Program for women helps them escape from family pressures, unwanted weddings — and violence
Vienna — When 15-year-old Fatima traveled to Turkey last year to attend the wedding of a male cousin she had never met, she was eager to meet the bride and groom.
But after she arrived in the small Turkish village where her parents had lived before immigrating to Austria, the Vienna high school pupil’s enthusiasm quickly turned to panic when she learned that she was the bride.
Despite Fatima’s frantic resistance — her father beat her until she consented — the dark-haired teen went ahead with the marriage planned by the couple’s parents.
“Marriage once meant bliss and great happiness, but it turned out to be a horrible ordeal that I will never forget,” said Fatima, who asked a reporter not to use her last name for fear of reprisal.
Fatima and thousands of other Muslim girls living in Austria and neighboring Germany are fighting back thanks to the emergence of support groups that help them find lawyers, housing and new identities. Muslim Turks comprise the majority of Austria’s 400,000-member Islamic community and 2.8 million of Germany’s estimated 9 million foreigners.
Fatima turned to Orient Express, a Vienna nonprofit agency of mostly Turkish women that has helped 28 victims of forced marriage in recent months. The group hired a lawyer, who won an annulment by invoking a new penal code in Turkey that increased the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18. Now 16, Fatima lives in a safe house in Vienna beyond the control of her father, who she says remains enraged by her defiance.
“It’s always been the job of Turkish men to defend the honor of their families,” said Serap Cileli, a Turkish-born writer who at 15 was forced into an arranged marriage and now lives in Berlin. “Fathers and brothers watch over the morals of the women in the family, and what they consider proper dress, general conduct and lifestyle. … In return the women must not do anything that in the men’s view may soil the family’s honor.”
Activists have long complained that European law enforcement officials and politicians avoid dealing with the problem because they consider forced marriage a cultural issue. An estimated 30,000 forced brides live in Germany, according to ARD, a German national television network. No reliable figures exist in Austria, but it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 women live in arranged marriages.
“The German public is partly responsible for these women’s plight,” said Seyran Ates, 41, a Turkish-born Berlin lawyer who provides free legal advice for women trapped in forced marriages. “Lest they be called xenophobic or due to a misinterpreted sense of tolerance, many Germans turn a blind eye.”
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