Last month I represented ICS at the Global Youth Volunteers Forum in the picture-postcard German city of Augsberg. It’s unusual in that half its population are migrants.
I was spending time with HEROES, a charity that’s been tackling ‘honour cultures’ in young men for the last six years by educating them about equality and training them to educate others. I was looking forward to seeing how they’re dealing with the issue in a German context.
At home, I work for a charity called Savera UK, where we support those in danger of – or fleeing from – honour-based abuse. We raise awareness among black and minority ethnic communities to change attitudes towards honour-based abuse and other harmful practices like forced marriage.
“They say Islam isn’t part of Germany”
I spoke with two graduates of the project, Robin and Hayati. Robin comes from an Iranian background and Hayati from a Turkish. They both have experience of honour-based attitudes from their family and community members.
We get talking about the recent election success for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Just weeks before, AfD secured third place, due in part to the increasing success of their anti-Islamic rhetoric and criticism of national leader Angela Merkel’s policy on migrants.
“They say that Islam is not a part of Germany,” Robin tells me. “It is a very hard way of thinking. Islam has been a part of Germany for a long time and we all feel that.”
A common misconception with honour-based abuse – and with Europe’s increasing anti-migrant sentiment – is mistaking religion with cultural tradition.
“We always try and prevent a discussion in our workshops about religion because it’s like a wall – ‘that’s what my religion says’. You don’t want to be the guy accusing their religion,” said Hayati.
“What we try and work on instead is the social construct of honour, of conformity and of hierarchy. Maybe religion is just one way to legitimise it and perpetuate it through generations.
“We want to deconstruct the social context behind honour. Power relies on the social system of different power relations. Our approach is to destabilise these ideas and be more open to different ways of practicing equality.”
I’ve been forced to question what it means to be a man
HEROES’ approach is preventative. Steve, the team leader, explains that their work centres on educating young men and empowering them to raise awareness in the wider community before the negative impacts of honour occur.
“Honour killings and forced marriage are the tip of the iceberg. We have to look below this and think about what is the structure making this possible – that is what we like to work with.”
A combination of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, collectivism, rigid family codes of honour and strict gender roles all ensure that ‘honour’ cultures continue to exist.
As part of the programme, Robin and Hayati take weekly two hour workshops for a year. Covering a range of topics from identity, role models and virginity, the idea is to provoke discussion and deconstruct ideas about the causes of honour-based abuse.
Robin tells me that addressing his perceptions of toxic masculinity has been a personal objective. “I’ve had to ask myself, what does it mean to be a man? Through the project we look into different ways of expressing anger, such as talking over violence.”
Forming their own attitudes towards women
Young men like Robin and Hayati are at a fundamental stage in their life where they’re forming their own social identities for the first time. The workshops are crucial in questioning the social structures and ideas they hold and opening their minds to other approaches.
“We try and ask and keep asking to the point where we are asking the obvious. This is our aim,” Steve tells me. “They were raised with the concept of ‘honour’ and were never taught to question it.”
Towards the end of my time with Robin and Hayati, I watch them perform a role play depicting a controlling father pressuring his son to monitor the behaviour of his sister with other boys.
Steve’s keen to delve deeper into the theme of gender equality through HEROES. He’s interested in how honour disproportionally affects women – particularly in terms of how their relationships and sexual behaviour is policed.
As a woman, I felt refreshed and reassured not only to hear men being so open about gender inequality – but also being so proactive in challenging it in their communities.
“Women and girls are much more controlled than the boys. If a young boy has a girlfriend, it’s much more accepted than if a young girl has a boyfriend,” Steve tells me.
“The pressure on the girls and control can lead to honour killings, for example, or forced marriage. But why is there a different view of men and women? It is very important to discuss with young people and open their minds about this.”
How to engage the community
But it’s not just about changing the minds of people on the programme. Progress in tackling honour-based abuse in the long run comes through community engagement.
At the end of the year, the HEROES apprentices will graduate from the programme and embark on a study trip to prepare to deliver their own workshops to groups of mixed-gender young people aged 14-25.
Young people are the generation shaping the future of cultural traditions and are ultimately the ones who hold the power in whether inequality is upheld or challenges and changed.
The charity I work for, Savera UK, are working with young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to raise awareness of honour-based abuse through training sessions – but also supporting them to create their own events and campaigns around the issues they feel passionate about.
They’ve produced an interactive film called #StopTheWedding. It’s following a girl called Hanna, 16, who’s reached the legal age to be married but she’s not old enough to choose who to marry. She’s being forced to marry against her will and telling her story through Instagram.