Overlooked Victims Immigrant Men Are Forced to Marry, Too

Stories of Turkish girls forced into arranged marriages in Germany are well known. But hardly anyone talks about the men who are forced into marriage -- sometimes harassed, blackmailed or beaten.

Azad will never forget that day in September 2005. It was the day of his wedding in Stuttgart, but for Azad it was filled with hours of shame. "It's really bad, when you have to force yourself to have sex with a relative," says the 20-year-old Kurd. "It's sick. With my first cousin."

When Azad was 16, his parents informed him that he was to be engaged to a cousin from eastern Anatolia, who was also 16. When he refused, his mother threatened to commit suicide. "You will find me hanging from a rope in the basement," she said. At 17, Azad and the cousin were married in a civil ceremony during a family vacation in Turkey. When he was 18 his bride came to Germany, and ornate wedding invitations were sent out. The wedding ceremony took place in a midrange hotel in southwestern Germany. "It was pure horror," says Azad.

The stories of Turkish girls in Germany who are forced into arranged marriages, beaten and abused, have been told many times. Authors like Necla Kelek and Serap Çileli have described them in detail. But it is largely unknown that many young Muslim men are also forced to marry against their will and subjected to violence at the hands of family members. Hardly any organized assistance programs exist for these men, and many are too ashamed to talk about their fates. Azad, filled with fear and shame, was unwilling to use his real name for this story.

Author Çileli, a victim of forced marriage herself, has been counseling Turkish girls and women since the late 1990s. Çileli and her colleagues at the "Peri Association for Human Rights and Integration" (www.peri-ev.de) provide help and support to people seeking to escape forced marriages. Most are desperate women, but men occasionally turn to the group for help. So far, the youngest has been 16, the oldest 48. Azad was one of them.

'Social Cohesion'

Psychologist Kazim Erdogan established one of the first counseling services for Turkish men in Germany in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood. He's familiar with the problem. "There are also young men who are harassed, blackmailed or beaten by their families," he says.

Some victims are Turks born and raised in Germany who have fallen in with the wrong crowd, becoming involved in drugs, burglaries and gangs. The families, anxious to return their sons to the straight and narrow, find them unblemished women from Anatolia. But no one ever asks the bride's or the groom's opinion.

Sometimes it's the groom who is imported, as an honorable husband for a daughter. The imported groom is virtually powerless to oppose the union, especially with his family at home in Turkey pinning its entire hopes on his future.

Azad's case represents another variation: He was hardly three months old when relatives in Turkey sent the first photographs of his cousin to his parents in Germany. The words "For my fiancé" were written on the back of the photos. "I always thought it was a joke," says Azad, a mechanic by trade.

Cem, a man in his mid-20s, had a similar experience, but because of his German girlfriend he refused to marry his cousin. Author Çileli tells his story.

Under the pretext of going on a vacation, Cem's parents lured their son to the Turkish Black Sea coast, where they took away his passport and pressured him until he signed the marriage contract. When Cem, freshly married, returned to Germany, his girlfriend Julia tried to convince him to flee. But he was unable to make a clean break with his parents. In the end he stayed with the wife and his family.

A study conducted in Berlin found that one in five of 300 Turkish women surveyed married a relative. "This sort of marriage guarantees a close-knit family," says Çileli.

Azad was also pressured by his father, who would tell him: "Son, we must be strong together." Marrying one's cousin means strengthening the family. According to a Turkish saying, "Home-made yoghurt is more digestible than someone else's curdled milk." "Many Germans cannot understand how important social cohesion is for us," says Azad.

'I Don't Want to Marry'

Every Sunday the members of his family -- a total of 40 or 50 people -- congregate at the house of Azad's parents. They sit in the living room on cushions around low tables, and when Azad's father enters the room, everyone stands up. He is the eldest, the authority figure. "The pasha," says Azad.

On one of these Sundays, shortly before his engagement, Azad realized he could no longer stand it all. "The pressure, the expectations, it was too much." He disappeared into the kitchen, where he began to cry. His older sister followed him and asked what was the matter. "I don't want to marry," he said.

In the living room, the family soon realized that something was wrong. Forks were left in oil-soaked rice, the tea became cold. The kitchen gradually filled up with women. Azad's mother walked into the room, fell to the floor and began to wail. Others joined in, huddled together on the tiles of the kitchen floor. Azad, standing among the women, finally said: "All right. I'll do it."

It is not always easy to draw a clear line between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage. "It was always okay with my sister that she was to marry her cousin," says Azad. "But never with me."

Does coercion only come in the form of threats and blows, or does it already apply when people are simply afraid to disappoint their family by not living up to its expectations? "Some would never even hit upon the idea that their parents could make a wrong decision," says psychologist Erdogan.

Azad's family did not use physical violence to force him to marry. His unstable mother's suicide threat was pressure enough. "My father did not beat me," he says, but then he corrects himself. "Well, he did beat me often. Quite severely, in fact. But not directly before the wedding."

Azad agreed to the union with his cousin because it was expected, and because he was unwilling to disappoint his family. "I had tremendous respect for my father," he says. "I didn't want to be a disgrace to him."

The wedding festivities, with 300 invited guests, began cheerfully enough. For the first time, Azad saw his father exuberantly dancing Kurdish dances. "I had such a warm feeling in my heart at that moment," says Azad. "I thought, this just happens to be my fate. There is no other way."

But after being married for a few weeks, it was clear to Azad that it wasn't working. He and his new bride lived in an apartment in his parents' house. Their bedroom was next to the bedroom of the sister and her husband, who happened to be the brother of Azad's wife.

"I went to bed at 9:30 every night so I wouldn't have to sleep with my cousin. Or I went out," he says, "and fooled around with other girls."

Women lack these freedoms. They are forced to sit at home with their in-laws, while the men can embark on minor escapades. And then there is another problem, says Berlin psychologist Erdogan: "Some men take out their frustration on their wives and become violent." The potential for such frustration is especially high among imported grooms, he says.

The grooms are often not ready for life in Europe. With their poor command of the language, they have trouble finding jobs and coping with German bureaucracy. This can cause confusion over social roles. "For some, it is unbearable to receive 'spending money' from their wives and not to be able to fill out a form," says Erdogan.

Exile in Munich

Azad never hit his cousin. Instead, after a few months, he simply left. "I no longer wanted to pretend at home that the world was okay," he says. He had made a few attempted getaways before, but each time he returned. Once, in a homeless shelter, he received the news that his mother was mortally ill. It turned out that she was just feeling faint. Another time, Azad got into "a lot of trouble," as he puts it, and needed his family's help to pay a €15,000 ($19,000) debt of honor. He had slept with a young Kurdish woman. Her family had threatened to kill him. His choice was to pay the family or be the victim of an honor killing. Azad's father, who owns a number of Turkish restaurants, paid the money.

Only when Azad met 18-year-old Laura, through friends, did he finally manage to get away. On an afternoon in May of this year, he simply walked out of the house -- without identification, without cash, without anything. He moved into Laura's tiny apartment in Munich.

"We were so scared that something would go wrong," says Laura, who is blonde and works as a saleswoman. "Scared to death," he says. "Who knows how badly my father would have flipped out if he had found us."

The two are now sitting, holding hands, in front of the City Lounge on Karlsplatz Square in Munich. Azad is still married, "but only on paper," he says. "It's over." He's wearing the clothes he had on when he left his parents' house -- jeans, a black jacket, Nike sneakers. He has few other clothes.

"We are in the process of getting things together, bit by bit," says Laura. Azad began working for a temp agency a few days ago. "Things are coming together," he says, "slowly but surely."

In the meantime, Azad has spoken with his sister on the phone. "My father will never speak to me again, that's clear," he says. "But maybe my relationship with my siblings will sort itself out." He says he could forgive the rest of his family, but never his father. "All they did was obey him."

The 20-year-old has no immediate plans to get divorced. For one thing, the documents he needs are in a drawer at his family's house in Stuttgart. For another, he doesn't have the money. "Besides, I can't do that to my cousin. It isn't her fault that all of this happened," he says. "Returning to Anatolia as a divorced woman would be a disgrace for her."

Did Azad feel his cousin was attractive or nice? "Oh, she's fine," he says. "And she's really good-looking. Great hair and all that." Then he places his hand on Laura's arm and says: "My sister is beautiful, too. But I still don't want to have sex with her."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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