Shirin Musa was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Netherlands since she was six months old. She is Dutch, she is European. “But I am often asked why she spoke Dutch so well.” That is why when this activist for the rights of women with a “migrant background” explains why it is so difficult for her to raise awareness about what are known as “honour violence”, she in Europe tends to come to racism sooner rather than later. And to the vocabulary that builds us.
Pakistani women against forced marriage: “Who is my cousin to say who to sleep with?”
In fact, he insists that what seems the same from a certain semantic laxity should not be equivalent. Cultural relativism has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity; the adjective immigrant should vanish when one is born in the same place where one resides; the verb integrate should not be applied to those who only have the enormous task of emancipation ahead of them; being European should have nothing to do with the color of the skin or the religion that one professes. However, there is a term that should not allow ambivalence: human rights are one and there is no interpretation for their exercise.
With that meticulousness proceeds Shirin Musa, the founder and leader of Femme for Freedom, the organization she founded in December 2011 after achieving in the Dutch courts what her husband was denying her: a divorce. She was a victim of “marital bondage”, which does not always start with forced marriage but does involve violence against the women who experience it. “Honor violence” and human rights violations against women such as forced marriage, marital bondage, polygamy, honor killing and forced abandonment of women during a family visit abroad are not yet on the front lines of the debates on sexist violence and, therefore, Shirin Musa insists that it is a feminist defense of those women who live in countries with tolerance towards this violence, but also of thousands of European women who suffer it.
“This problem does not belong to Muslims or immigrants, it is a Dutch, Spanish, European problem, because it affects European women here.” Musa recalls that part of the problem is that Europe doesn’t really see women like her as European. “People of the third or fourth generation, since their predecessors arrived in Europe, are still considered foreigners and the policies that exist for them insist on ‘integration’, instead of helping ’emancipation’”. The Dutch activist believes that what is necessary is to exercise rights, have economic autonomy, achieve effective participation in economic, political and social life.
We want to fully exercise our human rights, decide on our bodies, on our affections, on our money. I mean, it’s about emancipation.
“We want to fully exercise our human rights, decide on our bodies, on our affections, on our money. In other words, it is about emancipation, not about taking language courses or job placement. We were born, studied and live here. We are Europeans.” Although Musa speaks calmly, her gesture twists when she recounts the racist exclusions: the terrible anecdote of someone who, even though she is European, is not seen as such by many of her fellow citizens. “Sometimes they tell me: ‘But you don’t look like a Muslim, you’re good.’ And all of this has to do with a view of native Europeans who continue to be obsessed with the first generation of immigrants.”
Musa explains that “the first generation [de inmigrantes] it will never end because it will always be arriving, but we do not have to integrate ourselves into Europe, what we need is to emancipate ourselves”. And that emancipation “is not only from the men of our communities who want to control us, but also from the native Europeans who allow themselves to tell us what it is to be a feminist for a Muslim.” “We have to break many glass walls and ceilings. Internal walls in our communities and glass ceilings that are put on us in Europe”, reflects Musa when she describes the loneliness of the struggle of women of color in Europe. “I have not seen massive marches of native European women – I prefer that term to white women so as not to fall into the same thing as they do to us – in solidarity with the women of Iran or Afghanistan.”
Shirin Musa has arrived in Spain just when the murder of the sisters Arooj and Anessa Abbas in Pakistan in a “crime of honor” became known. “Our feminism is between life and death and that is sometimes not understood.” She lives in captivity and with the misunderstanding of other native European women; death at the hands of men who cannot bear to lose total control over women. “Many of these cases are very difficult to detect because they usually occur in the family environment, the perpetrator is usually from the family. That is why police, judges or health workers must be trained so that they understand this type of violence and thus be able to detect the cases.”
The reality seems to confirm this statement. The Ministry of the Interior of the Government of Spain, for example, has only detected 27 cases of forced marriage in the last seven years; while in Catalonia, where there is a specific protocol on this crime included in the Penal Code since 2015, between 2018 and 2022 it has already been possible to investigate 59 of these marriages against the will of the woman. The reality is much more overwhelming than the records can contain. UN Women estimates that there are some 12 million women and girls on the planet who have been forced to marry against their will.
It’s about violence, not culture. We are not talking about Islamophobia or racism, we are talking about human rights
“This is about violence, not about culture. We are not talking about Islamophobia or racism, we are talking about human rights”, this activist repeats over and over again in conversation with elDiario.es in Cantabria, where she ends a tour that has allowed her to meet with political representatives, activists and even with an Afghan refugee who took advantage of a public talk to later tell him about her ordeal. “This woman, an Afghan refugee in Cantabria, told me how the men of the family continue to decide on all aspects of her life. That is to say, the man can leave Afghanistan, but Afghanistan does not leave him”. Shirin Musa believes that one of the main problems is that in Europe these are considered “immigrant or refugee problems”. “It is not like that, these are national and European problems, these people either already have or will have European citizenship and they are not going to go to their countries of origin.”
That is why he advocates a radical change, not only in legislation, but also in the way of approaching Europe. “Europeans are obsessed with classifying people and leaving us out of the ‘little box’ of Europeans, but that makes any serious action to prevent this violence against women difficult because it places the problem outside, as something of ‘Muslims’, of immigrants” .
The examples that Musa carries with her are real. Malta, a member of the European Union since 2004, did not consider divorce legal until 2011, in the Philippines it remains illegal and marital bondage affects women from Jewish or Gypsy communities. Other associated violence, as the Dutch activist recalls, is also a European problem, such as the obsession with control of the hymen, genital mutilation [la delegación del Gobierno contra la Violencia de Género estimó en 2020 que unas 15.500 niñas entre 0 y 14 años estaban en riesgo de sufrir mutilación genital femenina en España]the kidnapping of girls in the countries of origin of their relatives…
“We should not be afraid to defend our human rights, to fight for emancipation… if we achieve it, we will be happier and we will be able to contribute much more to our societies”, defends Musa who, ultimately, appeals to “European selfishness”. “The smart thing to do in increasingly aging societies would be to welcome immigrants, invest in these men and women, and allow them to fully participate in society and to aspire to something more than integration.” Not doing so, he warns, is paving the way for the extreme right. “In our world it seems that we all feel threatened and in European cities the feeling of fear is immense due to the increase in the proportion of people with a migrant background. The extreme right is not serious, it only shouts, they do not have an electoral program, it is only anti-immigrant. The people who vote for them make me very sad because, really, the far-right parties have no solution to their problems, they only make their fear fat.”
Musa leaves her last meeting in Santander happy. Consuelo Gutiérrez, general director of Equality and Women in Cantabria, confirms that a few hours before a protocol had been signed in Madrid for Spanish embassies to protect citizens of the country who ask for help to escape situations of marital captivity or any type of violence in third countries. “We are going to work so that the Netherlands adopts a similar protocol. Thus, by sharing initiatives and generating networks, with the complicity of women who are in politics, we can change things”. She leaves for Valencia and Madrid and with the desire to return to the south of Europe. “They are friendly and I have not felt the rejection for wearing a scarf that I have lived in Hungary or Poland,” she admits.