Commentary Ülger Polat

Perfidious Discussion about Honor Murders and Forced Marriages

Turkish people in Germany have other problems than honor murders and forced marriages. They are plagued by unemployment and social marginalization. A commentary by Ülger Polat

It is curious how the German public has suddenly become very concerned about the rights of Turkish women. Honor murders and forced marriages are the topics currently dominating public discussion and getting people worked up. We, the Turkish, are appalled to see ourselves confronted with a large spectrum of socially unacceptable attributes: We Turkish women do not lead a self-determined life, are dominated by men and locked in our apartments, shut away from the everyday reality of German life.

In contrast, our men are primarily concerned with defending their own honor, which is based on their patriarchal or Islamist convictions.

Cultivating an archaic lifestyle

The accusation reads like this: The Turkish have segregated themselves into a parallel society where they cultivate their own archaic lifestyle. Their cultural disinterest in Germany, together with the politics of the Green Party and left-wing liberals, is responsible for the failure of the multicultural society. Turkish people thus appear as the negation of German mainstream culture.

These accusations, however, are not new, and it is significant that the topic is creating a big stir now. Is it really about women’s rights – or is it more about spurring on political change by delivering homilies and sermons on the failure of multicultural society?

Only a minority is affected

Honor murders and forced marriages have occurred time and time again, ever since the beginning of labor migration in Germany. They are not new phenomena, but they have always only affected a minority of migrants of Turkish descent.

Most migrants have an entirely different problem: unemployment. Turkish people are depicted as a burden for the German economy and society, which has the effect of marginalizing them. It is significant that demands to return migrants to their country of origin always grow louder in Germany when unemployment figures rise.

What is perfidious about the recent reemergence of the discussion about honor murders and forced marriages is that it entirely suppresses the real social and economic problems of Turkish people in Germany. At the same time it is a welcome opportunity to let the failures of the German integration policy slide into the background.

Bad economy messes up integration concepts

An educational and social policy to help integrate migrants is desperately needed and long overdue – but especially difficult to advocate in times of bad economy. Measures promoting integration cost money, but participation in the education and job market is about the only opportunity migrants have to participate in German society.

On the other hand, recent development shows that second and third-generation migrants are having difficulties establishing themselves in the German educational and employment system.

Because of structural changes occurring within the job market, fewer and fewer unskilled workers are needed in the production industry, where far more migrants than German workers are employed. Turkish women in particular are much worse off on the job market than their German peers. The consequence is that migrants are increasingly being excluded from the labor force and finding themselves confronted with long-term unemployment.

Former assumptions that the prospects of migrants on the job market are closely linked to their educational level and vocational training are no longer tenable. Recent studies show that migrants with a qualified certificate or diploma all too often are unable to find an apprenticeship or job.

Higher risk of impoverishment for migrants

This means that migrants in particular are subject to a significantly higher risk of impoverishment than other groups. Especially this situation is alarming because it is receiving little attention due to the public’s fixation on the discussion about honor murders and forced marriages.

And if this were not enough: In addition to their disadvantages in education and careers, migrants also find themselves confronted with massive discrimination and racism in other areas of their everyday lives. This was revealed by the latest EU-subsidized study, which investigated the integration of young migrants aged 16-25 in Germany, Great Britain, and France.

Compared to equivalent groups in Great Britain and France, youth of Turkish-descent in Germany reported more incidents of discrimination in school, in the search for apprenticeships, at work, and in public life. Especially women wearing headscarves complained about being belittled, verbally abused, and insulted in public.

Intercultural social work is now called into question

If the failure of the multicultural society is being proclaimed, a value judgment is also being made about the manner in which we live together. We still live together, even if the "multi" seems barely tolerable for the segments of society concentrating on cultural reproaches.

Dangerous, on the other hand, is the outrage expressed, among others, by the sociologist Necla Kelek in her book Die fremde Braut (The Foreign Bride) against "liberal Germans," who uncritically accept intolerable conditions in Turkish communities out of fear of seeming racist.

On the one hand, their indignation opens the door for racism of every color. Yet, on the other hand, it is especially the proponents of the multicultural society who have been most willing to look at the living conditions of migrants and make an effort to identify the causes of problems and search for appropriate countermeasures. Particularly the efforts of this group, and with it an entire tradition of intercultural social work that has attuned itself to the needs of migrants in order to improve their living conditions, is thus now being called into question in a surprise coup.

The debate currently being conducted in politics and in the media ought to focus this time on the real social problems of migrants, without falling back into the old sweeping stigmatization which leads only to defamation and marginalization. At the same time members of the minority and majority should join forces in looking for solutions to problems. Only in this way can Germany be transformed into an immigration country. But before this is possible Germans must recognize that we migrants also belong to this society.

Ülger Polat

© Ülger Polat 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

Ülger Polat, 38, assistant professor for intercultural social work at the technical college Hamburg, focuses on migration studies. She also works as a therapist for Turkish women and younger females.

This article was previously published in Germany's daily "Die Tageszeitung".

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