In 2019, the MiRA Resource Center for black, immigrant and refugee women celebrates its 30th anniversary. In this book we have compiled a selection of key topics that the Center has been working on over these last three decades. The book represents the voices of racialised minority women and they tell their stories from their own perspectives. The term racialised minority women is used to acknowledge the fact that the barriers women, who have roots in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, face in Norway are embedded in the historical and contemporary racial prejudice of society and are not a product of these women’s own identities or shortcomings.
This book covers a wide range of issues from legal security to discrimination in the labour market and violence against women. Women migrants who enter Norway through family reunion, often lack independent legal status. Their rights are dependent on the rights of their spouses who are either Norwegian citizens or hold a permanent residence permit. Women can apply for independent legal status and a permanent residence permit after three years of residence in Norway. In case of separation or divorce, migrant women face the threat of being deported. Their insecure legal status forces many women to stay in violent relationships. The MiRA Resource Center has actively been fighting against the three-year rule but unfortunately the rules have been made even stricter over the past several years. It’s not just the three-year rule alone, but the migrant spouse must have a job and a certain amount of income before they can apply for an independent residence permit. There is a provision that women who are victims of violence can be exempted from the three-year rule. However, the practice shows that the burden of proof is often on the victim and many women are afraid to apply while still in a relationship due to the fear that their applications might be rejected by the authorities.
Exclusion from the labour market and issues of economic independence are discussed throughout the book as these are an important part of the everyday struggle for most racialised minority women. Many factors contribute to this exclusion; education, formal competence and the lack of work experience. One of the factors, supported by research, is the negative attitude of employers towards minorities. Surveys show that if you have a “foreign-sounding” name, the chances of being called in to a job interview are 25% lower than normal. Research also shows that highly educated women of minority backgrounds face systematic discrimination in the workplace. Women who use headscarves experience direct discrimination both in employment processes, as well as from colleagues and management at their workplace.
The stories in this book illustrate that regardless of ethnic or regional differences, racialised minority women have a common struggle against gender discrimination and exclusion from mainstream institutions of power such as political and economic institutions. It’s a multi-dimensional struggle, not only within the family against patriarchal gender relations, but also in the larger society against marginalization, stereotypes and racial prejudices. Being a minority and being subject to racism and gender discrimination binds women together and forms the core of their everyday struggle for equality.
The Afro-American singer Ruth Reese was a black woman pioneer in the fight against racism and stereotypes from the late 1960s in Norway. Reese came to Norway for the first time in 1956 on a music tour. She fell in love with a Norwegian man and moved permanently to Oslo in 1958. In the United States, Reese was a civil rights activist, and if she saw stereotypes and discrimination against minorities in her own environment, her clear call was – do something about it!
Ruth Reese wrote a book about her life and experiences in Norway in the 1980s where she told about her struggle for recognition, both as an artist and as a human being. She eventually became a known figure in Norwegian cultural life, and spoke about the widespread stereotypes about African Americans, especially in the arts and in cultural environments.
Reese wrote, among other things, that she appreciated visiting Chat Noir (the performance hall), but she observed many prejudices among the artists. She highlighted one particular incident in her book My Way when she went to see a performance. She wrote that “during the performance five ridiculous clowns with black faces and thick lips came to the stage spitting and singing (Reese, 1985. 147).” This was supposed to be a parody of the Deep River Boys, which was a popular group in Norway at that time. Reese felt offended by the stereotypes of black people and wanted to leave the theatre in protest. At the same time, she was anxious that her Norwegian husband and their Norwegian friends might not understand her reaction. She thus remained seated in the hall throughout the performance.
However, Reese discussed the issue later with her husband who agreed with her observations. When they were invited to Chat Noir for another performance, they had hoped that they would not experience the same gross stereotypes again but unfortunately the same ting happened again. Reese formulated her criticism of stereotypical representations of blacks in Norwegian television, at the stage, and on other cultural arenas, in her writings. She asked why some people found it so entertaining to see white people painting themselves as blacks and acting weird in cultural life. In response to her criticism, she was faced with comments that she was oversensitive.
Ruth Reese became engaged with the MiRA Center. For us she was a role model and a guide in the struggle against racism and gender equality. In the late 1960s, an increasing number of Asian and North Africans came to Norway but the stereotypical image of minorities continued to exist in Norwegian public space. Now, Pakistani, Turkish, and Moroccan women among others, were described specially by Norwegian media as being bound by tradition, generally illiterate and primarily housewives, all in need of help to be integrated into Norwegian society.
Negative media representations
The MiRA Center has monitored media representations of racialised minority women for over three decades now. We have observed that the mainstream media in Norway is mostly interested in sensational issues, particularly issues related to female genital mutilation, forced marriages, Islam or cultural conflicts. A very small proportion of all newspapers choose positive angles and give varied representations of racialised minority women in their coverage.
The negative representations are further reinforced by excluding women’s voices from the public debate, so that stereotypical images are often left unchallenged. The issues related to immigration and racism are usually commented on by men, mainly ethnic Norwegian men, but also in some cases by men with racialised minority backgrounds. Although minority women are given some space to discuss so-called “women’s issues”, such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage, it is still very common for ethnic Norwegian experts and commentators to analyse and comment the issues on behalf of minority women.
Despite the fact that media coverage has improved over the past thirty years, a stereotypical representation of racialised minority women still dominates. When the media creates and maintains certain negative stereotypes over individuals or groups, this has an unfortunate impact on society as a whole, and on the Norwegian population’s understanding of minorities.
Challenging negative representations of racialised minority women in the media has been a difficult task. As the director of MiRA Center, I have been often in the media and have been interviewed by many journalists from large and small Norwegian newspapers, as well as radio and television. I have discussed many important issues with these journalists. In several cases, the journalists had already decided in advance what comment they wanted from me, and it was challenging to bring in a different perspective than what the journalist thought I should say. They often ask leading questions and it is difficult to give a balanced view. When you are asked to answer yes or no, it is a struggle to convey opinions other than those that prevail among the majority population. Racialised minority women have little power to influence or define the agenda or the context of the news.
In this book, we meet women who tell us about challenges with oppressive traditions in their own environments, but also speak of institutionalised racism and gender discrimination in Norwegian society. The stories highlight what it is like to handle multiple challenges related to being a woman and belonging to a minority at the same time. Listening to the women’s own experiences and thus better understanding their complex situation is important both in a gender equality perspective, but also in an anti-racist integrational perspective.
The women’s struggles internationally have been an important source of inspiration for us at the MiRA Center, and experiences from this have shown that economic independence alone is not enough to create real gender equality. As long as patriarchal racist structures that suppress both women and minorities are not challenged in their core, we do not achieve real equality. Continuous reforms that will change some discriminatory practices are important, but a lasting change in society only happens by changing the structures that maintain discrimination. The MiRA Center has therefore always believed in a holistic gender equality policy, which also includes the Immigration Act. One of the basic demands for us as equality advocates has been that racialised minority women must become financially, but also legally independent of men. Combating the three-year rule and the income requirement for permanent residence permit in the Immigration Act, together with other statutory barriers for racialised minority women’s independence, have therefore been central issues for the MiRA Center.
In this book we have summarized a few experiences of women’s struggle in some selected areas. They navigate through a complicated system of integration to access their rights. Women’s stories illustrate how they face discrimination because of the colour of their skin, their choice of clothes or having a different name. It is often hard to address issues such as racism and Islamophobia or voice criticism of structural discrimination. The criticism violates the belief in a system that many Norwegians have high confidence in, and which many believe ensures equality and equal opportunities for all women and men. The widespread self-understanding and belief that Norway is an “equality country” makes it more difficult to discuss and investigate structural mechanisms that limit the equality and rights of racialised minority women.
Integration should basically be about equal rights, opportunities and empowerment. It is a continuous process and racialised minority women’s experiences must be used as a compass to investigate whether integration policies have been successful in giving women real opportunities. This book is an effort to make the everyday struggle of racialised minority women visible and to raise awareness about the complexity of their lives. Older generations could be role models and an inspiration for young women who want to continue the gender equality struggle, with an understanding of what it means to be Norwegian and at the same time a minority. this,”mousewhee