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Plans for a new book about immigrant men, honour and dignity

Previously Unni Wikan has been interested in immigrant women and children. She now wants us to be more concerned with the men. Better insights into the mens’ situations could prevent conflicts, says the anthropologist, who is working on the analysis of two court cases to do with honour killing and forced marriage. – I am sitting on top of a goldmine of ethnographic material that illustrates cultural complexity in a whole new way, she says.

Unni Wikan: "The data has overwhelmed me and convinced me." The data, first and foremost the trials, is a big stack of papers that will perhaps result in a new book. Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

Unni Wikan has, for several decades, researched the Middle East and Asia. Since the middle of the nineties she has been a central figure in debates on immigration. She has written many newspaper articles and books such as "Mot en ny underklasse" (Towards a new Norwegian underclass), "For ærens skyld. Fadime til ettertanke" (For the sake of honour: Reflections on Fadime), Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman and Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in the New Europe. The anthropologist has now been “liberated” by the research programme Cultural Complexity in the new Norway to write out the material from the two trials she has been an expert witness in.

The result will most likely be a new book. One central question is: How can we help the men to maintain their dignity but at the same time secure the women and children’s safety?

– We are aware that we need to work to secure womens’ rights, but the situation of men has been ascribed little attention, apart from that they’re assaulters or oppressors, says the anthropologist.

Muslim men are often seen as patriarchs. According to Wikan that’s only one side of the story:

– Many Muslims come from a background where you shall be a patriarch. They have power in some areas, but many also feel impotency over the transnational networks which families are a part of. Relatives abroad can pressure them or coerce them into specific actions. They are being steered too, and we need to understand this to also help the women.

In Wikan’s opinion, Norwegian society has not thought enough about the dignity and masculinity of immigrant men.

– Women’s groups have been established, but not mens’ groups?

– Exactly. And it’s more difficult for men to ask for help. This is not exclusive to immigrant men, as it also applies to native Norwegian men. It’s quite new that men in Norway create single father organisations, isn’t it? Men are often less socially skilled than women.

– Is it here that honour comes into the picture when they don’t dare ask for help?

– Honour, yes, exactly. Something I hope to achieve with my project is to show that the concept of honour is nothing exotic. It is about taking care of people’s dignity. Additionally, many men of immigrant background are bound by a code of honour that does not look after their individual needs and integrity, but rather obliges them to act in the interests of the group. This can in the worst case scenario lead to serious personal conflicts: they may have to act against their wishes, and hurt those they love.

– You have shifted your focus from women to men?

– Yes, and I find it interesting. It’s not true that I, as a researcher, have said and thought that now I will investigate the situation for men. I have come to the insight that this is what I must do. The data has overwhelmed me and convinced me.

The data, it’s mainly the notes from the trials, is a big stack of papers in the corner of her office – “a goldmine”, as she says.


The Anooshe case

One section of the papers is on the so-called Anooshe case in which the Afghan Nasruddin Shamsi shot and killed his wife on the steps of the courthouse in Kristiansund in the Spring of 2002. 25 year-old Anooshe Sediq Ghulam had divorced him and taken with her the couple’s two children. Shamsi had previously been fined for violence against his wife.

During the 20 day long trial in May 2003 Unni Wikan experienced something unusual. She began to feel empathy for the accused. And the thought hit her that even Shamsi – the murderer – needed help and assistance:

– In the Anooshe case I was called as an expert witness, on the initiative of the accused’s defence lawyer. All of my sympathy was with the victim, all my sympathy! But when you are sitting in a courtroom and see and hear the “native”, the accused, then I have to understand, I have to listen. By listening intensively you try to put yourself in the place of the other person. This is not possible without a certain amount of empathy – and you have this whether you want it or not. It’s what the anthropological method is based upon – “to take the native’s point of view”. Fieldwork in the courtroom is so interesting because it makes me try to understand people who I would never have originally chosen to understand.

In Wikan’s opinion what was tragic in the Anooshe case was that Shamsi was overlooked. Social services looked after Anooshe, helped her to get a divorce and to gain custody of the children. She was in a different class from her husband: Shamsi was much less outgoing and self-confident than his wife and he spoke English only poorly, while Anooshe spoke fluent English and quickly learned Norwegian too. The social services did a first class job of helping Anooshe out of a very difficult marriage, characterised by violence; but much indicates that Shamsi became “forgotten” in this process, says Unni Wikan:

- Everybody wants to be noticed. Since men who come from a country such as Afghanistan are used, from home, to having the power and the position they have, it’s also important that the help apparatus learns about how these men can be helped to look after their dignity and masculinity, at the same time as securing the safety of women and children.


The Forced Marriage Case

Along with the Anooshe case Wikan will also analyse the first criminal case on forced marriage in Norway. Wikan was an expert witness both in the criminal court and in the court of appeal. The father and brother of 17 year-old Bakan Honer, originally from Kurdistan in Iraq, received jail sentences of 18 and 12 months respectively for having forced her to marry when she was 15 years old. The daughter had damaged the family’s honour by having a boyfriend. Her family sent her to Iraq to be married to a boy chosen by her uncle. The purpose of the marriage was as a way of restoring the family’s honour. That the daughter’s behaviour was intolerable for the family is due, according to Unni Wikan, to “the Kurds strong internal justice” and “unwritten social rules”.

– Norway is the first country in Europe that has criminalised forced marriage. This created great interest in other countries. Several countries are considering introducing similar legislation. During the trial at the criminal court there was a big turnout of Kurds from other Nordic countries. Additionally, this case shows clearly that what happens in Norwegian courts has transnational influence and consequences for people’s lives in other countries, she says.

– The code of honour that I analysed in the book on the Fadime killing is based on the concept that cases of justice will be resolved outside of the court. If you have not already become dishonoured, then you will be when the details of your private life are made public through a court case, she points out.


Lifeworld instead of culture

Honour is a far-reaching theme that the researcher will investigate under Norwegian conditions.

– As an anthropologist I have been interested in not making the other exotic. I have been interested in creating resonance, recognition and laying out existential problems which all people have in common.

Unni Wikan is best known among anthropologists for her criticism of the term “culture”. In her opinion culture is often used as a replacement for that taboo word, race. The expression creates unnecessary divides between people. She prefers the expression “lifeworld”:

– These people who come to Norway, are not cultures, they are people, they are individuals. Each of them has their own unique individual background. We can understand something of their lives through an understanding of culture and religion. But the term that anthropologist Reidar Grønhaug utilises – lifeworld or experience-world – is better because it embraces so much more than cultural elements. And it is open to the idea that one’s life– and experience-world are always unique.


Working from the bottom up

Unni Wikan does not work in the same manner as many other scholars. During a previous presentation of her project she was criticised for having an “unclear research problem”:

– I see myself as a naturalistically oriented empiricist. I work from the bottom up. I go out into the world and get my research problem from there. My research problem often only becomes clear once I have sat down and began working with material.

– The text has its own life?

– It does. I think it’s exciting that when I begin with a text or analysis, I have no idea where it is going. It’s a process of discovery, like fumbling in the dark and slowly seeing the light. And so it is also with this project. I am so thankful for the grant.

– And so some compulsory questions: What is cultural complexity?

– Cultural complexity means for me that society is made up of individuals and groups who have partially different values, norms, experiences and knowledge and that therefore things can go wrong if we don’t show each other mutual respect. Respect requires knowledge and understanding, such as the Culcom project endeavours to provide.


Ask difficult questions!

– The greatest challenges involved in research on multicultural relations?

– The greatest challenge is to take up the difficult questions: How far does tolerance extend? How can we ensure and protect human dignity for all members of a society? In a multicultural society we have religious freedom, freedom of expression, international conventions etc. etc. But we cannot simultaneously achieve both religious freedom and guarantee equal opportunities. Parents’ rights often come into conflict with the childrens’ rights. Freedom of expression comes into conflict with expressions like “you will not encourage violence”, doesn’t it?

– We are terribly afraid to talk about conflicts. I follow Amartya Sen, the winner of the Nobel prize for economics, who has worked a great deal with chidrens’ and womens’ rights. He has been a great inspiration for me. He said, “We can never get further with securing people’s freedoms without going through conflict”.

– Are researchers ready for conflict?

– Yes, many are nervous, but that is just human. Still, I think that courage is not exactly what characterises much of the Norwegian academic milieu. Here I can quote our dear colleague Reidar Grønhaug who recently died. Concluding in the article “The constitutional state, the multicultural and anthropology” (1997), he writes “The worst that can happen is if we in this our discipline do not dare to take up the critical, difficult questions”.

– Researchers have good reason to be scared. There is a price to pay with taking up unpleasant questions. It can be really tough. But we researchers risk less than those who are members of specific ethnic collectives. It is often said, that it’s not us, it’s the people who are involved who have to take up such causes. But many of us have no idea what it costs them, what they have to risk.

– That sounds like a call for people to become more engaged?

– Yes, it fantastic to be engaged, you get so much from it. We researchers can have a positive influence by gaining knowledge about difficult conditions and reflecting upon it.


Interview: Lorenz Khazaleh 17.2.06. Translation: Matthew Whiting

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Published May 11, 2006 12:00 PM - Last modified Dec 27, 2011 04:25 PM