Germany

The Struggle against Forced Marriage

Each year, according to UN studies, more than one million people are forced into marriage – and for many years now, Berlin-based lawyer Seyran Ates has been fighting to increase the German public's awareness of the issue. Sigrid Dethloff reports.

photo: AP
Woman in Berlin Kreuzberg

​​Most often, it's the female victims of forced marriage who are not even permitted to finish their school education. Many of these women are sexually exploited and financially dependent on their husbands. Yet the right to choose one's partner in marriage freely is explicitly included in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Nonetheless, forced marriage is still a taboo subject in Germany. Here, most of the victims are Turkish or Kurdish, for these form the two biggest ethnic minorities in Germany. Also affected are women from the Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Albania, Iran and India.

Salvation: taken into custody by Berlin's Youth Welfare Office

Sultana (not her real name), a young girl from Afghanistan, was not yet 15 when she leapt from the first-floor balcony of her parents' flat and made good her escape. She had no intention of returning to Afghanistan and marrying the cousin who'd been chosen as her future husband. For some time, his mother had already been sending clothes to Berlin – in her culture, as Sultan explains, a clear indication of the family's intentions.

In December 2002, after a legal case that caused a considerable stir, Sultana succeeded in having herself taken into custody and removed from her parents' care. Today, her legal guardian is Berlin's Youth Welfare Office (Jugendamt).

A year and a half from now, Sultana will turn 18 – and she's worried. What will happen when she comes of age and loses the protection of the state social workers? The Berlin lawyer Seyran Ates heard about Sultana's case and now wants to help her.

Ates is a woman lawyer of Turkish descent who campaigns actively for women's rights. Forced marriage is a topic she has to deal with on a daily basis, for almost every third client in her Berlin office is affected by it; and Seyran Ates' own professional experience confirms the results of a poll carried out amongst female Turkish immigrants in Berlin in 1996.

Istanbul is no less sophisticated and cosmopolitan than Berlin

This study showed that 28.3% of the women questioned had been married against their will. Seyran Ates herself managed to escape this fate; in her youth, she too had ended up fleeing from her own family. She had arrived in Berlin-Kreuzberg with her family at the age of six, and she grew up there.

There are so many Turks in this neighbourhood that it's popularly referred to as "Little Istanbul". Seyran Ates begs to disagree; for when she walks through Kreuzberg today, it's usually with a feeling of oppression.

"I was born in Istanbul; it's a big, open cosmopolitan city", says Seyran Ates; and she feels that Kreuzberg is just the opposite. Here, she says, Turkish families have remained fixed in their 'immigrant' status, though many have now been living in Kreuzberg for 40 years.

Appearances are often deceptive, says Ates: though the streets are full of "very modern-looking women, some of them very sexy", a lot of them still inhabit an extremely traditional environment. Behind the façades of many normal-looking tenement blocks, human rights for women are barely respected.

Sick with fear and oppression

Many of the women who have been forced into marriage in Berlin are also subjected to sexual coercion, and severe physical abuse is no rarity. In many cases, they succumb to their "fate" out of sheer resignation and hopelessness, or else they do so out of solidarity with their mothers and sisters. They are frightened of losing their families, and scared of the aggression of their fathers and other male relatives.

Repression, sexual assaults and violence often result in serious physical and mental illnesses. By the time the victims have finally ventured into Seyran Ate's office, many of them have reached the end of the line.

They want a divorce. Yet even the lawyer, and her two colleagues, often have to ask a lot of questions, very gently and carefully, before the words "forced marriage" are finally spoken. It's a topic that causes a great deal of shame. And although Seyran Ates does want to help, "we usually no longer have any judicial handle on these forced marriages, because the deadline for annulling them has already expired."

These women had the right to cancel their unwanted marriage within the first year – but most of them either hadn't known that, or else they had simply hesitated for too long. Seyran Ates: "I wish we could extend the annulment deadline for these women."

The Koran stresses the free consent of both partners

In the opinion of most experts, 90% of all forced marriages take place in cultures with a fundamentalist Islamic background. Yet the Koran provides no basis for such a custom; indeed, it expressly emphasises the need for both partners in marriage to give their free consent.

Nonetheless, says Seyran Ates, many of her compatriots feel bound by the word of their Imam or spiritual teacher. It is he who endorses the family's right to marry off its children as it sees fit; it is he who claims the right to conduct marriages according to Islamic law. In Islam, there is no higher ecclesiastical instance to supervise and keep tabs on the various Imams and Hodjas. And in Germany, Seyran Ates complains, the authorities all too often simply look the other way.

In her view, it's high time that these self-appointed preachers and teachers were stripped of their powers; for in their domain, she says, women count for almost nothing.

Sigrid Dethloff
Qantara.de © 2004

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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