“Immigrant” girls as a political symbol

2010-06-23 The debate on honour-related violence over the last decade has engaged, mobilised and divided Swedish feminists within both the media and public gender equality politics. Two recent doctoral theses analyse the official Swedish policy on this issue and the consequences of the focus on the culture of honour.


Illustration: Anne Aagaard

The murder of Fadime Sahindal in 1992 triggered a polarised debate on honour, violence and the “culture” of immigrants in Sweden. A few weeks after the killing, the government presented its first programme for “vulnerable girls in patriarchal families”. A new political concept had been established. The young women’s plight had been made into a cultural symbol and a boundary marker – between what is Swedish and what is non-Swedish.

Since 2007, Sweden has had a coherent action plan for “male violence against women, honour-related violence and oppression, and violence in same-gender relations”. The plan says that “the honour rationale can take on various expressions, depending on cultural notions and religion, but it is not connected to a specific culture or religion. Honour rationale can also exist in non-religious contexts”. It is further noted that “as is all male violence against women, honour-related violence and oppression is based on gender, power, sexuality and cultural notions of these” (p. 12-13).

According to this action plan, honour-related violence differs from other forms of violence in its collective nature; that is, that there can be several perpetrators of both genders, and that the victims can be both women and men, girls and boys. These formulations illustrate an ambivalence which has characterised, and still characterises, Swedish debate and research. Violence against immigrant girls: Is this an expression of the patriarchal violence which can strike women in general, or of a special, culturally based violence which strikes only “immigrant” girls – so called honour-related violence?

Conflicting values and cultural violence

The explanation of violence against “immigrant” girls as a “cultural” issue gradually started to become dominant in Swedish politics. At the same time, this special kind of violence was described as the prime example of there being a conflict of values between what is “Swedish” and what is “non-Swedish”. This is shown by political scientist Maria Carbin in her recent doctoral thesis (2010). She has studied the public discourse in Swedish politics in this area from the first so-called debate on honour-related killings in 1995 and up to 2008. Carbin analyses the negotiations that have been made on how this violence should be defined and explained, and she has a special focus on the portrayal of young immigrant women.

A policy of diversity was introduced in the 1990s in Sweden, emphasizing mutual change and tolerance across communities. At the same time, the murder of Fadime Sahindal resulted in a polarised debate on honour, violence and the “culture” of immigrants. Researchers played a prominent role in the debate. Carbin mentions, among others, the Norwegian scholar Unni Wikan, who claimed that the murder of the young girl should be understood from a non-Western notion of honour and an ideology of honour. Others, such as Paulina de los Reyes (2003), strongly argued against using cultural explanations for violence. She said that this created a distinction of violence into “Swedish” and “non-Swedish”. Violence among immigrants was understood as specific to a culture, while violence among Swedes was dissociated from culture.

“Vulnerable girls”

These debates revealed how central a symbolic function the representation of the “immigrant” girl had in Swedish integration policies. “The actual integration policy is regarded as unsuccessful when it is discovered that society has failed to handle the situation of young women exposed to violence,” Carbin writes (2010:64).

In public documents cultural affiliation is ascribed a pivotal role and is linked to the oppression of women. One year after the murder of Fadime Sahindal, the Swedish government introduced measures against what they called “honour-related violence”. In parallel to this, fathers with a minority background were portrayed as bearers of patriarchal values and thus as those responsible for the violence. Gender equality is formulated as a Swedish value, which may be seen to be helping the integration of immigrants.

Structural discrimination

The new policy emphasized value-based differences between “immigrants” and “Swedes”, and it met with a lot of criticism. Those who criticised the programme underlined structural discrimination, where young girls were not primarily positioned as potential victims of violence, but rather as exposed to ethnic discrimination and prejudiced attitudes, Carbin summarises (2010:80). She also shows how the critics lost ground when the value-based policy was strengthened with the shift to a right-wing government in 2006.

However, the parallel discussion as to whether violence against minority women is different from violence against ethnically Swedish women continues: Can the reason for violence be found in culture and values, or is violence associated with gender, power and male dominance?

According to Carbin, what she calls the discourse of gendered power (Ibid:90), does not emphasize race/ethnicity, since it is an issue of a general power structure traversing class and ethnicity and functioning “regardless of ethnicity”. The reason for violence is seen as being the same for all, and thus the situation of Other women does not need to be studied specifically. It is, so to say, a priori assumed that “immigrant” women are exposed to the same oppression as “Swedish” women.

Carbin notes that public policy has, during the right-wing government, shifted “from politics of similarity to politics of difference, from the relative lack of interest of the discourse of gendered power in the situation of girls to the great interest of the value discourse in particularly girls exposed to honour-related violence” (Ibid:114).

Immigrant boys – a double role

While young women are at the centre of Swedish policies and the survey of honour-related violence, “immigrant” boys have been ascribed a double role as both perpetrators and victims of the honour culture. Here, the government measures aim at a changing of attitudes; boys with a minority background should learn about gender equality and a correct way of behaviour in relation to their sisters and women in general.

Researcher Nils Hammarén has followed boys in so-called multi-cultural areas of Göteborg. In his doctoral thesis Förorten i huvudet. Unga män om kön och sexualitet i det nya Sverige (The suburb in one’s head. Young men on gender and sexuality in the new Sweden. 2008), Hammarén shows how the young men are influenced by the images presented in, among other places, the media of the “suburb” and of the young men living there. The problematisation of boys in these suburbs has increased with the political focus on cultures of honour, where these boys have been depicted as living in the shadow of their family’s and particularly their father’s patriarchal culture.

The most common notion of a boy with a minority background living in the suburbs is in terms synonymous with those of a person who is “dangerous” and “criminal” and defined as the masculine Other. The young men were familiar with these problematic images and in various ways had to take a stance on them, while they also made use of and played with these images in a construction of expressive and acting-out forms of masculinity.

Hammarén interprets this “suburban masculinity” as a compensatory revenge for the stigma they experience as having been ascribed to them. There were also manifestations of a contrasting behaviour of under-communication of their “foreign” background, or solidarity with what they saw as the majority culture’s view of “immigrant” boys. According to Hammarén, forms of behaviour, expressions and style associated with the image of the “immigrant” boy, seemed to strengthen the feeling of many of the young boys of being in a less privileged position in Swedish society.

“The brother” – a repellent symbol

The issue of honour-related violence was raised in the interviews by the young men themselves, particularly in connection with the role of brothers in relation to their sisters. “The brother” then primarily appeared as a repellent symbol associated with the brother of a potential partner. Several of the young men protested against being placed in a category constructed in advance of “honour-related violent problem boys”.

Hammarén here points out that the problem with honour-related violence seems to be to find ways of making this type of violence visible without constructing it as separate from other forms of violence and thus stigmatising whole population groups. He thinks that the debate on honour-related violence runs a risk of contributing to the patriarchy being placed outside of the Swedish borders. The violence of “Swedes” against other “Swedes” is made invisible, while the control and violence of “immigrants” is culturalised.

By Trine Lynggard is a writer and journalist with a Master’s degree in journalism. She was also the first editor of NIKK magasin.

An unedited version of this article was first published in Norwegian in NIKK magasin 1/2010 © NIKK

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