… a decade after the wedding day.
What if you were promised to a man as his wife, at a very young age, too young for you to remember?
Imagine that the only obstacle to that promise is that you must 1) be a virgin and 2) be a pubescent woman who had reached sexual maturity.
Think about this: judges often considered menstruation a demarcation of legal majority, but jurists in the Ottoman Empire in the 1800’s argued that girls could be considered prepared for both marriage and sexual intercourse when signs of physical maturity made them sexually desirable—arguably a criterion judged in the eyes of the man in the case.
In researching some of the stories of the early Armenian immigrants from the Ottoman Empire to America, this was not an unknown circumstance.
The parents of one young teen boy—we’ll call him Marderos–had arranged with the parents of a girl—we’ll call her Sultan–who wasn’t even school age, for their future marriage. It was a solemn commitment, rarely broken. And it wasn’t unusual in their culture. Marderos would complete his education and establish himself in a business or professional position. Sultan would, if she lived in a village with a school for girls, receive enough education to read and write, and then focus on homemaking skills and needlework. Neither Marderos nor Sultan questioned the arrangement. It provided security for her, and assured Marderos of the services of a wife. Ideally, they would like and maybe even grow to love each other.
In the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Turks intermittently attacked Armenian villages, usually raping the girls, killing most of the inhabitants and of course pillaging at will. Most of the attacks were taking place in villages far from Kharpert, the home of Marderos and Sultan. Within their own village, there existed an unofficial truce between the Moslem Turks and the Armenians. Many Turks and Armenians actually were friends. It was one such Turkish friend who warned the parents of Marderos that the peace in the village soon would end, and tragedy would follow. “Get out,” he told Marderos’ father. “Go, while you still can. Go to France. Or America. When the attacks begin, I won’t be able to help you.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine how hard such a decision would be. The Armenian part of Turkey had been their home with ancestors reaching back not just decades, but centuries. And yet they couldn’t ignore what the Turk, whom they trusted, had warned.
Although many Armenians at the time chose France, at least in part on the premise that—once the trouble had passed—they could more easily return to their homeland, the families of Marderos and Sultan chose America. The opportunities were greater there, they had heard. They could make their fortune and some day return to Armenia with more wealth than they could accumulate in a lifetime in their homeland.
In those days as now, you couldn’t decide to go to America and just do it. There were procedures to follow, papers to process. Approvals took months at best, and more often years. And entire families weren’t approved at once. Marderos’ mother died in childbirth not long after the decision was made. His father’s immigration was approved first, and then Marderos within months later.
But what of the contract for Marderos and Sultan to wed? Sultan’s parents had not yet decided on America. Her mother had a brother in Aleppo, and so far there had been no trouble there. But word was unmarried girls, especially pretty girls, were coveted by the Turks. So the decision was made that Marderos and Sultan should marry before he went to America, to provide her with some protection from the Turks, who preferred virgins. Then Sultan would be sent to live with the her uncle. And so Marderos and Sultan were married shortly before he left for America in 1895.
Sultan was eleven years old.
Did they consummate the marriage, although she may not have reached sexual maturity?
We can’t know for certain. But here’s a possible clue. They were married in mid-1895. Marderos left for America in November 1895. Sultan wasn’t approved to join him until sometime between 1903 and 1907 (records are inconsistent). Once in America and reunited with Marderos, Sultan birthed three babies in four years (1908, 1910, 1912) and then two more in 1916 and 1917. It may be that her body wasn’t sufficiently mature to become pregnant in 1895. It’s also possible that Marderos was an honorable man who chose not to bed a child.
We will never know.