Forced Marriage: Muslim Women Treated Like
When it comes to Muslim women, everybody in Australia is a
feminist. Those not previously marked by their interest in the situation of
minority women become indignant about what are essentially unforgivable acts of
abuse and violence in any cultural context occurring in Australia.
This week the ABC’s Four Corners, apart from indulging in
what might be called tabloid journalism, told the story of three young women who
were victims, or almost victims, of forced marriages by their fathers, primarily
for the purposes of bringing family members to Australia. There was also the
additional story of a young woman who was a victim to domestic violence because
her alcoholic husband was forced into marriage.
The program, advertised as ‘The shocking expose of a
hidden practice’ and referring to the refusal of community members to speak to
the media, insisting that through this the community keeps hidden its ‘dirty
little secret’ (it’s an interesting quirk of journalists to think that if
something is not in the media, it is a secret), completely missed the actual
story: that Muslim women activists have worked towards the eradication of forced
marriage and the protection of women for well over a decade.
The program missed this story, because it accepted as
possible that Muslims could be capable of the moral impoverishment necessary to
allow for a practice that results in a lifetime of confinement, neglect, abuse
Muslim feminist activists always react with apprehension
and frustration when journalists seek out stories about Muslim women; as a rule,
media coverage of abuses against Muslim women hinders rather than facilitates
efforts to eradicate the practice.
Stories about Muslim women generally end up treating us
like entertainment fodder. It never results in attracting the support of broader
Australian society nor the concern and resources of governments.
What media coverage does do, unintentionally I believe, is
further vilify an already-maligned and disadvantaged group, by treating a
complex issue resulting from an interaction of individual, familial, social and
economic factors as being solely a function of culture or religion.
This is why many Muslim communities will often perceive an attempt to engage
them on the issue of violence against women as a collective racial assault,
demeaning their heritage and treating them as having no ethical framework. Our
own research demonstrated that despite 93% of non-Muslim Victorians having
little or no contact with Muslims, 40% of them associated Muslims with the poor
treatment of women, and Muslim women as oppressed and submissive.
All women who share their stories of violence and
mistreatment are to be commended and supported; it takes an enormous level of
courage to do so. We do not know what is the true incidence of forced marriage,
especially those of young women. This isn’t necessarily due to the
community’s ‘hidden practices’ but is associated with the complex nature
of social phenomena. Complex social phenomena requires research, and this
research requires government investment in Muslim women.
We should not allow those who abuse women to hide
themselves behind religious doctrine or cultural dictates without carrying any
personal and moral responsibility for their actions. Such men rely on a select
reading of religion and culture designed to ensure men’s power and privilege
This lack of investment in immigrant and minority women is
one of the biggest barriers in assisting Muslim women escape harm. The Four
Corners report presented the positive stories in the sense that these women
could be helped by the system - this is THE exception rather than the rule.
The vast majority of Muslim women do not receive anything
resembling the type of support necessary to assist them to overcome these
challenges. Governments must be seen to cater for all Australians, and most
governments understand that the broader Australian community finds investment in
minority communities contentious, with many Australians misunderstanding funding
to minorities as privileging them over other Australians. Hence, successive
governments have not adequately funded necessary work.
Unlike most other Muslim activists, I supported the Federal
Government’s criminalisation of forced marriage, but including it in
legislation on sexual trafficking presents an almost insurmountable barrier to
raising community awareness. It makes the topic far more controversial than it
It would have been better to include forced marriage within
existing family violence legislation across the country, or in the federal
government impressive violence-against-women policy framework. The
Attorney-General’s department has a good track record in crime prevention
education and human rights, and could rely on both of these areas to support
Muslim women to undertake the work.
Finally, where cultural practices support and allow for
abuses of women, these need to be challenged and changed. The Australian
government has at its fingertips, community programs that have been developed
and evaluated internationally.
These programs prioritise the empowerment of women and
girls, increasing their decision-making power, and addressing anti-women beliefs
and practices among the relevant community. Promoting community ownership and
allowing for change from within, at the grassroots level, is vital as history
proves that this is where lasting change originates.
Joumaneh El Matreh
Director, Australian Muslim Women's Center of Human Rights
First published in CRIKEY April 2012