Fadime Sahindal

Fadime Sahindal.

Features Violence in the name of honour. Lessons learned from Sweden

Since twenty or thirty years back countries in the northern hemisphere have paid more attention to honour based violence (HBV) meaning collectively sanctioned violence and abuse. Mostly this concerns female victims; their lives are controlled in a way which may inflict on their choices and freedom, and risk to escalate to violence and abuses if the girls do not follow the restrictions of the family. So, what can be done to prevent or at least lower the extent of honour-based violence and abuse? Here you meet and hear from Swedish experts, NGOs, youth recreation centres, schools, day care centres, social services, shelters, doctors and even the Prison and Probation service.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 23, 2020

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Since twenty or thirty years back countries in the northern hemisphere have paid more attention to honour based violence (HBV) meaning collectively sanctioned violence and abuse. Mostly this concerns female victims. These girls and women are looked upon as bringing dishonour upon the family through their actions, such has having premarital or extramarital sex, refusing to enter an arranged marriage or just hanging out with boys that the family has not approved of. Or they use clothing, jewellery and accessories which are considered inappropriate. In contrast to other forms of domestic abuse and violence, this violence against an individual in the family is supported by the vast majority of the family, by other relatives and often by the whole clan.

Is this kind of honour-based violence growing in scope in a country like Sweden? Yes, most experts believe so, and primarily then focus on immigrants coming to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, where HBV is common.

Last year the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare tried to determine the number of people living with these honour norms and traditions – but the Board eventually gave up because of the lack of data. The surveys they had planned were cancelled, since it was considered impossible to collect the information in a secure way. But the authorities are not totally in the dark and several smaller surveys have been conducted over the years. A recent one was made among 15-year-olds in the three major cities in Sweden; Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, which showed that between 7 and 20 percent of the young people lived in families with honour norms. That does not mean that all of these are subjected to violence, but their lives are controlled in a way which may inflict on their choices and freedom, and risk to escalate to violence and abuses if the girls do not follow the restrictions of the family.

So, what can be done to prevent or at least lower the extent of honour-based violence and abuse? Over the last couple of years, I have written several stories on the topic. In this article I will use some of the material from those stories and describe three strategies of conduct, drawn from interviews I have made and reports and books that I have read. Firstly, the knowledge of honour norms must be spread more broadly in society. Secondly, the efforts to combat these norms must start at an earlier age. And thirdly, it is possible to make adults give up the honour norms, but it requires considerable time and effort. Below you will hear from experts, NGOs, youth recreation centres, schools, day care centres, social services, shelters, doctors and even the Prison and Probation service.

The knowledge of honour norms must be spread more widely in society

In Sweden, as well as in many other European countries, the knowledge of HBV has increased tremendously over the past decade. At the renowned NGO ”Tjejers Rätt i Samhället” (TRIS), The rights of the girls in society, in Uppsala the head of administration My Hellberg describes a huge difference from when she began at TRIS in 2009:

”Our work was difficult back then, we were called racists when raising the issue, it was difficult to get funding, difficult to gain access to decision makers. Now it is completely different – and that is of course a promising development.”

Back then when she answered calls from schools and other institutions meeting the vulnerable girls at TRIS hotline, she remembers how ignorant people were. ”They saw how troubled the girls were, but very few had a clue about the reasons behind”. Now many of them know much more. At the social services, who take over when young people are in a desperate situation, the understanding is also greater today. Some of them have developed specialized teams dealing with honour abuse issues. But even today My Hellberg hears of schools hesitating to contact the social services:

”They are still worried that the social services might contact the parents when a girl says that she is not feeling well and is complaining about the situation at home.”

When facing problems of a teenager with no honour-based abuse involved, the goal is of course to find a way of solving the situation in a family setting – but in the case of honour abuse, this cannot be a strategy, at least not in an initial stage. First the girl has to be protected. If the parents are contacted, there is a great risk that the abuse will increase and that the girl is taken abroad and forced into a marriage.

Even if schools and social services have come a long way in learning how to deal with these delicate issues, more needs to be done, as revealed by a survey in March from the National centre for competence on honour related issues. The survey deals with children being sent to their former home countries without permission from the school, often with the purpose of forcing them to marry which is against Swedish law. The survey shows that less than half of the schools have routines for how to cooperate with the social services on how to prevent such abductions.

Better knowledge and more cooperation between these two crucial actors are of course paramount to help children suffering from honour-based violence, but knowledge of the honour norms must be spread to more actors in society. I have heard this message from many experts over the years and My Hellberg at TRIS is one of them: ”The more people who can interpret the signs of honour-based abuse, the more individuals can be helped before it is too late”.

In Sweden this insight is beginning to sink in, even if we are in an early stage. Recently the government decided that college education for more professions should include courses in honour abuse and other kinds of domestic violence. Lawyers, physiotherapists, dentists, nurses and doctors are among the professions concerned.

When it comes to doctors, one doctor has probably done more than any of her colleagues to spread the knowledge of honour-based abuse within healthcare in Sweden: the psychiatrist Camilla Starck in Stockholm. She is active in another NGO dealing with this issue, GAPF (Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime) which was founded in memory of the girls Pela Atroshi and Fadime Sahindal who were both murdered by their families.

Through GAPF she has been travelling around the country giving lectures to healthcare personnel. What reactions has she come across?

”Many had never even thought of the issue. And those who had thought about it are genuinely unsure how to handle the patients. They wonder how to initiate a conversation with a patient they suspect lives in an honour-based culture, they are worried that the patient will get angry or offended.”

And what is your answer?

”That I was never aware of a person getting angry when I raised the issue. But, of course, one should proceed cautiously. If you only have a suspicion, you can start by saying that you know that honour norms are common in the patient´s previous home country”.

Camilla Starck has identified at least four areas where healthcare services could improve their routines in this field. One area is the interpreting, many immigrants are in need of interpreters and it is common that someone from the family takes that role when meeting the doctor or the nurse. This does not need to be a problem – but can be a problem. The person accompanying the female patient – a brother, a father, a husband – could be the one abusing the patient. Therefore, try to find a professional interpreter, is her advice.

A second area where the health services could improve their routines is to guarantee the right for the patient to meet the healthcare personnel alone. This right is of course guaranteed by law – but is not always followed. The patient can have a hard time pushing for her right to see the doctor alone, or she might not know that she even has this right. A third area is the sensitive issue of female genital mutilation. One problem is that the personnel too seldom openly ask about it when it would be appropriate to do so, another problem is that doctors do not always realise that a genital mutilation has taken place despite having made an examination of the patient.

”My daughter´s father is a paediatrician. He has never learned how to detect different types of genital mutilation”, says Camilla Starck.

A fourth area where improvements should be made are the medical journals online – there have been several cases where family members have been able to access the journals which has led to a deteriorated situation at home. In the journal the girl or the woman has disclosed secrets that can be life threatening if they are spread to family members.

Camilla Starck also wants to highlight that health care authorities do too little to help the boys and the men. This involves LGBT people who are at risk of violence if their sexual orientation becomes known to the family, or young men who themselves are forced to marry a cousin they don’t know. And, not the least, it involves boys and men who get depressed by being forced to supervise and sometimes even beat their sisters or other female relatives with the purpose of defending the honour of the family.

”I have had several such male patients who suffered from severe psychosomatic disorders without the health care realizing the reasons behind the disorders. This is an extremely sensitive issue for the boys and the men since they are not supposed to talk about the honour norms with people outside of their family or their clan.”

Camilla Starck also underlines that grown-up and married women can be victims of honour-based abuse. They are to some extent forgotten when the focus is on teenage girls and how they are controlled and abused by their parents. In such a family, the mother can take part in the abuse of the daughter – but at the same time suffering under honour-based norms herself.

At TRIS in Uppsala, they have looked closer into the difficulties that immigrant women have in finding a job on the Swedish labour market. The well-known reasons are of course manifold but, as TRIS points out, yet another reason for the difficulties of some women are – the honour norms. Husbands and male relatives can force women not to attend a course or an internship for the simple reason that they do not want the women to meet other men. At the Swedish Public Employment Service, I asked the director of analysis, Annika Sundén, to what extent they have looked into the issue of honour norms. She gave me a straight and honest answer: ”We have been slow at raising this issue”.

But things are changing, the employment agency’ss office in Uppsala last year invited the founder and head of TRIS – the sociologist Mariet Ghadimi – to give a lecture on the issue for the employees. She turns directly to them at the start of her talk:

”Think of your applicants, I am pretty sure that you´ve all met women who live in an honour culture. But you haven´t always realized it.”

One employee raises her hand: ”I have met women who come to my office with their husbands who tell me that their wives are not allowed to take the jobs or start the education that I propose. It is so difficult; how should I act?”

Mariet Ghadimi understands her predicament: ”This is difficult and there is no checklist what to do, but you cannot tailor your offers to the opinions of the men. For a simple reason: it´s against the law. Here is a conflict of interest, yes, but it can only be solved if you talk about it, both with the woman and her husband.”

She tells the story about a woman who also became her friend. Thanks to the employment services, the woman had started working as a nurse in Sweden. Just as she was about to sign an employment contract for a permanent position, she called Mariet and said that she had changed her mind. She would not sign the contract – on the contrary, she would quit her job.

”Why? I asked upset, ’this is your chance, this is about your future and your children’s’. Then she told me that she would get a night shift schedule and that her husband therefore forbade her to take the job”.

Mariet convinced her friend to stay at her job and ask the manager for another two months without night shifts while she could speak to her husband about it.

”Finally, she dared to confront her husband. And eventually he agreed that she take the job! The marriage still lasts, and she has told me that her husband is a little proud of her today because she managed to get a steady job.”

During the talk, one man in the audience breaks in with a slightly different perspective:

”I am glad that this issue is being addressed, but there is also a risk that we stigmatise the men, that we demonise them. I have seen this happening in social services, that men have been accused of honour-based abuse when this wasn’tt the case.”

Mariet Ghadimi thinks he has a good point: ”We have had cases where it has been unclear whether it is honour based abuse or not. All foreign-born women who are subjected to oppression are not subjected to honour related oppression.”

So how do you know if the abuse is honour related? You have to learn to see the signs. If the woman has high absence from assigned activities, it can be a sign. One employment officer describes what she sees as typical signs of a woman being subject to honour abuse:

”If a job applicant is in a hurry after a meeting, the warning bells should ring. Or if her phone beeps all the time during the meeting. On one occasion a woman looked at her phone at least ten times during our talk, so I asked what the problem was. And she admitted that her husband told her to come home.”

Employment officer is one profession in which the knowledge of honour abuse must be spread more broadly. Recently TRIS highlighted another profession: those who work with adults with intellectual disabilities. People with such disabilities, who live in an honour-based context, are extremely vulnerable: if their relatives tell them that they are supposed to marry a certain person, they seldom understand that they have the right to say no.

Through surveys with professionals who take care of these people and support them at day centres, TRIS has concluded that the knowledge of honour-based abuse is very low. Only around one out of four of these employees say that they have received any kind of education in the area – and even fewer have heard of action plans against HBA. Serine Gunnarsson worked several years with the surveys and is very worried about this group of citizens: ”They are hidden by their families and forgotten by society”.

It is common that family members are appointed personal assistants or guardians for these individuals. But this is a very bad decision by the authorities if the family is characterized by honour-based norms, explains Serine Gunnarsson: ”It creates a wall around them, and it becomes even harder for society to protect their rights”. Both women and men with these disabilities are often sent abroad and not seen thereafter in Sweden. It is common that the mother in the family is the mastermind behind these crimes. Those outside of the family working at day centres tell TRIS, in interviews, that they feel frustrated by their inability to help these individuals who are controlled by their own families.

TRIS, as well as others active in the battle against honour-based abuse, also point to the importance of civil society. Sports and culture activities play a crucial role in the lives of young people – but it is difficult for girls who are controlled by their families to find their way to such activities. Together with a local football club in Uppsala, TRIS has developed the concept ”Ronjabollen” for girls from areas where sports clubs are rather absent. The name Ronjabollen comes from the strong young female character in Astrid Lindgren´s book Ronia the Robber´s daughter. At Ronjabollen, apart from football training, the girls are also involved in discussions around values such as gender equality and everyone´s right to their own choices in life. During school´s summer break they have arranged a camp which has been especially important, since summer is the time when some girls are taken out of the county for forced marriages – club activities at the very same time can possibly convince the parents to do otherwise.

Now the concept of Ronjabollen has spread to other cities. In Eskilstuna, some 100 kilometres west of Stockholm, the women’s football club Eskilstuna United has in close cooperation with the schools found several girls who were interested in football – but had no support from home in finding clubs to play for. Emre Gürler, responsible for social work in the club, has been the driving force behind the motto: ”We are slide tackling the honour culture”. Early in life he saw the problem with his own eyes: ”Both in school and in my neighbourhood, it was clear that many girls couldn´t enjoy the freedom that was so obvious to us guys”.

The Swedish women’s national team in football, which came third in last year’s World Cup, has throughout the years only had a few players with roots in the Middle East or Africa – for the simple reason that girls with that background less often start playing football. They are seldom encouraged to try football – or any other sport – and family traditions tell them to take care of younger siblings and do household work. Yet others are largely forbidden to spend time with friends after school, for fear that they meet boys and jeopardize the honour of the family.

In Eskilstuna, the club decided to schedule the Ronjabollen trainings directly after school, so that parents could not stop their daughters from attending by not letting them leave home. The former elite player Sandi Haddad Sharro became project leader for Ronjabollen, her upbringing in a Syrian family played part in her decision: ”I was not exposed to honour abuse, but I never got the encouragement from home to participate in any organized sport. It was my friend´s mother, who was a coach, who saw me kicking a ball and realized that I had talent”.

Sandi Haddad Sharro, who is a behavioural scientist today, underlines the importance of combining football practice with lectures and discussions about values and norms – all based on the training the club received from TRIS in Uppsala.

”A lot is about strengthening the girls´ self-esteem, they should know that they have the right to a rich leisure time controlled by themselves. This is guaranteed in the UN Child Convention – which today also constitutes Swedish law”.

The club challenges the values that some of the girls have been taught at home. At one time they invited a woman to come and talk about her marriage with another woman. ”Some of our girls left the room in the middle of the lecture”, remembers Sandi Haddad Sharro, ”but after a couple of weeks they started to come to practice again”.

Another girl also stopped coming and they didn’t know why. Then it turned out that her Syrian father had forbidden her to go, suspecting that she was seeing boys. So, Sandi Haddad Sharro called him up, speaking in Arabic: ”I explained what we were doing, explained the purpose of our activities, and after that she started coming again”.

Challenging the honour norms needs to start at an early age

 Sahra Bargadle came to Sweden from Somalia in 1991. Early on she realized that girls and women in the Stockholm suburb where she lived, Tensta, needed lots of support. In 2002 she founded a shelter. It is well hidden with no address on the home page, she prefers to meet in the Somali association´s café. Over the years, she says that around one third of the girls and women seeking support from the shelter do it because of honour related abuse. And the situation is getting worse.

”It´s sad, but I run across more and more cases. And we know that the hidden statistics are huge, many don´t want to contact us, fearing that their families will face severe consequences.

Girls say it to me straight out: I don’t want my dad, my brothers or other family member to be arrested and end up in jail. They tell me not to contact the social services or the police! Some do agree to break with the family, and we provide special housing, but in their new home they feel alone, and want to reconnect with the family. Despite having been beaten and mentally abused, they return to their family”.

Sahra Bargadle meets a lot of criticism from the Somali community. The men say that she is lying and that she is worthless since she doesn´t have a husband (divorced with three children), the women tell her to stop interfering in the way they are raising their children. They accuse her of breaking up families.

”But I also have people supporting me”, she says while walking through the centre of Tensta. ”Without that support I wouldn´t be able to be out in the open like this”. We pass by the health centre and she describes how several institutions have become better in dealing with honour crimes. ”Before the doctors and nurses in there were satisfied with the answers from girls that their wounds were caused by accidents, today they ask more questions. And before I was afraid of contacting the social services, today I have very knowledgeable people to talk to there”.

But more has to be done to stop this problem from growing. What is her message? What should society do differently? The answer comes quickly: ”Combat these honour norms much earlier than today, start already in preschool”.

One of the Swedish municipalities that first started to work with this goal in mind is Norrköping, some 200 kilometres southwest of Stockholm. The coordinator against domestic violence  – Petra Blom – has for some time visited preschools to talk about honour norms.

”The boys very early integrate the family’s conceptions of how girls should be treated”, she says when we meet with some of the staff in a conversation room on the upper floor of Skatten´s preschool in the immigrant dominated neighbourhood of Navestad.

”You not only meet the kids when they are young”, says Petra Blom and addresses the others around the table. ”You also meet their parents more than the school staff will do later on. You can make them think in new ways when raising their children”.

The teacher Helena Hellgren at Skatten preschool has encountered the honour culture in her job for more than ten years, but it is only recently that she has really begun to understand what it is about: that some boys monitor their sisters’ games and control whom their sisters may play with. ”We have become more aware of these problems and thus better at dealing with them. We tell the boys that they don´t need to keep track of their sisters”.

Helena Hellgren has met parents who were upset that their sons were playing with dolls and tumbling around on the carpet with the girls. When she explained that this is a completely natural part of everyday life at preschool, some had difficulty accepting the message, some even threatened to take their children out of there. ”It is important that we in the profession are not afraid of the cultural clashes, that we stand up for our basic values and our mission.”

The small boys in preschool may also be involved in monitoring their mothers. Petra Blom heard about a case where the mother did not take her five-year-old son to preschool since she herself had a medical appointment.

”The staff thought it was nothing to worry about, they saw it as a way for the mother and the son to spend some time together. Only afterwards did they realize that it was the father who had required that the mother should not see a doctor without a male family member being present.”

When summer comes, they are now more aware than before of the risk that some girls might be taken to their former home countries to undergo a genital mutilation. Petra Blom has told the preschool personnel to ask questions, lots of questions, but without sounding suspicious: Where are you travelling? Will it be fun? Who will you meet? ”It is your job to interpret the answers and the more subtle signals from both children and parents.”

It is not uncommon that the parents themselves oppose the genital mutilation and are worried that the extended family in the home country will force them to have it implemented. Against this background, the Swedish Expert Team on honour-based violence has begun issuing “genital mutilation passports” that everyone in the country can order. It states that Swedish law prohibits genital mutilation and that one can be convicted of the crime even if it has been done abroad. ”We have already handed out passports to several grateful parents,” says Petra Blom.

When the parents show the passport to family members in the former home country, it is less probable that the mutilation takes place. And some parents have decided to leave the children in Sweden while going abroad, to save them from mutilation. When the preschool understood this connection between vacation and mutilation, they introduced more liberal rules to allow children to stay in preschool during summer break and other school holidays – even if the parents were on vacation.

When the meeting ends, Petra Blom will rush to the lower school Silverdansen a few hundred meters away. She will meet teachers and talk about honour-based abuse and remind them to be vigilant about the older siblings who may be forced to pick up their smaller siblings at preschool. ”It is only through collaboration between preschool, school, youth centres, social services and other actors in society that we can reduce the problem.”

A couple of months later I return to Navestad to meet the headmaster Pernilla Dahlgren of this Silverdansen school with 260 kids in the ages 6 to 9. Far more than half of them have roots outside of Sweden. On the way to her office we say hello to children of all skin colours and a couple of the girls wear headscarves.

”The headscarf does not have to mean that the girl lives in a family characterized by honour norms”, she says when we sit down for the interview, “but it is an indication that it could be the case. We must realize that there are children who already at this age are subject to repressions.”

Pernilla Dahlgren has learned to see the signs, how a boy in the corridor seems to have his little sister under supervision, how a girl is asked to hide her hair under her headscarf. They have male pupils who do not respect reprimands from female adults, who say that “I do not need to listen to her”. Just the day before I arrive, she had asked a boy to come to her office precisely for that reason.

Her involvement in these issues was aroused over 20 years ago when she worked as a teacher at Hageby School in the vicinity:

”I remember so well the twin couple I had in middle school, how the boy could stay and play after school while the girl had to go home immediately. She told me how she was forced to take care of siblings instead of meeting friends. It made me so upset!”

Was it something you talked about among the staff?

”No, I raised it at parent meetings, but received no support from colleagues. The issue was so sensitive, you always ran a risk of being called a racist if you criticised the parents.”

That is rarely the case anymore, now schools are focused on finding ways to combat the honour related abuse, but way too seldom in lower school. That is her point: ”If you wait until middle or high school it can already be too late.”

She has invited lecturers to the school, and she has hired more personnel dealing with student health issues. When a child doesn´t come to school, she now has pupil coaches knocking the doors of the families that haven´t alerted the school of the child´s absence. ”By meeting the parents, by seeing their homes, we get to know the families better. And we can more easily find out whether a child has been taken out of the country.”

She has seen examples of how some younger pupils are picked up daily by older siblings in the schools close by, and how her own pupils in third grade have to pick up younger siblings at the preschool.

”Helping parents to pick up a sibling once in a while is of course only positive. But if they need to do it every day, we call the parents for a meeting.”

She would like to have more discussions on this topic with principals from other lower schools in the country, but so far, the interest has been lukewarm. The few times when she has heard colleagues talk about honour issues, it has been about girls’ participation in physical education lessons.

”At our school, it is obvious that everyone has the right to participate. The families who dislike the lessons often “forget” to pack the gym suits, but we can always offer suits that they can borrow.”

Yet another way to identify if girls are at risk of honour-based abuse is the school trip at the beginning of grade three.

”The trip always includes an overnight stay. Some girls aren´t allowed to join the sleepover, these girls we keep an extra eye on during the school year. They might be living in a family with honour norms.” At first, some of her teachers were a bit nervous when their principal decided to act so straight forward on these issues, but Pernilla Dahlgren feels she has full support now.

The role of the whole staff is of course crucial, something that I also heard from the headmaster Else-Marie Hallqvist at Nytorpsskolan in Gothenburg. Almost all her pupils, aged 9 to15, have immigrant background. And so do some of her teachers.

”They are of paramount importance in combatting the honour norms,” she tells me over the phone. ”The students who dare to talk about their situation often go to my staff who have foreign background. There they hope for less damning reactions, for more understanding”.

Do you have employees who themselves have been subjected to honour repression?

 ”Yes, some have told me how they had to break up with their families in their teens, others still feel some discomfort in talking about these issues.”

Are you worried that they may find it hard to resist the honour culture of the children´s parents?

”Yes, you can just imagine how it is when they meet the parents in the mosque or in the church, where they can be put under pressure. I try to support them as much as I can.”


”By repeatedly emphasizing that their culture and traditions are not threatened, it is all about the honour abuse. It is the abuse, the oppression, that has to be abolished.”

Changing values and norms requires time and efforts

The Swedish parliamentarian Robert Hannah from the Liberal party has Assyrian background and was brought up in Tynnered in Gothenburg:

”There were honour norms in my family, but I was never subjected to violence. When I came out as gay, I got support from my mother – but she has received a lot of criticism for who I am. When I ran for parliament in 2014, I wanted to see if it was possible to get old conservative Assyrian constituents to vote for an openly gay person from their own ethnic group. On the campaign trail some showed their open dislike, but others supported me. I challenged their values, and I realized that some of them were prepared to change.”

He tells me, when we meet in the parliament, that the National Assyrian Youth League has invited him to talk about LGBT issues. So, things are changing, slowly.

”We have to challenge the honour-based values, in the same way as we challenge for example right wing extremism. My immigrant background can be an advantage, they can relate to me, it is difficult to criticize me for looking down upon immigrant minorities.”

He is critical of the sketchy and unevenly distributed information about norms and rules in the Swedish society that is offered to new immigrants. It must early on be crystal clear that following through with the honour based value system is against Swedish law: ”If you want to stay in this country, you cannot only strive to become financially integrated, you must also try to be socially integrated and adhere to the values that guide our laws. Fadime Sahindal´s father had a job, he was financially integrated, but still he decided to kill his own daughter because she did not follow the honour-based values.”

Robert Hannah´s fellow party member Romina Pourmokhtari, president of the Liberal Youth of Sweden, has a somewhat similar background, brought up in the suburb Hallonbergen outside Stockholm:

”When I grew up, I knew girls who were not allowed to take part in swimming lessons, not allowed to wear the clothes they wanted, not allowed to meet boys, not allowed to attend football camps, not allowed to join school excursions. It made me so mad!”

Several of her childhood friends still have their lives controlled. Some have escaped Sweden to study abroad, as a way to live a normal life. Others try to balance a somewhat controlled life with keeping in touch with the family. With a sad face she concludes that the situation has become worse in Hallonbergen since she lived there at the beginning of the 2000s, there are now more ”moral policemen” controlling the lives of the girls in the area.

Romina Pourmokhtari, who has Iranian roots, often visits schools and other institutions to talk about liberalism, equality and human rights. Sometimes students with immigrant background get upset, saying things such as ”you betray your own people” and ”you hurt our case” when she talks about the honour norms and women´s rights.

”Segregation is a poison, those with traditional values become even more traditional when they live with others from the same culture. Mixed neighbourhoods are a must. But it´s also important that more people visit more schools and neighbourhoods and challenge the honour norms. In some cases, I have seen results quickly, especially young people can change views when confronted with sound arguments. In other cases, it can take a long time to convince people to change their views.”

In the World Values Survey (WVS) Sweden sticks out as one of the most secular and individualistic countries in the world. This has been taken into account when trying to understand why many immigrants from strictly religious and collectivistic cultures have difficulties adjusting to life in Sweden. Bi Puranen, Secretary General of WVS and a researcher at the Institute for Future Studies, recently made a study on more than 6 000 immigrants in Sweden which gave astonishing results.

It turned out that many of the immigrants over the course of a couple of years in the new country had moved towards the values of the majority population in Sweden: they had become more secular, more individualistic and they had developed more trust towards authorities. But – and this is the important ”but” – they still strongly disapproved of every individual´s right to decide about their own sexual orientation, choice of partner, or whether they should marry, have children, have abortions or divorce.

”The conclusion is rather evident,” Bi Puranen said when she presented the results last year. ”Values can change quickly when living in a new country, but values connected to the family, the family´s right to decide over another family member´s life, these values seem to change very slowly.”

Her message to the large gathering of people from national authorities, municipalities and NGOs in the conference room was straightforward: ”We have done too little to try to change the honour norms. Yes, it´s a huge challenge, but we must do more, and we have to realize that it takes time and efforts.” Many agree with her, the really ambitious work in this field is too rare. But I have met some people who do commendable efforts.

Hoshi Kafashi is employed by the municipality of Linköping, adjacent to Norrköping. He is one of the few in the country paid to try to change the honour norms among boys and young men. ”It is absurd that we are so few working with this,” he says when we meet in the youth recreation centre Slottet in the district Berga.

Hoshi Kafashi was born in Iranian Kurdistan in the 1980s, when he was 11 his family fled to Sweden. His own upbringing was not marked by honour norms, but he saw it in his parents’ generation. And he has seen the honour norms become more common in Linköping since he was a child. At 18 he took a two-week course about honour related norms where he first realized the rather evident fact: ”It takes a lot of work to change the way a person thinks, to change his or her basic values of life.”

Eventually he convinced the municipality to start an educational programme. One request he had was that it had to be long, at least a year. Another request was that those attending had to be perfectly comfortable with expressing controversial views of any kind. ”Going into the discussions they could be homophobic, or they could be defending the family´s right to control a woman`s sexuality. The worst thing would be if they started by saying things, they think I wanted to hear. Then we would have failed.”

To find candidates for the first course in 2011, he used his large network of youth counsellors, teachers, sports leaders and policemen. ”I was looking for a mix, both those who defend the honour culture and those who are beginning to question it.” Over 70 names came up, but in the end only around ten were chosen.

The one-year course has several parts. They spend one or two evenings a week listening to lectures by Sweden´s foremost experts on honour abuse. For many hours they discuss the issues within the group, challenge each other and gather for weekend activities. During the second half of the course, they visit schools and youth recreation centres. Furthermore they cooperate with several NGOs, especially Save the Children.

When graduated, the ambassadors are named “Shanazi Heroes”. “Shanazi” stands for pride and honour in Kurdish. ”It is a good contrast to the other absurd use of the word, that it could be considered honourable to oppress female family members”, says Hoshi Kafashi.

The phase after the course has been just as important: these people have become ambassadors, spreading the message of everybody´s right to choose their own path in life.

How have parents reacted when their teenagers have been selected?

”Very differently, some have been happy, they think this programme can keep their children away from bad behaviours. Others have been upset, calling me a traitor, claiming that I betray my own culture.”

After a couple of years, he also decided to include girls in the courses, partly because he realized how women and girls sometimes play an important role in the oppression. ”I have seen cases where the vulnerable girl was protected by her father, while several female members of her family were responsible for the abuse.”

The day I meet Hoshi Kafashi, he has gathered a group of graduated heroes, many whom still are deeply involved in these issues. One girl spontaneously tells the others that she never actually realized that she had lived a limited life before she took the course. When I ask how they have changed after the course, one young man comes up with an answer that should be spread to every municipality around the world: ”If I had not attended this course, I would today be controlling and oppressing my little sister. For sure.”

Hoshi Kafashi has been working with teenagers, but how about adults? There is a discussion today whether it is worth while putting energy into changing the honour norms among parents who already have started to abuse their own children. Is family therapy a good idea in these families? Many advise against it; the risks are considered too high. The parents want desperately to reconnect with their daughters and will try to give the impression that they have changed when talking to the social services. Maintain contact with the parents, these critics say, so that the situation doesn´t get even more polarized – but don´t try to change attitudes.

The family therapist Marie Christou-Kressner in the Stockholm suburb of Botkyrka is of a somewhat different opinion. She has actually, together with colleagues, conducted family therapy in such families for several years. And often with good results. Since 2011 they have helped more than 30 families to find reasonably functioning relationships. ”Of course, there are families that cannot be reunited, but then they usually do not go as far as family treatment,” she says in an interview in her spacious treatment room where many families have settled around the coffee table over the years. Above the sofa golden letters are glued to the wall: “Nothing is impossible, the impossible only takes a little longer”.

The Botkyrka team has completed some cases after a few months, others have been going on for over two years. ”We have families who initially have a great deal of distrust of us. A father can get up and leave the room angry, frustrated and in disarray. The process of change takes time and requires that we deal with a lot of emotional expressions in the first challenging phase”. 

Many who work with the honour norms say that it is almost impossible to get adults to change, but you have evidently succeeded in some cases. What is the key?

”People who have been living with honour norms throughout their lives, and in addition have been exposed to them themselves, feel deeply threatened by change. In the initial process, it is important to understand these defence mechanisms. But when other family members open up, something happens to the reluctant person. It becomes difficult to fight on. And slowly change begins to take shape.”

Marie Christou-Kressner emphasizes that there are many degrees of abuse and oppression. It is of course easier to make parents change their behaviour when they have not (yet) resorted to serious violence against a daughter who does not follow the norms. The families she meets have become deeply dysfunctional as a result of honour norms. They are torn between what is required of them in Sweden and what their traditions say they should do.

”There is so much anxiety, so many fears, so many tears. Here beside me,” she says pointing to an armchair, ”often sits a girl who, with trembling hands, recites her thoughts from a crumpled piece of paper. But that is how the process must start”.

Have you had cases where things went bad once the child re-establishes contact with her family?

”No, the social services own the process in close cooperation with the girl´s foster home. A girl must never come back to her family if we believe that the threats and the oppression remain”.

Several times during our conversation she states the obvious: they always have the child’s safety in focus, nothing they do should jeopardize that security. She emphasizes however that trying to create a functioning family relationship is not risk-free – but it is also not risk-free to keep the child separated from the family when there is a genuine and mutual interest to reunite.

”It is common among children and young adults in families with honour norms to long so much for their families that they return to them without the support and the knowledge of the social services. That is something we want to avoid”.

It is most often the father who plays the main role in the abuse, she says, but sometimes it is the mother. Marie Christou-Kressner however underlines that they do not only work with the parents, the siblings can also play important roles. ”In one case, the two younger brothers were the most active abusers”.

A huge challenge for their work is the pressure that the families are exposed to as soon as they leave the treatment room.

”Many times I have felt that they have started to think in new paths in here, that they have begun to understand the daughter´s or sister’s need for a life of their own. But then I know that they are met by scepticism in the neighbourhood, in the mosque, in the church or somewhere else where they meet their former countrymen. I have had people in here who have never spoken to a native Swede before. What we do here is not just family therapy, it’s integration work.”

My third example of serious work being done to try to change attitudes and norms within the honour context is from the Prison and Probation service. Here we are dealing with what might be the most difficult of cases: people that have been tried and convicted for honour-based violence. In Sweden the Prison authorities have developed programmes over the years for perpetrators of domestic violence outside of the honour context – but almost nothing has been done for those who have practised violence to defend the honour of the family. Many agree that these interns must be rehabilitated differently, but exactly how they should be rehabilitated is being investigated at this very moment. The goal of course is to minimize the number of re-offenders.

In a pilot case in one penitentiary the psychotherapist Jon Söderberg has met one intern on several occasions and he sees some improvement: ”We have started to build trust, and from there I believe we can reach results. But it´s a long journey, we are facing both cultural and language barriers”.

To be able to learn more about interns convicted for honour crimes, Jon Söderberg and the psychiatrist Camilla Starck (whom we met in the beginning of the article) have conducted interviews with more than a dozen interns. These interns have practiced violence either against adult women or girls, and in some cases also against men (a woman´s new partner). The interviews will constitute the groundwork for recommendations on how to treat honour related offenders. The recommendations are not public yet, but the two interviewers can say that they see some promising signs.

”I have dealt with honour related abuse for several years and I had assumed that it would be almost impossible to find openings among these felons”, says Camilla Starck, ”but to my surprise, in some cases I felt that they started to question their own behaviour and their own values. If that is true, then there is a potential for them to start group treatment with other similar offenders”.

A majority of those interviewed had been subjected to violence themselves, often honour related violence. Many were in bad mental shape, talking to a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist was a relief for them. No one knows how many interns there are in Swedish jails that have committed honour related crimes, since this very classification doesn´t exist. But such offenders have served time in Swedish jails for decades, and still there is no well-developed rehabilitation for them. Why?

”I don´t know, but it´s not satisfying”, says Jon Söderberg. ”Some of these offenders have gone through treatments tailored for partner violence, but such programs are not suitable for them. That´s why we have to develop new treatment programs”.

The Swedish minister of social affairs, Lena Hallengren from the Social democratic party, has admitted that too little has been done in combatting the honour norms in Sweden. At a conference in the parliament earlier this year – when the theme was honour based abuse and LGBT rights – she ended on a positive note:

”Is it even possible to change people’s values? To change ideas that have been part of their culture for centuries? Yes, I think it is possible, but it takes time. Look at our views today on same-sex marriage, corporal punishment of children and paternity leave! 50 years ago, the views were totally different, we have changed.”

That is true – but she fails to mention one major difference between those examples and the example of honour-based abuse. When we in Sweden changed our values in those areas, it was a majority of the population who pushed a dwindling protesting minority in that very direction. This is however not the case of the honour related norms – and the reason spells of course segregation. When a father in a segregated neighbourhood, where honour values dominate, starts to question his beliefs – he is met by a lack of understanding if not open criticism from a majority around him.

That makes it much harder to change these values – but the alternative, not trying to change them, can never be a way forward.


 “They wanted to throw me out of the window”

I met Ajda a couple of years ago. Here is her story:

“My parents are Christians from Turkey. I was born in Sweden myself. I grew up in an immigrant dominated suburb to a rather big city. Before puberty, most things were ok. But after my first menstruation, everything changed.

I was forced to quit football, I had to come home immediately after school and was banned from participating in physical education lessons. We were a few girls from the Middle East who had to take walks instead.

Of course, I became angry that my life had been curtailed. I was increasingly seen as a child with a problem behavior. When my parents were called to meetings, I did not want to talk about the problems at home, because the worst thing to do is to embarrass the family!

But one day I told the headmaster and a teacher about my parents – but then they called home and asked my mom to come to school! Afterwards, my parents were in despair, I had lifted the lid to something that should have been hidden. They screamed at me, they pulled me in the hair, and they hit me with shoehorns and a rolling pin.

When I started high school, I got a Swedish boyfriend. We met in secret, but one day a relative saw us. My parents threatened to murder my boyfriend. They also tried one time, along with a cousin. They rang at his door, armed with a knife. But I had called the police who got there in time.

They persuaded me to go to Turkey during summer holidays. On the way to Arlanda, I called my social secretary and said I was worried – but the social secretary only asked to speak to my parents!

In Turkey, I was forced to marry an almost 20-year-old man whom I did not know. It felt awful and totally unreal. But I was able to go back to Sweden in anticipation of my 18th birthday when my husband could apply for a residence permit.

Once back home, I managed to find a volunteer organization that could help me. My parents found out what I had done, got mad and even threatened to throw me out the window. I was helped to escape to another city where I got sheltered housing. But they managed to track me down. One day my uncle and cousin were outside the accommodation – but I discovered them and could call the police.

Four years have passed, I am 22 years now. Today, I am studying to become a social worker and I want to help young people living under oppression. They receive more support than I got, but I still hear about teachers and social workers who are ignorant about these issues


Footnote: Of course, Ajda is not her name. We cannot use her new Swedish-sounding name out of risk that her parents could track her down.

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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