Some questions about marriage (and sharia)

On one level, what we have here is a another variation on an all-to-common story. Then again, there is an excellent chance that someone at the Los Angeles Times, almost certainly in the name of cultural sensitivity, failed to ask a very basic question about this painful event inside a non-so-typical American family -- a question about sharia law. Here is the top of the story:

Standing in front of TV cameras at a Hesperia gas station Monday, the distraught mother of a missing teenager made an urgent plea.

"If you are holding my daughter, please let her go," Melissa Bender said. "Please, I beg you to let my daughter go. She's just 13 years old."

Jessie Marie Bender had been missing a week. Her mother told authorities she feared the girl had run away with a Chicago man she met on Facebook. ... On Wednesday afternoon, detectives found the girl at an Apple Valley motel. She was hiding there, authorities said, with the help of an uncle who said she was running away from a forced marriage in Pakistan.

Investigators are now trying to find out whether such a marriage was being planned, said sheriff's spokeswoman Roxanne Walker. But they know that the girl left home because she was scared.

The family says a two-month trip was, in fact, in its plans. A forced marriage? The mother has denied that part of her daughter's story.

However, this is where things get complex in this news report about a multi-cultural family. Pay close attention and ask journalistic questions.

Melissa Bender, holding the door to her home slightly ajar, told a reporter ... that a forced marriage was not being planned. In a voice just above a whisper she said the family had planned a trip to Pakistan in February to visit the family of her 6-year-old daughter's father. ...

She said that she and her significant other, Mohammad Khan, a Pakistani man, passed lie detector tests and that she didn't expect any charges would be filed against her.

However, investigators have -- searching through computer and telephone evidence -- found no signs of the alleged Facebook relationship. Thus, Jessie Bender and three siblings have been placed in protective custody.

But let's back up. The man described in this story as the girl's father is Mohammad Khan. Her mother is Melissa Bender. However, Khan is later described as Melissa Bender's "significant other." Journalists seem to be having trouble pinning down whether Khan and Bender are married.

Now, I know that this is an increasingly common scenario -- cohabitation, with children -- in an American context. However, in this case it raises some questions.

Is Khan the biological father of the children? In this case that's important, but so is this question. If -- and I repeat IF -- Khan is a Muslim and actively practices his faith, is there a chance that the couple has in fact been married under sharia law, but are not legally married under U.S. law? Can that happen? That suggests another question that might -- repeat might -- be relevant: Has the mother converted to Islam?

At that point, we may simply have a case of two Muslim parents who want to take their young daughter back to his homeland to do something perfectly ordinary in that culture -- to arrange her marriage. Is this legal under American laws? Is it legal under sharia? That's a relevant question. If the girl is from a previous marriage and/or relationship, then things would get even more complex.

One more thing: About that uncle who is said to have been trying to help the girl hide. Is he an uncle on the mother's side? On the father's side? On the side of a biological father? Are we dealing with a conflict inside the wider family, as well?

Family law cases are always complex and emotional and hard for journalists to cover. This would be especially true with two systems of law at work. In this case, the sharia question is truly relevant in order to describe the facts in the case. Please help me search for additional information on this case -- especially in the mainstream press, if that is at all possible.

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