Interview: Forced and Arranged Marriages - Between Elucidation and Scandalizing Distortion

Publication Date: 
December 2, 2010
Dr. Filiz Sütcü questions the sensational manner in which the issue of forced marriages was brought to the public's attention.

Filiz Sütcü, a lawyer of Turkish origin, has carried out academic research into the subject of forced and arranged marriages. In an interview with Claudia Mende, she criticises the media's sensational treatment of the issue and explains that public debate is usually more about cultural and religious defamation.

Ms Sütçü, in your doctoral dissertation you investigate how one can differentiate an arranged marriage from a forced marriage. Is this possible?

Filiz Sütçü: Under certain circumstances, an arranged marriage can be a forced marriage that is simply not recognizable as such from the outside. Also, in the case of forced marriages, the parents "initiate" the marriage and choose the partner. When a 14 or 15-year-old daughter is told by her parents that she is to marry a cousin from their homeland, then you can hardly assume that there is no compulsion in an arranged marriage. The girls are brought up in such a way that they aren't allowed to oppose their parents. This is why they can't really say "no" in this situation.

So it is simply because arranged marriages are taken for granted?

Sütçü: Many of my clients had arranged marriages, which only later became forced marriages. They seldom questioned their parents' decisions. And neither did the men. "This is the way we do things," is the typical response. At first, the young people see no other possibility. In addition, women, as a rule, are not permitted to have premarital relationships. Sexuality can only be experienced within marriage. In order to get out of this situation, young women often agree to marriage. They see this as the only way to break free of the parental home.

Arranged marriages therefore serve as a form of escape...

Sütçü: They don't even consider that they may just be exchanging one "prison", the strict parental home, for another "prison." Only once they are married does it become clear that it is even worse. Turks are not the only ones who practice this tradition, but I have focused my work on the Turkish population, because I am a lawyer with a Turkish migration background myself.

Gravestone of Hatun Sürücü, victim of a so-called honour killing: "Although making it a criminal offence in itself would be a bold gesture, I sincerely doubt if it would help women in this situation," believes Sütcü
When does an arranged marriage turn into a forced marriage?

Sütçü: When those involved see that things aren't at all what they were supposed to be. And when one of the partners comes from the homeland and the other from Germany or Western Europe, then it is like two worlds colliding. The option of divorce poses a tremendous problem for women coming from a traditional society. Because the marriage was procured by the parents, they tend to exert inordinate pressure. And if the marriage turns violent, they often assuage the women by saying, "Oh, this can sometimes happen."

Has there been an increase in the number of arranged marriages with one partner coming from abroad?

Sütçü: There are no solid statistics on this phenomenon. For years, we have been discussing the issue of arranged marriages and forced marriages without any clear data. No one was interested in pursuing the matter, because the first generation of guest workers was already married! I represent many clients from the first and second generation of immigrants. They have now reached retirement age and have encountered problems in receiving their pensions. Almost one hundred percent of these people had arranged marriages. 

The typical first-generation guest worker comes from a poor, agricultural region of Turkey. Some of them only have a grade-school education and many of my clients are illiterate. They entered into such marriages because it is the tradition in their home country and they have imported this tradition to Germany.

How have marriage practices developed further in Germany?

Sütçü: The tendency is for this generation in Germany to firmly hold on to the old traditions and then to pass them on to the next generation. The situation mirrors domestic migration within Turkey. Those who move to Istanbul from rural regions prefer to remain among themselves and continue their traditions.

So nothing has changed at all?

For Sütcü, obligatory language courses before moving to Germany are a good thing: "At least, such courses help ensure that these women aren't so naïve about life in Germany"
Sütçü: At the very least, we now talk about the situation. Some horrible things have taken place. Women have been killed by their own fathers and brothers. By 2004 and 2005, such events had really stirred up the discussion. My thesis is that arranged marriages should also come under the critical spotlight. Those who are born here have a completely different perspective on life than someone who grew up in Turkey. When parents arrange a marriage between two such partners, then is this a constellation practically doomed to fail. Then I see these cases in my law practice when marriages turn violent.

What is particularly difficult for women when they want a divorce?

Sütçü: Women who have come to Germany within the framework of spousal immigration and have already lived here for seven or eight years usually do not speak German and are financially dependent on their husbands. Most of them have children, no profession, and only have a minimal education, as they married so young. They are also under a great deal of family pressure. Very many of these so-called import wives live with their husbands and in-laws under the same roof, while their own families usually remain in Turkey.

German language skills are now required for permission to move to Germany. Will this prevent forced marriages?

Sütçü: Despite all the criticism from immigrant associations, I find this requirement to take a language course before moving to Germany a good thing. It broadens their horizons, even though the course can't prevent forced marriages. At least, such courses help ensure that these women aren't so naïve about life in Germany.

Crude generalization: "Seyran Ates and Necla Kelek attribute everything that goes wrong in Turkish families to one thing – Islam. This is simply not true in every case", criticizes Sütcü
Do we need to make forced marriages a criminal offence?

Sütçü: Today, coercion and assault, as well as particularly serious cases of constraint, are regarded as criminal offences. In 2005, forced marriages were included in this last category. Although making it a criminal offence in itself would be a bold gesture, I sincerely doubt if it would help women in this situation. If they had the strength to rebel against their family, then, in most cases, it wouldn't come to a forced marriage. When I see how long it takes for women to get out of such forced marriages, then it becomes clear to me that revised laws wouldn't help them.

Does this mean that if girls would only say "no" clearly enough, then they wouldn't be forced into marriage?

Sütçü: There are such cases. We think too one-dimensionally. It is not as if a daughter has to fear for her life every time she says no. I know parents who have accepted a "no." But when a girl has said no once, twice, or three times, she has to agree eventually.

What is the legal situation in Turkey?

Justice is in the eye of the beholder: the legal situation in Turkey is comparable to the one in Germany, explains Sütcu - but state prosecutors deal with so-called honour killings according to their own 

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

individual inclinationsSütçü: It is comparable with the legal situation in Germany. Although forced marriage in itself is not classified as a criminal offence, a legal system compatible with Western European standards has existed since Atatürk founded the republic. The criminal code, for the most part, copies that of Italy. The main issue in Turkey, however, is how justice is administered according to these laws. State prosecutors deal with so-called honour killings according to their own individual inclinations. There is the tendency to hand down light sentences on the perpetrators. 

For example, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, yet perpetrators get only five years because they were compelled to act to preserve their "honour." In terms of EU membership negotiations with Turkey, a great deal remains to be done in the area of women's rights. And this doesn't only have to do with laws. The question remains, how can we change the public's understanding of these issues?

What has the discussion on forced marriages and honour killings achieved so far?

Sütçü: The discussion hasn't addressed the situation of the women affected. Instead, there has been a massive attack on Islam and the religion has in effect been made responsible for honour killings and forced marriages. One of the catalysts for my work was an article that appeared in Spiegel magazine in 2004 entitled "Allah's daughters deprived of their rights." Turks tend to always see themselves as victims. So this is certainly not the right approach to reach them. The discussion is totally disconnected from the women affected...

Yet, women with a Turkish migration background, like Seyran Ates and Necla Kelek, have raised the issue in the media.

Sütçü: And the media has gratefully taken up the issue. At first I was pleased that both these women brought the issue of forced marriages to the public attention, but I have to question the sensational manner in which this has taken place.

What do you mean?

Sütçü: They have to know their own countrymen! If I stand up to the podium and claim that all Turkish fathers and mothers marry off their children or lock them up, which simply is not true, then this would be a crude generalization and judgemental. The same would be true if you said that every other marriage in Germany is a forced marriage, and by this you meant an arranged marriage. You simply can't judge things from appearances. You have to investigate the situation, see where these practices come from, and consider how to solve the problems.

But you have to call a spade a spade.

Sütçü: And what would you thereby achieve? That they would say, yes, you are right, our values are bad and we lock up our daughters, but we won't do it anymore? I don't think so. Ates and Kelek attribute everything that goes wrong in Turkish families to one thing – Islam. This is simply not true in every case. To spread falsehoods in tandem with a sensationalist tone can only cause more harm than good to the discussion. This is why we aren't making any progress.

How do you see your own work?

Sütçü: I hope that my contribution will be to better illuminate the phenomena of forced marriages and arranged marriages. We can't just lump all Turks together. Besides, we know far too little about their population structure, social strata, educational level, and the differences between Turks in Germany and the population in Turkey itself.

Interview: Claudia Mende