A Danish minister has caused outrage among the Muslim minority for suggesting imams and community leaders should publicly support the “right” to have sex before marriage for women.
Mattias Tesfaye, foreign affairs and integration minister, said in a Facebook post last month, after meeting with some Muslim leaders: “I asked them very directly if they would say out loud and clear in public that Muslim women, of course, have the right to sex before marriage just like all other women.”
In an editorial in the Danish paper, Dagbladet Information, also published in October, Tesfaye wrote: “I hear that some Muslim women fear that they will not bleed on the wedding night. They are afraid of being beaten because the family expects them to be virgins on the wedding night.
“It is your life and your choice. Do not let yourself be ruled by either imams or outdated norms.”
Hediye Temiz, who at 22 is one of the youngest city council members in Denmark, in the city of Albertslund, said Tesfaye’s approach was misguided.
“He wants to solve (Muslim women’s) problems, but I think the way he tries to solve it isn’t the right way,” said Temiz, adding that she joined politics because she was frustrated with the way Muslims were talked about by politicians in Denmark.
Meanwhile, Halima El Abassi, who advises the Danish government as the chairwoman of the Council of Ethnic Minorities, said Muslim women should decide for themselves and not be spoken about as though they do not have agency.
“It should be the girl’s own decision,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s not the imam’s decision or the minister of foreign affairs’ decision.”
Tesfaye, in recent months, has increasingly targeted subjects regarding Muslim women in Denmark, which culminated in a new campaign launched on November 14 by the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration, aimed at women from minority backgrounds.
El Abassi features in one of three campaign videos, talking about the negative effect of her arranged marriage.
Tesfaye has previously claimed Denmark is witnessing a “comprehensive war of independence”, where young women live in “invisible prisons”, in forced or violent marriages, part of what he terms “negative social control”.
He has promised a number of bills in the coming weeks to address; classifying “negative social control” as psychological violence, the bills seek to punish imams with up to three years in prison if they produce “religious divorce contracts according to sharia [Islamic] rules”, a government press release stated.
Another proposal seeks to criminalise religious preachers or parents of minors – those under the age of 18 – if they carry out the marriage of the child, but this is already illegal in Denmark.
Imams who are not Danish citizens also face the risk of deportation.
Last week, Tesfaye, condemned a financial aspect of Muslim marriages, saying they trap women in violent marriages and saddle young men with debt.
In Islam, the mahr, or dowry, is paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage. It is often money but can be jewellery or other items, and is seen as a form of protection or insurance for the wife.
“Today there are thousands of women who are in the middle of a freedom struggle,” Tesfaye said in a press release. “And we do this to help those women.”
Temiz, who broke off her engagement a year ago, returned the mahr to her ex-fiance.
She sees Tesfaye’s position as intrusive.
“It shouldn’t be in government control, what I’m going to have as the mahr,” she said, explaining that Tesfaye assumes all Muslim women in the country are being oppressed.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Tesfaye’s office said: “It must not be the case that dowries keep women in marriages against their will, if it is required that the money must be repaid in case of a divorce. Moreover it can also cause problems for the man who may have difficulty raising so much money.”
For Amani Hassani, sociologist and research coordinator at the Center for Danish Muslim Relations (CEDAR), the proposals are alarming.
“It’s presented as a government needing to liberate these women,” she told Al Jazeera, “The old Orientalist trope of … brown women being oppressed by their brown men and needing us to save them from that.”
She added that Muslim women view the mahr as “an important right when entering an Islamic marriage contract because it provides the woman with something that is solely hers.”
“Giving up this right is her decision to make, it should not be dictated by her family nor society,” she added.
Muslim women often seek religious counsel in matters of marriage and divorce.
If passed, Tesfaye’s bill could see some religious leaders prosecuted, even those who simply provide counsel, said Hassani.
“This is … a way for the government to reduce the Muslim community’s rights,” Hassani said. “It’s a way of allowing the government and the state to surveil the Muslim community.”
El Abbasi, the government adviser, said while Muslims should recognise the problems associated with wedding-related debt and forced marriages, “you have to solve the problems in the right context.”
In the case of the mahr, she said: “You can’t make laws to regulate these things.”
“No male, either from the Danish society or the society where they come from, decide for them (women) what to do.”
But Muslim women in the public eye such as Temiz take a harder line on Tesfaye’s rhetoric.
“I think that there’s a lot of Muslim girls and women in Denmark (who have) had enough of this talk from the minister,” she said. “I just hope that this bill won’t do anything worse for Muslims.”