German chancellor joins forced-marriage backlash

Women’s groups have been urging for criminalization of the practice.

;BERLIN (AP) – Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined a growing movement to criminalize forced marriages in Germany, which is growing less tolerant of practices among Muslim immigrants that clash with the nation’s liberal social values.

Forced marriages are generally imposed by young women’s families to keep them from dating. Prosecution is rare and must take place under assault laws that also outlaw threats and coercion.

Women’s groups have been increasingly pushing for forced marriages to be specifically criminalized, to ease prosecution and to send a strong signal that the practice violates German laws and traditions.

“I completely agree that forced marriages should be punishable as a criminal act,” Merkel said in a speech at a women’s conference held by her conservative Christian Democrats over the weekend, surprising and pleasing activists.

“We are thrilled that the chancellor has made such a clear statement,” said Sibylle Schreiber, a spokeswoman for the women’s rights group Terre des Femmes. “Finally she’s given a signal to the people that forcing your daughter into marriage is a crime.”

Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them of Turkish origin. Many lead secular lifestyles but some make strong, even extreme, efforts to preserve conservative values.

In recent years, several courts have upheld state-level bans on headscarves for Muslim women teaching in public schools. Immigration laws now require that foreign spouses be at least 18 years old and already have a basic knowledge of the German language.

The state of Baden-Wuerttemberg has proposed federal legislation criminalizing forced marriages. It passed twice, most recently in February, but has not been taken up by the lower house. Women’s activists were hopeful that Merkel’s push would accelerate the process.

Serap Cileli, a Turkish-German writer whose book – “We Are Your Daughters, Not Your Honor” – documents her escape from a forced marriage at age 24, welcomed Merkel’s initiative but said it was important to address the immigrant community directly.

“As long as we don’t teach the fathers, husbands and brothers to let the women live self-determined lives, this wound will never stop bleeding,” Cileli said.

Women’s groups and experts on immigration in Germany said it was difficult to tell how many women marry after threats or abuse, but enough flee such arrangements that several shelters remain busy.

Along with Baden-Wuerttemberg, the states of Lower Saxony, and Berlin have started shelters, hotlines and online counseling. North Rhine-Westphalia has made it mandatory for all high school students to learn that forced marriage is illegal in Germany.

The impetus behind pressure to marry is found in conservative families’ opposition to dating and premarital sex – considered affronts to family honor.

Such pressures are also behind so-called honor killings of women by family members, often brothers or husbands. The Federal Crime Office counted 55 such cases from 1996 to 2005.

A 20-year-old Turkish-German woman, whose parents wanted her to wed a cousin she had met once, fled to Berlin, where she lives with a new identity out of fear her family might track her down.

“After they found out I had a boyfriend, they locked me up in my room and beat me up every day for a month,” said the woman, who now uses the name Rojin Dogan. “They wanted to sew the tear in my hymen and quickly marry me to my cousin – they wanted to make him believe that I am still a virgin.”