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Europe Friday, 10 December, 1999, 19:30 GMT
Young, Norwegian and black
Norwegians pride themselves on an open and egalitarian society - but does that include everyone?
By Hugh Levinson
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Oil-rich Norway is short of engineers, so when Oslo resident Uzma Shaffi qualified in the field she expected no problems finding a job. More than 130 applications later, she is still unemployed. The reason? Uzma, who was born in Pakistan, suspects she's facing an invisible wall of racial discrimination. "Me and my Pakistani friends, we are suffering because we are black," she says.

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Despite being qualified, Uzma Shaffi hasn't found a job
Uzma is apparently not alone. Norway, for decades a beacon of liberalism and tolerance internationally, is now having to confront issues of multiculturalism at home. Only about 3% of the population are black or Asian, but they face considerable problems finding a job equivalent to their skills.

Race relations consultant Ragnar Naess says that although employers are rarely openly discriminatory, most would prefer to employ a white Norwegian over a black or Asian applicant.

Ragnar Naess has uncovered worrying attitudes in Norwegian businesses
He explains that most Norwegians see their society as open and egalitarian, but that they "cannot handle" people who are a different colour or of a different religion. Naess is running a project to heighten racial sensitivity among management at hotels which employ a large number of immigrants as cleaners. The project comes with a pay-off: increased productivity.

Many non-white Norwegians also face discrimination when trying to find housing. Adverts in letting agencies sometimes openly state that the only tenants wanted are white Norwegians. The Centre for Combating Ethnic Discrimination brought a case against one such agency, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court reluctantly ruled that the agency was acting within the law. The centre's head, Akhenaton DeLeon, argues that this decision amounts to a charter to discriminate.

The Norwegian government agrees, and has set up a committee to review the laws on racial discrimination. The human rights minister, Hilde Frajford Johnson, concedes that the government has failed to legislate against racism adequately, partly because immigration is such a recent phenomenon in Norway.

But she faces a more delicate question with a new issue which has galvanised the Norwegian media: forced marriage. A series of television documentaries exposed more than 20 cases of forced marriage involving young Norwegian women from minority backgrounds. In one case, a woman may even have been murdered for refusing her parents' choice of a husband.

In a secret location outside of Oslo, we met a 22-year-old Pakistani-Norwegian who asked to be called Jeanette. She was brought up in Norway but was forced into marriage in Pakistan with a man she had never met, who raped her every night. She fled her marriage - and Pakistan - with the help of the Norwegian Embassy.

"When a girl does what I have done, she brings shame on her family. Pakistani people cannot live with shame," she says. Jeanette believes if her parents found her, they would kill her to erase the shame.

Jeanette is not alone. In the first three weeks of November, four young women sought help from Norwegian embassies abroad, escaping forced marriages. Inside Norway, the self-help organisation SAFE has provided refuge to more than 60 young people in similar situations.

Gerd Fleischer of SAFE
The head of SAFE, Gerd Fleischer, says that number includes people from three continents and also a substantial proportion of young men. She says she was surprised to discover young Norwegians subjected to such a high degree of pressure and violence.

Fakhra Salimi: Norwegian lawmakers might not understand the difference between forced and arranged marriage
But there are fears that the attention given to this issue could be used as a weapon against minority communities. Fakhra Salimi of the MIRA Centre for Black and Asian Women says that the authorities should try and draw a clear distinction between forced marriages - which are wrong - and arranged marriages, which are a venerable cultural tradition. She is worried that Norwegian politicians - especially on the right - will use this debate to restrict immigration through marriage.

Hilde Johnson, the human rights minister. says Norway has no intention of linking the marriage question to immigration. This, she says, would amount to "cultural imperialism on a magnificent scale." She points instead to a new government action plan, outlining methods to prevent the problem and to help victims.

However, she says the action plan will fail unless it is backed up by "intense dialogue" with leaders from the minority communities. That means Norway must send a strong signal. "When it comes to oppressive practices which are illegal according to Norwegian law - and by the way Pakistani law and in the Koran - it should not be accepted. It should be fought."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents, presenter Olenka Frenkiel investigates how the return of the wolf is causing fear and anger in rural areas, and asks whether the Norwegians are really as gloomy as they seem.

Uzma Saffi, Oslo, Nov 99
why am I being refused jobs I'm well qualified for?
Ragnar Naess
explains Norwegian attitudes to race at work
Akhenaton De Leon
on the recent court decision allowing letting agencies to discriminate
outlines Norway's legislation on racism
See also:

24 Nov 97 | Despatches
21 Oct 99 | Business
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