A trap for Muslim women in Europe
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday June 27, 2003
OSLO – Western Europe is increasingly a house divided against itself. While non-Muslim Europeans live in democracies, most Muslims in the same countries inhabit theocratic enclaves where they are expected to tread a narrow path or suffer the consequences.
Muslim women have it worst. Not only are they subject to the often tyrannical authority of husbands, fathers and community leaders, if they seek to escape that authority, they cannot necessarily expect support from the police and other government agencies, which often feel that “intruding” in such matters would show disrespect for immigrant culture.
Many European officials have long assumed that such problems would be gradually resolved through intermarriage, integration and the consequent fading away of Muslim ghettos. But intermarriage and integration are not happening as expected – and the consequences of this failure are grievous. Such is the conclusion drawn by “Feminin Integrering” (Female Integration), a new book from the Oslo-based organization Human Rights Service that is based on a recent report to the Norwegian Parliament. The book’s focus is on Norway, but there is no reason to believe that the situation elsewhere in Europe is appreciably different. (Full disclosure: I have done research and translations for HRS.)
The book presents the results of a study of immigrant-group marriage patterns in Norway that is probably the most comprehensive statistical analysis of its kind in Europe. The study shows that members of most of Norway’s non-Western immigrant groups are, in overwhelming numbers, not just marrying within their own ethnic groups but are marrying spouses – often their own cousins – from their countries of origin.
These marriages – invariably arranged, and often forced – have two chief motivations. One is to provide the foreign spouse with Norwegian residency rights under the “family reunification” provision of immigration law. The other is to resist integration by injecting into the European branch of the family a fresh dose of “traditional values” – among them a hostility to pluralism, tolerance, democracy and sexual equality.
As “Feminin Integrering” shows, the systematic abuse of “family reunification” has dramatically transformed the way in which spouses are chosen within the Muslim community. This has not only made real integration all but impossible; it has also resulted in a pattern of exploitation of young women that Hege Storhaug, author of the book, describes as “the greatest political disgrace in contemporary Norwegian history.”
While Norwegian Muslims of both sexes are forced into marriages, the situation is particularly brutal on girls. As female Muslims they are already powerless. Add to this the fact that they are usually married off extremely young, and that their imported husbands tend to be untouched by any notion of sexual equality, and one can begin to grasp the predicament of these young women, whom Storhaug calls “living visas in a new form of human commerce.” They have grown up in Norway and had a taste of freedom, but they are forced into marriages with men who take for granted a wife’s total subservience.
Human Rights Service figures for henteekteskap, or “fetching marriages” – in which one spouse is “fetched” from the other’s ancestral country – are staggering. From 1996 to 2001, 82 percent of the men marrying the Norwegian granddaughters of Moroccan immigrants were themselves Moroccans; another 14 percent were of Moroccan origin. For Norwegian granddaughters of Pakistani immigrants, the corresponding rates were 76 percent and 22 percent. In that five-year period, only three granddaughters of Moroccan immigrants married ethnic Norwegians; only one granddaughter of a Pakistani immigrant did so.
Among immigrant groups from Muslim countries, the prevalence in Norway of “fetching marriages” actually increased between 1996 and 2001. The trend, in short, is toward increased segregation, not increased integration. Among Human Rights Service’s proposals for reform of this situation are prohibition of cousin marriages (with provision for waivers when a genuine romantic relationship can be documented) and waiting periods between applications for “family reunification” within a single family.
Storhaug says most forced marriages end up being abusive ones. What if a wife in such a marriage wants out? Officially, men and women in Norway have equal divorce rights. But among Muslims only Islamic divorce counts, and while Muslim men enjoy divorce on demand, Muslim women – even in cases of chronic domestic violence – have very restricted options. It is possible in a Muslim marriage contract, however, for a groom to grant his wife the right to divorce. Human Rights Service has thus proposed – and the Norwegian Parliament has just adopted – a law stipulating that no family reunification through marriage be permitted unless the wife has been granted this right. Norway is the first nation in Europe to introduce such a law.
These proposals will not solve everything, but they’re a start – and the Norwegian government’s apparent openness to them is encouraging. Some officials still fret about “interfering” in family matters. Yet leaders seem to be recognizing that the alternative to “interference” is a Norway with two systems of governance: democracy for Westerners and an oppressive, misogynist autocracy for Muslims. A country – and a continent – that accepts such a state of affairs is headed for disaster. Norway’s neighbors should take note.
The writer is author of “Stealing Jesus,” a book about Christian fundamentalism.
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