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Sultana's Dream
August 2012


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Forced Marriage: Muslim Women Treated Like Entertainment Fodder  

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 and violence.

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 over women.

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 need be.

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