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Europe

A Wife Bound by Shame

In Europe's closed-off immigrant communities, hundreds of women are forced to marry against their will. Help is hard to come by and politicians, until recently, have preferred to look the other way.

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Bound by honor and shame, victims of forced marriage often live lives of isolation and abuse.

The unhappiest person at Sibel Öztürk's wedding was the bride herself.

Wearing the white wedding dress she bought in Turkey a few weeks before, Öztürk (Her name has been changed) sat at the banquet table next to her new husband, a complete stranger, and fought back tears. Most of the 400 guests in the festive hall in Cologne knew that her father was making her marry a man she neither loved nor knew.

"It was like a theater performance," she says, recounting the story almost a decade later to DW-WORLD. "My friends all had goose bumps. They said, 'We don't recognize you at all.'"

Shame and honor kept the shy 23-year-old from running out of the hall, away from the marriage her father had forced on her and the community that had accepted with silence.

Hers is a story replayed countless times in immigrant communities in Germany and other European countries. Parents view arranged marriages as a way to preserve ties to the homeland and shun what they view as corrupt Western European practices.

More often than not, the young women accept these arrangements, knowing that their parents have found them a suitable companion. But when daughters are forced into marriages, women like Öztürk can be relegated to lives of violence, isolation, and abuse, say women's-rights activists.

No reliable figures, not much help, for victims

There are few reliable numbers on how many women in Europe's Arab, South Asian, Turkish, or Eastern European

Asylsuchende vor Ausländerbehörde Hamburg

Women from South Asia, Eastern Europe as well as North Africa face the same ordeals.

communities are suffering in forced marriages. France and Norway have programs that counsel women facing or fleeing forced marriages. Britain boasts a special desk in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that helps citizens who are forced into marriage overseas. Last year, the desk's second year in existence, the FCO reported some 200 cases of forced marriage. British police have adopted procedural guidelines for handling the problem.

In Germany, a few extreme cases, like that of a Kurdish woman murdered by her brother in 2000 because she had a German boyfriend, spend brief periods of time on the front pages. But activists say law enforcement and politicians continue to look at forced marriage as a cultural issue, rather than a human rights question.

That might change, however, as Germany begins looking more critically at its integration problems decades after the first immigrants arrived. German state and federal politicians are promising to take action.

Lobby work forcing change in thinking

"We maybe missed out on this subject, or overlooked it," said Christian Storr, who heads the office of the Immigration Commissioner and Justice Minister in Baden-Württemberg.

Storr's office is responsible for drafting a bill that would jail those involved in arranging marriages. "Maybe it will be a signal to these families, that we are aware of [the problem], and maybe it will stop some from doing it."

Such a law is long overdue, says Seyran Ates, a Berlin lawyer whose lobbying on the issue together with the German women's organization Terre des Femmes brought forced marriages to the attention of German politicians last year. German courts continue to tiptoe around the problem, labeling it as a something best taken care within the community. Judges have invoked "religion" or "tradition" in explaining why they were reducing the punishment for men who abused their wives in forced marriages, she says.

"They don't see it as a human rights violation," says Ates, who fled her traditional Turkish home at the age of 18.

Neither did Öztürk. The eldest sister in a family of three sons and two daughters, she was used to obeying her father and older brothers. She learned early on to serve them first at meals and clean up afterward.

Next page: Wedding invitations already on the way

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