At school, we would compare who had bruises and who had been beaten, even with my Danish friends. I was not the only one having trouble at home.”
Khaterah Parwani is talking about growing up in Urbanplanen, a marginalised housing project on Amager. She moved there at the age of three with her family after they fled Afghanistan as refugees.
It’s a story she has told plenty of times before, and it explains how she ended up in her line of work – 33-year-old Parwani is spokesperson and legal consultant at EXITcirklen, which fights social control and psychological violence through conversation support groups.
We meet in their Copenhagen offices, just off the walking street, Strøget. I take my shoes off and walk across the carpeted floor to one of the wooden tables, lit by a low hanging lamp. It’s a calm space, a sanctuary compared to the thrumming hustle of shoppers outside. That is, until EXITcirklen founder, Sherin Khankan, bursts into the room with some colleagues in tow.
Across the table, Parwani shushes Khankan, eliciting laughter, before continuing to explain how EXITcirklen functions. In five locations across Denmark, they bring together women suffering from psychological violence and social control. In groups of no more than ten, the women share their experiences and receive legal help and support from the organisation’s 40 volunteers. 70 percent of the women being served are ethnic Danes.
“We had a case of a mother who weighed her daughter every day and controlled her food because they lived in a high-class society – that’s a type of psychological violence. And then we have a girl who is in a relationship with a criminalised man who has tried to isolate her completely to protect his honour,” says Parwani.
She is now developing an offshoot of the programme, called EXITmentor, which works one-on-one with at-risk individuals, offering them specific support and guidance based on their personal circumstances. The project received 680,000 kroner in funding earlier this year through the Satspulje, an annual government fund that finances labour market, health and social sector initiatives to assist marginalised citizens.
Parallel communities, Islamic extremism and the low labour market participation of refugees and minorities are frequent talking points of Integration Minister Inger Støjberg. So she really ought to celebrate EXITcirklen and EXITmentor, since these integration programmes tackle social control and promote the independent living and labour market participation of minorities in particular.
And yet, she and other right-wing politicians have actively tried to prevent the organisation from receiving Satspulje funding. This year, two million kroner was set aside for projects to combat social control, and it was this category of funding that EXITcirklen successfully applied for.
But in a June email that was leaked to Berlingske newspaper, Støjberg wrote to parties in Parliament to argue that the pool should be reallocated given that EXITcirklen was its only applicant. There were other pools of funding that received a single applicant, however, which Støjberg did not demand to be reallocate.
Berlingske also revealed that three right-wing MPs had tried to lobby left-wing parties to revoke EXITcirklen’s funding, though this time the criticism was of a more personal nature. A letter from Conservative (Konservative) MP Naser Khader, Liberal Party (Venstre) MP Marcus Knuth, and Danish People’s Party MP (DF) Martin Henriksen argued that the women at the helm of the organisation were not fit to receive the money.
They accused Khankan of defending punishment by whipping and excluding men from her mosque, and Parwani of defending the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT) and speaking “condescendingly about society”.
The letter was broadly condemned after its publication. Parwani is a well-known figure in the Danish press, writing on integration, poverty and feminism, and it was she that first revealed her short-lived flirtation with HUT. Her supposedly ‘condescending’ attitude has won her fans across the political spectrum and media establishment, and in 2015, she won the Suzanne Giese Memorial Grant for her work promoting feminist issues.
Sherin Khankan established EXITcirklen in 2014, and is a religious scholar and practicing Muslim who is critical of fundamentalist teachings. She is also a female imam at the Mariam Mosque in defiance of the patriarchal structures that, she argues, are embedded in Islamic practices, and the only imam in Denmark to perform interreligious weddings. In an op-ed for Religionen.dk, she wrote, “I am against any type of death penalty and barbaric method of punishment, regardless of its political or religious origin.” She is now suing Khader, Knuth and Henriksen for defamation.
Khader later expressed regret about the letter, and argued that it should have focussed on Khankan and Parwani’s apparent lack of expertise in the field. And yet, the civil service clearly saw things differently when it approved their application for funding, based in part on the women’s experience working with both local and national authorities.
So what’s going on?
A week after Berlingske published the leaked letter, Parwani took to the stage of the Bremen Theatre with three other women, Geeti Amiri, Natasha Al Hariri and Halime Oguz. As women with minority backgrounds, each possesses a distinct voice in the Danish media. They haven’t always agreed, so the show at the Bremen was meant to present a united front in addressing feminist issues that affect women like them.
After the show, Parwani was approached by the former Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
“She told me that I need to send champagne and flowers to Naser Khader. She said, ‘Now I am following you, but I didn’t know who you were before’. That’s been our experience – everyone we have worked with on integration projects has contacted us about working together again.”
EXITcirklen has evidently benefited from the recent publicity, with major newspapers reporting on their work and talking to women who say the organisation has saved their lives.
But Parwani isn’t surprised to have been targeted, given her outspoken views on discrimination towards Muslims in Danish society and on ineffective integration programmes that receive public funding.
“I see a structural problem with hiring academics to try and make changes they know nothing about. They don’t use local resources or the minorities in the local societies. I have criticised that a lot. I think what’s different about our project is that minorities are represented. I think that’s important,” she says.
So is Parwani qualified to work with issues of social control and psychological violence, and offer legal advice to immigrants and asylum seekers navigating the Danish system? Her story begins when she arrived in Denmark as a three-year-old with a father prone to violent outbursts.
“We have the best relationship now – I love my father. But he brought the culture from Afghanistan to Denmark. For him, it was normal to have communication problems with his wife and to use a lot of violence. He used it as a tool to raise his children because that is normal in Afghan culture,” she says.
“Then one day he was really angry with me and was about to hit me, and when he raised his hand I said, ‘It’s really amazing that a poet like you, who knows a lot of words and is really good at saying how he feels, needs to beat me every time you get mad’. At first, I thought he was going to go berserk, but later he called me down and said, ‘I am sorry, you are right. I am going to change starting today’. And he did.”
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While her father never raised his hand to his wife or children again, her own transition took a little longer.
“My father might have stopped being violent, but I continued it on the streets. I was very violent as a young person in my 20s. I was still troubled, despite mentoring other young women. I stopped when I got into a relationship with a young Afghan man who was very, very violent – so violent that I ended up in the hospital. When I began my relationship with my current boyfriend, it was the first period of my life that I lived without violence.”
The women she was mentoring were fellow Afghan refugees that she helped in her late teens and early 20s. Some had experienced similar episodes of violence, as well as difficulty entering the labour market despite having taken a post-secondary education.
This work made her aware of the discrimination and hate crimes directed at the Muslim minority, which she believed were both under-reported and under-prioritised in the legal system. So she abandoned her studies in design to study law while volunteering at the anti-discrimination legal organisation DRC.
“There is a taboo in the public debate. We can talk about hate crimes against Jews and LGBTQ people, but the minute we talk about the Muslim minority and their experience wearing headscarves, it gets really hard. Politicians won’t speak about it, and it’s a huge problem. It’s part of the political culture we have. For the past five years, we have seen that it’s okay to attack the Muslim minority – just look at the way we have been treated. I am not even religious. I have had a half-Jewish, half-Ahmadiya-Muslim boyfriend for ten years. But still, just the fact that I have roots in a Muslim country, they use that to try to paint a different picture of me. Martin Henriksen even said that you can’t trust Muslims because ‘they speak with two tongues’.”
At this stage, it’s uncontroversial to suggest that there is a generalised mistrust of Danes of Muslim descent among right-wing politicians and media. It’s also well-established that non-Western immigrants are a net cost to the state and are overrepresented in criminal statistics. Parwani is tired of hearing that these struggles are embedded in the group’s religious teachings, which supposedly encourage segregation and the formation of parallel cultures. But while Parwani argues that their struggles aren’t unique to Muslims as a group, cultural norms do play a role.
“Seventy percent of the women who come to our discussion groups are ethnic Danes. This shows that psychological violence is a universal problem. But there are also structural, cultural and religious norms that we have to think about. When you have a Muslim girl who sees it as necessary to come to a crisis centre, she has no one to support her. Danish girls have their friends and family. That’s a huge difference. Muslim women are more accepting if their husband controls them, or puts a set of values or rules over them and says these are your limits, and uses religion or something else,” she says, adding that culture also plays a role in the Copenhagen gang war.
“We know from research about the biker gang community that young guys who flirt with the community tend to have a past that includes socioeconomic problems and dysfunctional parents. But when it comes to gangs made up of young men with minority backgrounds, it’s not the same. They tend to have a strong background. But what’s interesting is that many of them grew up with violence at home, and when you accept violence at home, it’s easy to accept these gangs – that’s the tipping point, accepting violence as a tool to attain your goals.”
Parwani only really ‘discovered’ Denmark in her 20s. She spent her youth in Urbanplanen cut off from middle-class children, her family unable to afford the cost of after-school programmes. When she was admitted to law school at Copenhagen University, she attended only a few classes before deciding to just study at home.
“I felt so excluded. I was embarrassed to sit beside these students wearing expensive clothes. I felt like a ‘perker’ for the first time in my life,” she says, using the derogatory term for a Middle Eastern immigrant.
She found a study group of fellow Danes with minority backgrounds that she felt more comfortable with. Looking around the cafeteria, she says, she could pick out the different socio-economic groups that clustered together.
But this segregation has roots that are deeper than mere culture. Housing policies, for example, have grouped many immigrants into city suburbs that have become marginalised communities over the past two decades. It wasn’t the minorities and refugees who chose to create these isolated housing communities, she argues.
She brings up Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, a prominent Danish journalist about her age, who arrived in Denmark with his family the same year as she did. But while her family was sent to Urbanplanen, his was sent to live in a middle-class area of Middelfart, on Funen.
“His parents remind me a lot of my own, but because they lived in a completely different neighbourhood, with high resource neighbours, his years in Denmark were completely different than mine. We are friends today and talk a lot about it. You can compare our stories in many ways, but it means a lot who lives around you and can influence you every single day. I had to tell my father not to beat me. But imagine if he lived in Middelfart, and his neighbours could tell him that from day one. We would have had another life. In Urbanplanen, no one told my father.”
Mahmoud is another member of a growing generation of minority Danes in public debate. This development has been a long time in the making, and Parwani feels it is long overdue. She points out that until now, organisations that represented minorities were still managed by ethnic Danes. This is changing, not only with the increasing number of minority voices in the media, but also in their representation in civil society – Mahmoud is chairman of the board of Mino, a new organisation that represents and engages minorities in Denmark.
“We hadn’t really heard from the Muslim minority until now. We now have these different voices fighting for equality – but we want to lead our fight ourselves and represent ourselves. We don’t need a white woman or a Dane to lead us,” she says.
Parwani also worries that the debate about minority rights and representation can be too focussed on social, rather than economic, discrimination.
“We can be inspired by Danish feminists. Danish women focus on equal pay, and we need to do that too – we don’t always need to focus on discrimination. We also need to fight against social economic structures,” says Parwani, adding that cuts to unemployment benefits are designed to hit minority communities hardest. She points to Geeti Amiri, who has written about her own escape from social control and the struggle to assert her independence from an Afghan family.
“We need to speak to them about what happens when a family doesn’t have enough money. This is important. I think that Geeti – even though she doesn’t know it and doesn’t speak about it – is a good example of what happens when you grow up in that socioeconomic layer. We need to be inspired by the Danish women.”
Tackling economic inequality and poverty, as well as social control and violence in families, will go a long way to addressing the integration issues that Denmark faces, argues Parwani. But first, the government needs to discard the notion that immigrants must abandon their social and cultural heritage before they can be fully accepted as Danes.
“It’s just so stupid. If you always talk about Danishness as something that is better than other cultures and religions, then of course you will have a problem,” she says, adding that the assimilationist agenda is built on an anxiety that foreign cultures threaten and undermine Danish values.
“I don’t understand this anxiety. Freedom of speech and other freedoms found in our constitution are nothing new to me. They were things that my Afghan father taught me when he raised me. They are not strictly Danish values.” M