Hege Storhaug: Fighting for Human Rights in Norway

Many Americans have now heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken Somali-born Dutch politician and writer – now living in Washington, D.C. – who has stood up bravely for the rights of women and children and for the preservation of secular freedoms in an increasingly fundamentalist Muslim Europe.

Fewer have heard of Hege Storhaug, who for many years has been fighting the same fight in Norway.  She is co-founder and information director of Human Rights Service, a non-partisan think tank in Oslo that studies problems arising out of Norway’s ethnic and religious diversity – especially those affecting Muslim women and children whose rights are denied to them by the imams and family patriarchs that run their communities – and proposes policy changes.  HRS, which Storhaug founded with her partner, Rita Karlsen, in 2001, has focused public attention on such widespread phenomena as forced marriage, honor killing, female genital mutilation (a brutal procedure performed on small girls in many immigrant communities), divorce rights (a Muslim man can divorce his wife at will, while a Muslim wife seeking divorce is subjected by sharia law to a long, drawn-out procedure which may or may not go her way), the abuse of immigration laws, and the sending of Norwegian Muslim children to their parents’ homelands to attend primitive schools where they learn only about the Koran.

HRS has trained a spotlight on these problems – and challenged politicians and bureaucrats to take action.  Some of the tiny organization’s policy proposals have resulted in new legislation in both Norway and Denmark.  Storhaug’s blunt honesty about these issues has also won her an army of fervent admirers among the general public.  But she and Karlsen have also, not surprisingly, accumulated more than their share of enemies.

Many members of Norway’s political, media, and intellectual establishment, for example, are plainly made uneasy by Storhaug’s tell-it-like-it-is style, which is totally out of sync with the bland, empty, and frequently mendacious rhetoric that for years characterized official Norwegian discussions of immigration and integration issues.  Muslim community leaders, for their part, don’t appreciate HRS’s challenges to their authority – and balk at Storhaug’s insistence on calling an Islamist an Islamist.  And several of the large, generously funded official and quasi-official agencies that are charged with serving the interests of women, children, families, immigrants, and minorities – but that for a long time did virtually nothing about the issues HRS has raised – plainly feel threatened by this slim, energetic woman and her small think tank, which has done the job they have failed to do.

Take Ole Fredrik Einarsen, “coordinator of anti-racist work” at Norsk Folkehjelp.  He dismisses Storhaug out of hand, maintaining that it is “nonsensical and dangerous” for her to suggest that Norwegian democracy is threatened by Islamism.  Then there’s the nation’s official statistics bureau, Statistics Norway, whose director has accused HRS – which has in turn accused him – of manipulating statistics to serve ideological ends.  (Anyone who bothers to look at the numbers can see that HRS is right and Statistics Norway is wrong.)  And don’t forget Norway’s feminists, many of whom were incensed when Storhaug hailed Siv Jensen – the recently installed head of the much-maligned ”populist” Progress Party – as Norway’s foremost feminist.  Storhaug’s reasoning?  Jensen has actually sought to help Norway’s most vulnerable females – the rights-deprived mothers, wives, and daughters in Muslim communities – while the feminist establishment has remained, in Storhaug’s words, “preoccupied with ethnic Norwegian issues such as longer maternity leave [and] shorter workdays at the same salary.”

For years, Storhaug has enjoyed a high profile in Norway.  Whenever the country’s immigration and integration policies are discussed on TV or radio, you can almost be certain that she will be one of the participants.  In these conversations, she is never less than electrifying.  Able to face down a panel of supercilious professors, snarky journalists, and incensed Islamists without blinking an eye, this stylish, uncommonly elegant woman with the dazzling Audrey Hepburn smile is invariably more eloquent and well-informed about the topic under discussion than anybody who is ever put up against her.  Yet for all her celebrity, the publication in September of her new book, Men størst av alt er friheten (But the Greatest of All is Freedom), has brought her a new level of fame and influence.  This bestseller has been cited by one critic after another as the year’s most important public-affairs book.  That’s probably putting it mildly.

"We live in a somber time," reads the book’s jacket copy.  "Girls and women are veiling themselves.  Hatred of gay people is growing.  Girls born in Norway are undergoing genital mutilation.  Rapes are rising in number and becoming more violent.  Fetching marriages, cousin marriages, arranged marriages: the individual is being crushed in a cynical game for visas, citizenship, and money.  Freedom of speech is endangered by self-censorship, threats, and violence.  Immigration rules are broken.  Islamism spreads, even among third-generation immigrants….Something must be done, and time is running out." 

Storhaug’s book could hardly be more timely.  This year the vital importance of the issues she writes about has been underscored not only by events elsewhere in Europe – such as the controversy over cartoons of Muhammed published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the violent response to Pope Benedict’s quotation of a Byzantine emperor’s remark about Islam – but also by developments in Norway itself.  In February Vebjørn Selbekk, editor of a small Christian weekly, was pressured by Norwegian government officials to apologize publicly to an assemblage of imams for having insulted them by reprinting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.  In March, an Algerian man whose application for asylum had been rejected, but who had nonetheless been allowed to stay in Norway (which is standard procedure), walked into the office of his Oslo physician and stabbed him to death – the latest of several violent, senseless murders by asylum seekers.  The summer saw a rash of gay-bashings in Oslo by Muslim youth.  In August, a shootout involving members of Muslim youth gangs took place at Oslo’s trendy Aker Brygge wharf in the midst of a crowd of tourists.  In September several of Norway’s leading imams publicly insisted that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had been committed not by Muslims but by the U.S. government or, perhaps, Israel.  In October, in an apparent honor killing, a young man of Pakistani origin violently murdered his three sisters in Oslo.

Throughout all this mayhem, many of those in positions of authority have rushed to play down the urgency of an obviously intensifying crisis.  Many of them cling to the multicultural conviction that immigrant-group manners and mores should be regarded as above criticism, no matter how severely they violate individual rights and endanger society at large, and that “community leaders” who hate democracy and sympathize with jihadists deserve more consideration than young men and women in that community who actually wish to enjoy free lives in a modern secular society. 

Comedienne and activist Shabana Rehman wrote in her Dagbladet review of Storhaug’s book that Storhaug was wrong to call Jensen the country’s top feminist – it is really Storhaug herself, insists Rehman, who deserves that title.  (Rehman, who grew up in Oslo’s Pakistani community and has stood at Storhaug’s side in many struggles on behalf of Norway’s Muslim women, knows whereof she speaks.)  Ulf Andenæs, who reviewed Storhaug’s book in Aftenposten, also acknowledged Storhaug’s feminist credentials: his review was headlined “A radical feminist in a struggle with Islam.”  What gives Storhaug a distinctive profile, Andenæs observed, is that her roots are in “Norwegian cultural radicalism.  She is a non-believer, urban and feminist, a fighter for the individual’s self-realization, preoccupied with sexual liberation, equality on all fronts, [and] the threats to radical liberty.”  For all this, she “has been frowned upon on our radical left, where there is fear of anti-immigrant and racist attitudes.”  The reviewer for Denmark’s Weekendavisen made the same point, noting that Storhaug “has always spoken up for feminism, but after she began to do it on behalf of female immigrants…she suddenly began to be regarded as a reactionary and neo-racist.”

Indeed, Storhaug has seen many labels attached to her name: Islamophobe, neoconservative, secular fundamentalist, extremist, racist, xenophobe.  Many of those who call her these things are people who routinely spout lofty multicultural rhetoric but who have not done a fraction of the kind of hands-on work Storhaug has done to help individuals in the Muslim community. 

Storhaug began her career not as an activist but as a journalist.  Years ago, as a novice reporter, she was stunned to discover that many young women who resided in her own city – the capital of supposedly liberal Norway – were effectively without rights.  They lived essentially as family property, as serfs in sprawling clans that strictly controlled their movements and told them whom to marry.  Many were denied them access to education and prohibited from learning the language of the country they lived in.  Beatings were common.  So was sexual abuse.  Though many of these young women had been born in Norway and were Norwegian citizens, they had no more freedom, practically speaking, than if they were living in one of the remote Pakistani villages in which their families had originated.  Storhaug’s discovery of these systematic atrocities led her to spend two years in Pakistan, the homeland of Norway’s largest Muslim immigrant group, where she learned firsthand about the social and cultural predicament of Muslim women and girls.  The experience led to a book, Mashallah: A Journey among Women in Pakistan (1996) – and eventually to the founding of HRS.

As noted, Storhaug’s efforts on behalf of Norway’s invisible women and girls have encountered fierce opposition.  But she has also won surprising converts.  After reading her book, the editor of Norway’s leading Communist newspaper, Klassekampen, shocked readers by supporting her proposals for changes in immigration laws that would effectively prevent forced marriages – even though those proposals have been widely derided as reactionary.  Social anthropologist Unni Wikan, who has long argued that Islam itself bears no responsibility for such customs as honor killing, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, nonetheless gave a surprisingly positive review to Storhaug’s book, which insists on such a connection.  “That Wikan is critical of Storhaug’s criticism of Islam was to be expected,” commented HRS’s website, “but what is unexpected is that Wikan now appears to accept Storhaug’s claim that classical injustices are also about Islam, which Wikan has denied for many years.”

VG’s reviewer, Berit Kobro, wrote that “Hege Storhaug is brave. At great risk of being branded a racist, she treads on all the tender toes of immigration policy ….Our multicultural, colorful society is a mistake.  Well-meaning politicians believed that our fast-growing Muslim minority would be integrated eventually, but the opposite is happening.  There are more and more family-arranged fetching marriages, and this immigration is not sustainable.  Norway is importing outsiderhood, female slavery, racism, and dictatorship.”  The very fact that such observations could appear in a major Norwegian newspaper in 2006 is a remarkable development – one that can be attributed, in no small part, to the indefatigable efforts of Hege Storhaug, who more than anyone else in Norway is responsible for having made possible a more open public debate about these all-important questions.

THE NORSEMAN, January 2007