I was a child bride. It’s time to stop teaching young girls to stay sweet.
Like the young girls in Netflix’s #2 trending true-crime docuseries, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obeyabout Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), I also grew up in a religious fundamentalist community and was brought up to keep sweet and to lower my gaze and voice. I spoke with a high-pitched tone; sentences crumbled into questions because, as the lesser sex, my voice wasn’t valued and was often silenced.
I am purposefully using the word girls instead of children because the worst violence in religious cults is against girls, who are the lowest in the hierarchy, after men, women, and boy children. Also, in most religious fundamentalism, genderless language refuses to be adopted—gender is and will probably remain black and white, boy and girl, man and woman.
Like Warren Jeffs’ child bride, who married when she was 12, I was also married at 12, but in a secret ceremony with no one present except my husband. In my religious cult, we were taught to be good girls and follow rules unequivocally. So, when this person snuck into my room and conducted a marriage ceremony in the pitch black while I still was wearing my sleeping clothes, I didn’t question the idea. Or him. It just felt like another day in the cult, more or less.
I was conditioned to trust the opposite sex and those older than me, who were supposed to be my wiser guides. They held the keys to the kingdoms of both knowledge and heaven. So even though my intuition screeched no, no, no to the marriage, and red lights flashed in my mind, warning, warning, warning, I ignored everything I knew was intuitively wrong. I just followed along like I’d been instructed to do since early childhood. I kept obedient, sweet as honey.
Girls in my cult were drilled, above all else, to serve our communities and to give up our nafs, the Arabic word for self. In being forced to give up our identities, our bodies, minds, and spirits were unprotected. We completely lost our sense of self and didn’t know where our bodies stopped and the perpetrators’ bodies began. Girls in fundamentalist communities are often given the same instructions—to give up their essence, their very being.
We didn’t know whom to trust or where to turn because all roads led to the same place—men in power, who yielded black leather whips, forcing us to work, marry, and do whatever they demanded. We were locked in compounds, behind metal gates and tall walls, with no way out. Without access to transportation, television, books, newspapers, radios (it was the 80s), proper clothing, and hygiene items, we were stuck-like-chuck, to put it mildly.
I shared the same conditioning as the girls in the FLDS community and, so often, girls across cultures and religions have similar training—to remain compliant and consenting. And even though, thankfully, most girls in the United States haven’t grown up with the same dose of extremism, they are still indoctrinated not to cause waves. To smile. Sit pretty. Not ask questions. Not be extra.
I thought I was doing the right thing when I became a child bride. I was fulfilling God’s purpose, listening to men who knew much more than me. I was being saved from immodesty because I was groomed to believe I should marry early, so I didn’t provoke men. If a man desired me, it was my fault, not theirs. If they acted irreligiously and raped me, I was to blame. All blame, all the ills of the cult, returned to the girls. Were we dressed inappropriately? Did a toe show? The girls in our community were required to wear socks with our flip flops.
Marrying young was my pathway, my only path to God, I thought. I couldn’t get to heaven alone without a husband, a leader, and a religion. I was fulfilling my religious duty. In being dutiful and becoming a bride, I became God’s girl. God now loved me, and as someone who always felt spiritual and loved God, I thought I was doing the right thing. I was finally special, loved, and wanted—all I ever desired. God’s girl also ignored her intuitions, needs, and dreams. Instead, she smiled. Profusely said thank you. Bowed when men walked into the room.
I remained married to my husband for eight years until I was 20 and finally escaped the cult—and him. That is when my long, excruciating healing journey began. I reintegrated into society and soon enrolled into college. Education became my drug—I devoured new concepts and theories, always craving more. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies in a record three years and then went on to pursue a master’s plus a doctorate degree.
Education saved me by teaching me to question and challenge everything and everyone—power systems and people—the exact things I was taught never to do in my cult and the exact things girls in Warren Jeffs’ community and girls across the globe are taught not to do.
While working on my B.A., I met my second husband; we were married for 18 years and have two grown sons. I divorced more than ten years ago, and today I am on the cusp of 50, an empty-nester and single. I couldn’t be happier to have finally found my voice—loud and proud.
After a life of being married, I am truly content to be alone for the first time. I’ve learned I don’t need to be obedient and docile, meek and manageable, adaptable and accommodating in order to be accepted and loved. I can be my spicy, feisty, and colorful self, a woman who wears bright pink dresses, rainbow-dyed hair, and temporary unicorn tattoos.
I was trained in the cult to ignore my inner voice, my Spidey sense. But I always knew when something wasn’t right—we all know. If I have words of wisdom for mothers, girls, and all humans, it’s this—trust your gut. Your gut will never lead you astray. Believe it if your heart tells you someone or something is harming you. Your heart is always right.
Find help. Tell someone, anyone, and if no one listens, keep kicking and screaming until you’re finally heard. Knock on doors, knock on every door, knock down doors, because eventually, there will be one person, one book, or one idea that will change your life. I’m still spiritual and love my Higher Power, but I now know I never needed a man, a religion, or a leader.
I only ever needed myself. And the only person I needed to stay sweet to was me.