Inside America’s Sickening Forced-Marriage Epidemic
The new documentary “Knots: A Forced Marriage Story” tells the stories of young women and girls who are married off to men against their will and then trapped in unholy matrimony.
Knots: A Forced Marriage Story is driven by a noble aim: to give voice to the voiceless. Director Kate Ryan Brewer’s documentary (May 7, in theaters) concerns three women from different geographic, religious and social backgrounds who found themselves in comparable circumstances—namely, being bullied into matrimony with strangers by their parents and cultural leaders, with no way out. It’s a familiar tale of misogynistic coercion except that in this case, the disparate victims in question didn’t reside in the Middle East, India, or another foreign land where such practices are more common. On the contrary, they took place right here in the United States.
That such rancid behavior still goes on in various parts of this country probably won’t come as an enormous shock to many, especially given the recent success of Netflix’s Unorthodox, which dramatized the based-on-real-events efforts of one Hasidic Jewish woman to flee her Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and, with it, her arranged marriage. Nonetheless, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story shines a spotlight on what remains an intensely pressing issue, since today, only four states (Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania) limit marriages to individuals who are 18 and over, and 10 states have no minimum age limit at all for tying the knot. The result is a recurring paradigm in which women are susceptible to being trapped in permanent captivity, cut off from the larger world (and the legal rights that might empower them), and denied any recourse for escape.
Knots: A Forced Marriage Story provides a comprehensive cross-section of religious victimization. Michigan’s Nina was raised in a strict community known as the Christian Patriarchy Movement that prized dowdy old-fashioned clothing and conservative ideas about gender roles, with men in charge of everything and women relegated to dutiful servants. Nina was married off at 18 to a random man hand-selected by her father, which was basically the same fate that befell California native Sara, whose Muslim father was part of an outfit known as the Group that saw fit to pair her with a 28-year-old stranger when she was only 15 years old. Fraidy, brought up in New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish community, suffered similar hardship, compelled by her parents, her rabbis, and those in her insular enclave to marry a man whom she barely knew.
While the particulars of their experiences were somewhat different—Nina was told that disobedience made her, for all intents and purposes, a “witch,” whereas Fraidy was simply conditioned and shamed into complying—Knots: A Forced Marriage Story makes clear that the basic mechanisms of subjugation were the same in all three cases. The common link binding this trio is that they all hailed from extremist religious environments. Yet puzzlingly, that facet goes largely unexplored here. To contextualize her first-hand narratives, director Brewer provides a cursory recap of 20th century American cultural attitudes toward child marriage, which goes some way toward illustrating how onerous laws about the practice first got on the books.
However, not for a second does the filmmaker directly address the fact that her subjects were casualties of fanatical faiths that indoctrinated members about female subservience and then established women’s powerlessness through oppressive and domineering rules and demands.
This is ignoring the elephant in the room, and it’s exacerbated by Knots: A Forced Marriage Story’s refusal to even verbally identify Sara as Muslim; a quick glimpse of Arabic writing is the only overt clue to her religious background. Such a willful lack of specificity abounds in Brewer’s documentary, which glosses over much-needed details at myriad turns. Whether refraining from referencing Nina, Sara, and Fraidy’s husbands by name, or discussing the means of their eventual liberation in vague terms, the proceedings feel at odds with themselves, trying to intimately probe these horror stories while simultaneously maintaining a measure of arm’s-length detachment that—even if it’s designed to protect Nina, Sara, and Fraidy in some way—proves frustrating.
Sara and Nina, consequently, come across as sympathetic if largely unknown; there’s a nebulousness to their tales that stymies true engagement with their plights. Knots: A Forced Marriage Story does slightly better by Fraidy, who openly recounts the abuse she endured from her husband, and the precise actions she took—involving fleeing in a car with her kids on the Sabbath (a big no-no), and later changing the locks on her home’s doors—to achieve the freedom she increasingly realized she needed. Alas, her account is also sometimes undercut by murkiness, such as her post-escape decision to found Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization that aids women in situations similar to the one Fraidy found herself in at a young age. Brewer depicts a few Unchained at Last press events, but largely fails to outline its origins or mission—an approach it also takes with the Tahirih Justice Center, which is never properly introduced even though its members speak on-camera at multiple points.
Knots: A Forced Marriage Story is driven by virtuous intentions, and it lucidly explains how forced marriages are allowed to occur in the U.S. thanks to draconian (and inconsistent) state laws that first allow young girls to be married off—with parental consent—at early ages, and then deny them the adult right to get divorced (because technically, they’re still minors). Unfortunately, so much basic information is left out of the film that it comes across as a rough draft of a documentary. To compensate for that skimpiness, Brewer embellishes her action with cutaways to both painted illustrations that mirror Nina, Sara, and Fraidy’s ordeals, and to the sight of an anguished woman dancing against a blank wall while bound up in red string—a visual evocation of forced marriage that’s awkward and unnecessary.
Unlike Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s One of Us, which immersed itself in the nightmare of trying to break free from the Orthodox Jewish community, Knots: A Forced Marriage Story casts a wider net and yet comes up with considerably less. It’s a timely documentary whose formal shortcomings prevent it from getting at the bigger picture.