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Multiculturalism, Autonomy and the Law [website]

Forced Marriage and Exclusion from Marriage as Contested Legal Fields in the UK, Austria and Turkey

Multiculturalism, Autonomy and the Law aims at ...

This research project was concerned with questions regarding "forced marriage and exclusion from marriage" in the context of multicultural societies. The project’s starting point has been the observation that debates on the tensions between multiculturalism and feminism often rely on simplified assumptions regarding the relationship between gender equality and diversity. Focusing on the controversial field of marriage (by the example of marriage and exclusion from marriage) should enable finding alternative methods for contemplation. The production of relevant discourses in particular should thereby not remain unquestioned. How can liberal approaches and claims for sexual autonomy eschew ethnocentric points of view? How are experts describing the fields of forced and same-sex marriage? How are minorized and established groups dealing with the topics of partner selection and sexuality? Which legal discourses exist in the context of autonomy and marriage?


First, there is no judicature available concerning the annulment of forced marriages in Austria. Accordingly, the issue of consent in this field remains underexposed. The cooperation between social anthropology, law, and political philosophy enabled theoretical analyses, expert interviews, ethnographic field studies, as well as an analysis of the political and legal discourse to be carried out. The integration of university courses into the research project generated more than 80 expert interviews. For the analysis of the legal discourse, guided interviews as well as case and document analyses were realized. The ethnographic field study took place in an Austrian small town and encompassed expert interviews, ethnographic talks, participant observation and document analyses. The study was partly aimed at comprehending the handling and controversy of sexuality, relationships and marriage, but partly also the backgrounds of demarcations and relationships among dominant and minorized groups.

The cities included into the analysis are Amsterdam, Bielefeld, Lisbon, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Vienna. The selection of these cities was based on their metropolitan character and their countries’ specific histories of immigration and political frameworks. The immigrants included in the research are identified by their place of birth. The research is thus focused on the so-called first generation. The sending countries included in the research are Turkey (Amsterdam, Bielefeld, Stockholm and Vienna), Morocco (Amsterdam and Stockholm), Serbia (Bielefeld and Vienna) and Cape Verde (Lisbon and Rotterdam). Besides, in Lisbon immigrants with an Indian (Hindu) ethnic and religious background, mostly from former Portuguese colonies in Africa, are included in the research Per city around 600 questionnaires were collected, which resulted in a database of approximately 3,300 cases. Cities under study in the following countries:

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Selected research findings

In legal respect, the normative matrix of the topics of forced marriage and exclusion from marriage was investigated and expert interviews with legal practitioners and institution representatives were conducted. A picture of the legal discourse (both on a normative level and on the level of legal practice) could be drawn accordingly. Interviews with experts from NGOs and institutions clarified the fields of tension concerning the discourses on forced marriage and parallels could be drawn to the theoretical debates within political philosophy. A comparison with Great Britain and Turkey showed as well how discourses are reliant upon the political context and which boundaries and depreciations are carried out in the process.

The field study carried out in an Austrian small town showed how “culture” can be used for the purpose of demarcation and hence also the role which topics such as sexuality, choice of partner and gender equality are playing. The reflection concerning "minorities within minorities" yielded an engagement with the situation of sexual minorities that are part of ethnically or culturally marked minorities. Concepts of intersectionality, such as the discussion about multicultural and queer objectives enabled focusing on a topic, which is often neglected in the multiculturalism/gender equality debates. The results should above all contribute to a critique on the current discourse and offer a new discussion frame, acknowledging both majorities and minorities as “cultural“ and including their relationships in the investigation of violence in the context of minorities. Hence, it can be avoided that violence is viewed as a cultural essence of minorities and that combating it contributes to a discursive depreciation of minorities that are perceived as homogenous. Moreover it could be demonstrated, that “autonomy”, although being an essential moment in the debates concerning “forced marriage and exclusion from marriage”, may none the less not simply be associated with majorities, just as it may not be assumed as non-existent for minorities without further research. Even in a social situation with limited autonomy, the ability to act should be reflected and represented. This can be achieved by means of a complex definition of autonomy, focusing on its conditions. Given the empirical results it seems equally important to suggest the significance of a “critical relativism”. This weak form of relativism serves to observe details, cultural differences, as well as similarities in the demarcation and attribution processes within and among minorities and majorities, instead of deriving generalizing patterns of violence from individual cases. Cultural differences can thereby be broached beyond essentialisms (enabling specific measures to be taken against certain forms of violence) and violence can be identified as a continuum in-between these differences (visualizing the commonness in the experiences of violence). The critique refers both to social and gender-specific power structures. The measures proposed by other studies are not dismissed, but extended and revaluated based on a critique of the current debate.


Policy recommendations

The study results serve the critical reflection on multiculturalism in three respects: 1. On a theoretical level the meanings of autonomy, culture and exile in the debates concerning diversity and gender equality are revaluated. 2. On the level of controversial expert positions it is shown how the discourse is shaped into forced and undesirable forms of marriage and how numbers, cases and claims come into being in this context. These results call for an intensive reflection in regards to the consequences of legal and social interventions. 3. In conclusion, by means of a presentation of everyday discourses and social practices alongside dominant and subordinate structures, it is demonstrated that rigid mutual attributions regarding culture and “cultural fundamentalisms” are opposed to a dynamical approach to sexuality, relationships and marriage.