreed to an arranged engagement with her cousin in Pakistan. (On the right: a close-up of the wedding dress Sadia chose.)
Listen to the full episode29:32

By Sadia Rafiquddin

Sunday May 14, 2000 was an ordinary day like any other. My mom and I went for a walk to Erin Mills Town Centre, a local mall in Mississauga. On the way home, she asked me a question. 

"Your dad and I got a proposal from my sister. Would you agree to marrying her son?"

I was 14 years old.

I said to her, "If you think this is the right decision, then I'm okay with it too."

We arrived home to a bouquet of roses and a phone call to my aunt. My dad confirmed the arrangement. I couldn't breathe. I went to my little sister's room and stared at her bubblegum pink walls, tears flowing down my face.

I always knew that I'd be married through an arrangement. I come from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family that values respecting parents and their wishes. I was raised to believe that parents knew best when it came to decisions about marriage and family.

Sadia (second from left) with her university friends, the night she tells them about her engagement.
In this documentary, I explore the many moments I went through after I agreed to be married to my cousin. I go back to the first time I told a friend about it — it was my friend Daniella, in the high school cafeteria — and later, at a fancy dinner when my friends from university found out I was engaged.

I revisit the first time I met my fiancé and the moment when he formally proposed in front of our families, getting down on one knee to give me a ring.

I was worried that my mom would be shamed if I didn't go through with it. That people would look at her and think, "She didn't raise a proper Pakistani Muslim daughter."- Sadia Rafiquddin

The little voice inside me started to get louder, questioning if this engagement was the right thing for me. I kept tamping it down. I was stressed and worried that my mom would be shamed if I didn't go through with it. That people would look at her and think, "She didn't raise a proper Pakistani Muslim daughter."

Sadia with her mom at Sadia's graduation from the University of Toronto in 2010. (Sadia Rafiquddin)
As I grew older, my experiences were widening the gap between who I was at home and the person I was becoming outside of it. I loved studying human rights in university where I was on a full scholarship, researching HIV/AIDS in Southern African and reporting from G8 Summits. I wanted to pursue graduate school but my future in-laws expected me to be more of a traditional wife, mother and caregiver. My fiancé seemed to support my goals and dreams…but I was worried there was too much pressure from the family.

Midway through my last semester of university, I found myself crying on the bathroom floor in the Larkin Building of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. My friend Sarah was with me, and when I asked her to remember that moment, she says, "This is a very intense moment for you. Of just not knowing what to do and feeling like your life was slipping away from you."

I ended the engagement on July 1, 2009. I had been engaged for nine years.

Hi, Acey here.

For the opening of this episode I spoke to ArunaBoodram from the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. Aruna is a licensed paralegal and the project coordinator for SALCO's "Non-Consensual/Forced Marriage Project."

I called her with the intention of gathering a few short clips to situate this documentary, but our conversation was much longer than that.  

It was illuminating. 

Aruna started by breaking down the difference between arranged and forced marriages (SALCO has a very clear internal differentiation), but then we got into the socio-economic factors that lead to forced marriages (and keep people in them), plus the prevalence of forced marriages in all kinds of communities:

"[People] assume this is a South Asian issue or this a Muslim Issue, when that is absolutely not the case. And we've done research to show that this is not something that is about one particular community. This is across the board. We have Caucasian people dealing with forced marriage, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, everybody. This is not a cultural issue — this is a systemic and [...] patriarchy-based issue."

Listen to our full conversation below.

— Acey Rowe, Host of The Doc Project

Acey Rowe speaks with Aruna Boodram from The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. Boodram is a licensed Paralegal and Project coordinator for SALCO’s “Non-Consensual/Forced Marriage Project”. 14:33

Though it was heartbreaking, this was the most freeing and honest decision of my life.

Since then, I have had no contact with my former fiancé or extended family. He married our other cousin only a few weeks later.

This story is about the most important period of my life. It is about a time when I not only believed that women's rights and choices were real and important for other women, but truly embraced those beliefs for my own life by choosing my own future.

About the producers

Alison Cook is an award-winning radio producer and documentary maker, and is The Doc Project's in-house editor. For 17 years, she shaped CBC's C'est la vie, producing, writing, editing and mixing the weekly program. She is also a contributor to Ideas, winning a Gold Medal at the New York Festivals for her documentary "A Just Life." Alison got her start in journalism at Australian Associated Press. But an encounter on a kibbutz in Israel changed all her plans, spurring a move to Canada. She now calls Montreal, and The Doc Project, home.
Sadia Rafiquddin is a freelance writer and photographer. She began her career reporting from G8 Summits in Russia, Germany and Japan. Sadia has covered Indigenous issues in Australia and Canada and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. Over the years, Sadia found that she loved the intimacy of radio. This documentary is her first for the medium. She aims to produce more radio documentaries that explore stories of and issues impacting people of colour, minorities and those who stories remain chronically underrepresented. Sadia has been recognized as one of Canada's Most Powerful Women by the Women's Executive Network. She can be found on Instagram @sadiarafiquddin and Twitter @sadiarafiquddin.