Women take a stand against social control
Percussionist Simona Abdallah
Simona Abdallah, who grew up in the immigrant ghetto of Gellerupparken in Denmark’s second city Aarhus, uses her own experiences as a basis. She is currently writing a book about her life growing up in Gellerupparken in collaboration with the Danish newspaper Information.
Doctor of Philosophy and Social Psychologist Lotte Kragh
Lotte Kragh has researched the concept of honour, and in her doctoral thesis, she has examined how Turkish women in Copenhagen use the concept of honour to achieve greater freedom.
Project Coordinator Jamal El-Obari
Jamal El-Obari works with KVINFO’s mentoring network in the Vollsmose suburb of Odense. One of the specific initiatives in the project is the ‘Min egen vej’, which targets young women with a non-Danish ethnic background.
Specialist Consultant and Advisor Farwha Nielsen
Farwha Nielsen was born in Afghanistan and has worked as a cross-cultural advisor in LOKK, the Danish association of women’s shelters. Today, she runs her own business offering advice and mediation in conflicts within ethnic minority families. Farwha Nielsen has just published the book “Cross-cultural conflict mediation”.
“If I hadn’t grown up in an immigrant ghetto, I wouldn’t have spent 15 years of my life fighting to get to where I am today”, tells the Danish-Palestinian Simona Abdallah, who, through much of her years growing up, lived in the Gellerupparken area of Denmark’s second city Aarhus. But with a great deal of willpower, she has managed to break free from the social control and has succeeded in creating an independent life for herself. She has also succeeded in creating a name for herself as an international music star on the Arab Darbuka drum – an instrument that in Arab culture is reserved for men.
“If I hadn’t grown up in an immigrant ghetto, I wouldn’t have spent 15 years of my life fighting to get to where I am today”
Simona Abdallah’s personal account kicks off a debate meeting held at the library of KVINFO, the Danish centre for information on gender, equality and ethnicity. The debate focused on how young people – young girls and women, in particular – grow up in families that have immigrant backgrounds. An increasing number of these young people are doing well – not least, the large number of young girls who are concentrating on taking further education. Through their example, they are showing that they want an independent life and that they view education as a way of achieving equality. However, other young girls experience that they are subjected to controls at home that do not harmonise with the norms that young people in Danish society usually meet. The result is conspicuous conflict with their families, as they fear that the young family members are turning their back on the family and their cultural background.
The revolt bodes well for the future
“Looking at the tendency that’s going on now, I think that it is very positive – it’s a youth and women’s revolt that bodes well for the future. But there‘s a serious flipside. This is shown by the increasing number of young people contacting crisis centres who are under pressure from their families , which sometimes leads to threats and even abuse and violence”, tells the evening’s chairperson, KVINFO’s director Elisabeth Møller Jensen, to the assembled speakers and audience in the packed hall.
A question of honour
Simona Abdallah has been engaged four times and married twice; for her the option of being controlled by one man was preferable to being controlled by an entire family. Following the breakdown of her first marriage, she was forced to move back in with her own family in Gellerupparken. But again, the family controlled everything. “I wasn’t allowed to have a computer, TV or telephone in my room. Nor was I allowed to lock the door to my room to prevent the family from being able to walk in to see what I was doing. I felt controlled 24/7 because the family was afraid that I would talk to boys.”
Simona Abdallah is in no doubt where this social control she and others experience stems from. It is an issue of the family’s honour, which is closely linked to the moral virtue of the girls and women of the family.
“I wasn’t allowed to have a computer, TV or telephone in my room. Nor was I allowed to lock the door to my room to prevent the family from being able to walk in to see what I was doing. I felt controlled 24/7 because the family was afraid that I would talk to boys.”
“Even today, women are repressed and are deprived of their freedom. From an early age, boys are given the responsibility of looking after their sisters, female cousins and the honour of the family. So, instead of bringing up the girls to be able to stand on their own two feet, they’ve chosen to repress the girls. They do this because they’re afraid that the girls will lose their identity and end up like Danish girls, leading them to forget where they came from. At no time has my family ever consciously thought: “now let’s ruin Simona’s life”. The problem is that my family brings up its children in the same way that they themselves were brought up”, explains Simona Abdallah.
Using honour to gain greater freedom
Among the three other guests on the panel is doctor of philosophy and social psychologist Lotte Kragh. She has conducted research in the field of honour, and as part of her doctoral thesis she has examined how Turkish women in the outlying suburban municipalities to the west of Copenhagen use the concept of honour to gain greater freedom. Based on her research, Lotte Kragh believes that the concept of honour can be used not only as a means of social control by the women, but also as something to enable the women to liberate themselves.
Social development is the way forward
Lotte Kragh emphasises how important it is to fight honour-related criminality, repression and ‘honour killings’. “The young immigrant women, and the young men who defend their sisters, are rebelling against the rigid norms that exist. By doing so, they end up bearing the burden of honour”, she explains. At the same time, Lotte Kragh draws attention to the fact that honour must be seen in relation to the opportunities society offers these immigrant groups. She believes that there is a close link between economic opportunity and honour-related conflict. The better the opportunities for getting a job, earning money and, in this way, acquiring status within society, the less that traditional values and concepts of honour mean.
What do the others say?
Jamal El-Obari is a project manager for KVINFO’s mentor project ‘Min Egen Vej’ [‘My own way’]. The target group for the project is women between 16 and 24 living in the Vollsmose are of Denmark’s third-largest city, Odense. Like Gellerupparken in Aarhus, Vollsmose is an area with a high concentration of residents with refugee and immigrant backgrounds. Jamal El-Obari has Arab roots and has conducted much fieldwork in the area. This not only allows her to speak based on her own experience, but it also allows her to speak as a practician. And she has numerous examples of cases where it is not just the family who prevent the girls from making their own decisions. To a large extent, “what others say” also plays a role. The girls in the project mention, for example, the wearing of a headscarf. It is Jamal El-Obari’s experience that many choose to wear a headscarf merely to avoid being talked about.
“I myself didn’t believe that I’d been under any social control growing up, and I often thought to myself how good it was that my family wasn’t so involved in the immigrant milieu. But now, looking back, I can see that there was in fact some social control going on”
“I myself didn’t believe that I’d been under any social control growing up, and I often thought to myself how good it was that my family wasn’t so involved in the immigrant milieu. But now, looking back, I can see that there was in fact some social control going on”, tells Jamal El-Obari. Since moving from the urban environment of Odense to a small village in rural Denmark, she has also become aware that Danes pigeonhole each other, too. “Here, too, everyone knows everyone else’s business. And everyone clings on to the rigid perceptions that they have of one another”, points out Jamal El-Obari.
Normal parental responsibility
Afghani-born Farwha Nielsen has worked as a cross-cultural advisor at LOKK, the Danish association of women’s shelters. Today, she runs her own business offering advice and mediation in conflicts within ethnic minority families. Through her work, she has experienced how social control and dominance have been the cause of many serious conflicts. A stand must be taken against social control, she believes, but this in itself can cause problems if tackled from the wrong angle or one-sidedly. “Firstly, ‘social control’ has become a buzzword, without any clear definition of the age group being talked about. Secondly, I experience that social control is often confused with normal parental responsibility”, explains Farwha Nielsen. She goes on to ask the audience the following questions: “How can we separate social control and parental responsibility? Who defines how our ethnic minority citizens should bring up their children? What do you yourselves think? Should the young minority citizens have precisely the same social and cultural conditions as Danish young people?”
"(..) being a victim is never a good thing because the victim’s own resources are overlooked by those around them”
“Thirdly, it is very risky to use the term social control as an all-commanding and general characteristic when describing us ethnic minority citizens. It makes us look as if all of us are repressed – and it describes us as victims. And being a victim is never a good thing because the victim’s own resources are overlooked by those around them”, emphasises Farwha Nielsen, and illustrates the situation with an image:
The media generalise
“When I talk with a woman who has been a victim of violence, I often experience that she herself regards herself as a victim. In the majority of cases, she has difficulty in focussing on her own resources as she taken on the ‘victim role’. It’s difficult to get the woman to look beyond her own vulnerability and the painful experiences and say: “I can do this – surviving violence and threats is a strength in itself. I have gone through the hardest situation of all for someone to be in, and I have got through it.” When it comes to ethnic minority women, there’s too much focus on the ‘victim role’. The result is much generalisation from the media who paint a picture of minority women as being repressed”, tells Farwha Nielsen.
One member of the audience listening is Karen West. She has created the Qfreedom organisation that works to achieve understanding, women’s liberation and equality across ethnic origins, religious beliefs and political convictions.
“When we‘re having discussions at Qfreedom, many believe that the concept of honour is not a question of religion, but rather a question of culture. No matter whether we’re talking the Middle East, India or Africa, honour is linked with women’s sexuality. But the moment we gained equality, the link to women’s sexuality was broken.”
Elmas Berke, president of Qfreedom (and who in previous interviews has described herself as being a secular Muslim), expands the point. “What it comes down to is sexual emancipation. We have an abundance of Muslim girls behind us who all know what the real issue is here. Let us call a spade a spade. We’re getting nowhere”, tells Elmas Berke , pointing out the 800 women who each year seek refuge and help at the women’s shelters around Denmark because of violence and social control.
"No matter whether we’re talking the Middle East, India or Africa, honour is linked with women’s sexuality. But the moment we gained equality, the link to women’s sexuality was broken.”
The right to be acknowledged
Lotte Kragh does not fully agree. “Social control is also an issue of sexuality – but not an issue only of sexuality. Primarily, it’s about the right to be acknowledged and to be in command of one’s own body, no matter if you’re a man or a woman. And this is a right that has been arduously fought for over several hundreds of years in our own little world. Sexuality then becomes the expression for the lack of a right to be oneself.”
Nor for Jamal El-Obari is equality and emancipation a question of sexuality alone. “For me, emancipation had nothing to do with who I was allowed to sleep with. That wasn’t the main issue. And I know the same is true for the girls we come into close contact with.”
"If a young girl wanders of the straight and narrow sexually, maintaining respect in itself requires a huge amount of strength. I’ve met many who tell me that they have lost everything and that if their family kills them, then they would be doing them a favour.”
Farwha Nielsen is even afraid that if we begin to define women’s emancipation solely in terms of sexuality, it will create a great deal of uncertainty among the young girls. “When we enter into a debate about equality in the various ethnic milieus, it’s all about combining and not abandoning our cultures and traditions, in which the family means a lot. If a young girl wanders of the straight and narrow sexually, maintaining respect in itself requires a huge amount of strength. I’ve met many who tell me that they have lost everything and that if their family kills them, then they would be doing them a favour.”
Women repressing women
Lotte Kragh points to a particular group of immigrant women who have come to Denmark to be married. Here, it is the mother-in-law who takes on a central role. “If the family refuses to let her have friends or move about in society then the only door into Danish society these women have is the family itself. They are extremely dependent upon getting a mother-in-law who is open and who can help them find a foothold”, explains Lotte Kragh, and she agrees with Jamal El-Obari that it generally is women who keep an eye on each other. “By keeping an eye on the moral virtue of the younger women in the family, they create power for themselves and gain influence. It’s not just brothers and male cousins who are keeping watch. Women within the milieu act as spies against each other. These women have to be shown that there are other ways of obtaining status in society than through the men”, tells Lotte Kragh.
"It’s not just brothers and male cousins who are keeping watch. Women within the milieu act as spies against each other. "
Farwha Nielsen follows up. “The history of emancipation in Europe shows that it wasn’t just men repressing women. A glance through history also shows how women, too, have repressed women. Often, it is the women who are the guardians of tradition.”
We trust you
Some of the young women in immigrant families have a greater degree of freedom than others because the families trust their girls. Jamal El-Obari gives an example about a group of girls with Somali backgrounds who live alone in the Vollsmose area of Odense. “If there are a lot of younger sisters at home, the young women are allowed to move out so that they can concentrate on studying – without any control being imposed upon them. They could perhaps stay with a sister or a girlfriend. If the parents didn’t trust these girls, they would never be allowed to live on their own.”
For Elmas Berke, this merely confirms that the issue is solely one of sexuality. It is indirectly suggested: “We know that you will uphold the family’s honour. We know you will not blacken our name by having a boyfriend – or ten boyfriends. We all get it: We trust you.”
Jamal El-Obari sees nothing wrong in parents trusting their daughters’ own abilities to evaluate situations. “My parents had faith in the upbringing which they had given me, as well as faith in the fact that I was capable of making my own choices. I think the same is true for some of the young girls who I meet.” Farwha Nielsen agrees and does not see that the situation is very different within Danish families.
“We know that you will uphold the family’s honour. We know you will not blacken our name by having a boyfriend – or ten boyfriends. We all get it: We trust you.”
After almost two hours of vigorous debate, specific suggestions are put forward as to how to offer support to families and help the young people who want to exercise their right of self-determination.
Simona Abdallah believes that those women who have taken an education and created a career for themselves, and have shown that they can liberate themselves, should act as role models. “It’s these things that they need to see and experience. It’s important that we focus on how we can help women out of social control, out of Gellerupparken and out of repression, and give them what they need to be able to look after themselves. The more of us there are, the stronger we become. It is vital that women show that they can stand on their own two feet and be independent.”
Older women as a resource
Lotte Kragh sees a huge resource within older ethnic Danish women who themselves have had lives as young adults in the 1965s. “They know what being accused of being a whore and going out with boys is all about. The older Danish women know what it’s like to be judged on the basis of whether you married the right person or not”, tells Lotte Kragh. The Danish women to whom she is referring were stigmatised purely because they allowed themselves to express or show that they had a sexuality, without engaging in any sort of promiscuous activity. And Lotte Kragh has also seen how the young girls from the immigrant milieus often click with the older women. She believes that it is important to create a form of solidarity between the generations in the ethnic minorities.
“They know what being accused of being a whore and going out with boys is all about. The older Danish women know what it’s like to be judged on the basis of whether you married the right person or not”
One member of the audience, Anne, believes that it is equally important to involve men in the different models put forward to solve social control and honour-related conflicts, and to look at what role men play here. Her concrete proposal is a mentor corps.
Lotte Kragh agrees that a project is needed to teach cousins, nephews, mother-in-laws – a project that will also be about a dialogue within Danish society. Farwha Nielsen believes that such talks are already going on in many families. “But if I had to say how we can tackle this situation in the future, there has for many years been too little focus on sustainable work with the family. There has been too much focus on the young, particularly the young women, and sustainable work with the families has been overlooked.”