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A cousin marriage equals a forced marriage:
Transnational marriages between closely related
spouses in Denmark
Anika Liversage, PhD, Senior Researcher, the Danish National Centre for Social Research
Mikkel Rytter, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus
In: “Cousin marriages: between tradition, genetic risk and cultural change”, edited by
Alison Shaw and Aviad Raz.
Chapter 6, pp. 130 – 153. Berghahn, Oxford and New York (2015)
In some Western European countries immigrants’ transnational consanguineous marriages
have been debated from the perspective of genetic risk (see chapters XX in this volume). In
Denmark, consanguineous immigrant marriages have also been the topic of public and
political debate. However, the discussions have primarily centered not on health issues but on
the risk that transnational consanguineous marriages are forced marriages. To counter this
concern, the Danish Parliament in 2003 introduced the ‘rule of supposition’ – often referred to
simply as ‘the cousin rule’ – which made it very difficult for a married couple to be united in
Denmark if they are biologically related. Statistics indicate that it used to be common, for
example for Turkish and Pakistani immigrants and their descendants living in Denmark, to
marry spouses from the extended family found in the country of origin (Schmidt and Jakobsen
2004: 127). However, the rule of supposition has most likely reduced the share of these
The rule of supposition is a policy that concerns the distribution of the right to family
reunification. Thus it concerns the right for Danish residents to marry individuals from other
countries, and their subsequent ability to bring these spouses to live with them in Denmark –
i.e. unite here the (small) families, such married couples constitute. To our knowledge, the
rule is unique, as it – contrary to normal legal procedures – a priori supposes that a
transnational marriage between two relatives is a forced marriage that is, a criminal act and
abuse of the young couple involved perpetrated by the parents and perhaps the wider family.
This chapter first outlines the recent historical political context of Denmark in which
this specific rule of supposition took shape. Before 2001, heated debate concerned whether,
and if so, how to distinguish between ‘forced marriages’ and ‘arranged marriages’ in certain
immigrant groups. Later, with the introduction of the rule of supposition in 2003, the deciding
factor now became whether couples were ‘closely related, and otherwise closer related
relatives’ (relationships presented as highly problematic ones, with strong indications of
enforcement) or not. In this respect both the problem and the potential political solution
changed within a few years. Second, we present two extended cases, of the Danish-Pakistani
couple Hamid and Aisha and the Danish-Turkish couple Baha and Gülser, to shed light on the
experiences that transnational couples may have with the rule of supposition1. Last, to
illustrate the clash between the views of the authorities and those of an affected couple about
the character of their marriage, we present a third exemplary adjudication, taken from the
home page of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration. Throughout, the chapter
discusses the workings of state classification. Here, transnationally married couples may
experience having their own understandings of their marriages overturned, and their life
trajectories torqued in the confrontation with bureaucratic classifications of the state (cf.
Bowker & Star 2000). The chapter also presents strategies that transnational couple may use
or seek to use to put their life trajectories back on track and establish their desired family life.
The Danish context – a historical overview
Denmark is a relatively small northern European country with 5.5 million inhabitants and no
significant colonial past or prehistory of pronounced immigration. The first large-scale
immigration occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as labour migrants entered from
Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and the former Yugoslavia. In 1973, as a consequence of the oil
crisis, the Danish Parliament put a stop to further labour migration. However, many labour
migrants had already settled in Denmark and started to bring in their wives and children. In
the 1980s and 1990s in particular, Denmark also received refugees from numerous countries.
1 The first extended case of Hamid and Aisha is from Mikkel Rytter’s fieldwork among Pakistani migrant
families in Denmark and Sweden (Rytter 2003, 2006, 2010, 2012a, 2012b). The second case of Baha and Gülser
is from Anika Liversage’s fieldwork among Turkish families in Denmark and Turkey (Charsley & Liversage
2012; Liversage 2009, 2012a, 2012b; Liversage & Jakobsen, 2010). Names in the two cases have been changed
to protect the anonymity of the couples.
Hence, in 2011, nearly 7% of the population in Denmark were classified in national statistics
as either ‘immigrants’ or ‘descendants of immigrants’ from non-western countries (Danmarks
A substantial proportion of the increase in the non-Danish population over the last
three decades stems from family reunification. Not only did the initial labour migrants bring
in their families, but their children – the so-called ‘second generation’ – also started marrying
spouses from their parents’ countries of origin. Thus studies show that 80-90% of immigrants
of Pakistani or Turkish descent, marrying in the late 1990s, chose spouses resident in their
parents’ country of origin (Celikaksoy Mortensen 2006; Schmidt & Jakobsen 2004).
During the 1990s, transnational marriages played a prominent part in an increasingly
heated public debate on immigrants and immigration (cf. Rytter 2003; Hervik 2011). This
debate was also a central theme in the national election in November 2001, where a new
Liberal-Conservative government came into power, backed by the votes and support of the
right-wing Danish People’s Party. The latter party’s strong anti-immigration agenda, along
with the general securitization of external borders succeeding the terrorist attacks of 11th of
September, 2001, became central in the 2002 passage of a number of laws restricting
immigration to Denmark dramatically (cf. Pedersen & Rytter 2011).
To reduce the number of family reunifications, the new government introduced five
requirements related to age, accommodation, financial support, collateral and ‘national
attachment’. Thus, for transnational couples to be united in Denmark, they both had to be
older than 24 years; place a deposit of approximately 7000 Euros as collateral in a savings
account; own or rent accommodation of a specified size in their own name; prove that they
had a specified minimum income, and show an ‘attachment’ to Denmark – based on factors
such as linguistic capability, employment and length of residency – greater than their
attachment to any other country. This regulatory complex has been called ‘the strictest in the
world’ (Schmidt 2011: 259). In addition, at the end of 2003, the government passed the
specific rule of supposition.
Before we proceed to this specific piece of legislation, we need to clarify our
conceptual approach to classification processes.
Politics and classification
The crucial aspect of the rule of supposition is how and with what consequences state
authorities classify transnational marriages. Any system of classification is both a model of
and model for the world; it reflects the idea of an already ordered and objective social reality
that can be captured and represented by the specific system of classification. At the same time
the very process of definition and organisation implies the will and power to construct social
reality in specific ways. The generative aspects and dynamics of power inherent in processes
of classification become salient when we turn to state bureaucracy that uses categorisation as
a significant tool of ‘governmentality’ (Foucault 2002). For modern nation-states, policies and
procedures of classification are fundamental organising principles that provide a way of
conceptualizing social relations around which people structure their lives.
Processes of classification generally involve the perspectives of both ‘internal
identification’ and ‘external categorization’ (Jenkins, 2004): in social interaction we are
always both categorised in different ways by our surroundings, and we identify ourselves in
different ways in relation to significant others. Sometimes the external categorization and the
internal identification may be similar, because the same scales or systems of evaluation are
being applied, but such is not always the case. We can be put in the categories of ‘beautiful’
or ‘sloppy’, while we might identify ourselves as being ‘ordinary looking’ or ‘systematic’. In
everyday encounters the discrepancy between external categorization and internal
identification can often be negotiated.
However, in situations where it is the state that categorizes citizens, a fundamental
discrepancy may exist between the two perspectives. In such cases, it becomes evident that
the state has the definitional power to construct the social world, with potentially severe
consequences for the ordinary people involved. One extreme case is the way in which the
South African apartheid system classified every citizen according to four race-based
categories. Families who considered themselves ‘white’ could risk suddenly being categorized
as ‘coloured’, with dire consequences for their everyday lives; whom they could marry, where
they could go to school or work, and how they were received by their surroundings in general
(Bowker and Star 2000). In this respect life opportunities of citizens may largely be created
and distributed by the classification procedures of the state. Power is vested in such
bureaucratic categorization, as it is often consequential and may have very concrete material
effects, regardless of whether the bureaucratic categorization correspond with how the
implicated individuals’ themselves identify (Jenkins 2000).
As this chapter will show, the immigration regime of the Danish nation-state since 2002
has created substantial problems for some Danes with immigrant backgrounds who have
married a foreign family member, because it classifies some marriages as ‘forced’ regardless
of the couple’s own explanations otherwise. However, just as South Africans who felt they
had been put in the wrong bureaucratic box had various strategies for attempting to be
reclassified (Bowker & Star 2000), transnational couples likewise have various more or less
successful strategies for navigating the state bureaucracy and changing the external
categorizations of their marriages to correspond with their own understandings of them. Such
cases show that whilst governments may use policy as an instrument for imposing their
ordering principles upon those they seek to govern, reflexive subjects will often attempt to
answer back (Shore & Wright 2011: 17).
To understand why different Danish governments have defined the marriage practices
of ethnic minorities as so problematic, the next section covers the political situation in
Denmark in the years preceding the introduction of the rule of supposition.
Debates and discourses concerning immigrants’ transnational marriages
In Denmark, the public and political focus on immigrant transnational marriages increased
considerably during the 1990s. Here, two discourses, one of humanism and one of
nationalism, gained prominence and were used (and abused) within the public debate (Hervik
& Rytter 2004).
The discourse of humanism concerned forced marriages. The debate rose in response to
national media coverage of a number of cases in which young women revealed that their
immigrant parents had forced them into transnational marriages against their will. Crisis
shelters also reported increasing numbers of immigrant women asking for help (Bredal 1999,
2006; Rytter 2003). Within the discourse of humanism any legal measures that could help
young people (mostly women) from being forced into marriage were considered reasonable.
Parallel to the growing concerns for the safety and well-being of young immigrant
women was a discourse of nationalism. This discourse stressed the need to tighten the state
borders in order to protect the Danish nation from the influx of immigrants, perceived as
undermining not only Danish economy and social cohesion but also national security. In the
1990s this position was voiced in particular by the right-wing Danish People’s Party; but after
September 11th, 2001, the discourse of nationalism and the advocacy of stricter legislation on
family reunification to regulate the inflow of especially Muslims soon became a legitimate
position across a broader section of the political spectrum (cf. Gad 2011: 61). A radical
reduction of the number of non-Western spouses was also presented as a necessary means of
improving the integration of the immigrants and descendants already living in Denmark.
Thus two discourses coexisted, each reinforcing the other: according to the discourse of
humanism, young immigrant women were vulnerable victims to be protected from their
repressive patriarchal families. According to the discourse of nationalism, Danish values and
territory should be protected from the threat of the Muslim ‘Other’.
Forced marriages and arranged marriages – separate categories or not?
The coexistence of these two discourses came together in the understanding that transnational
marriages were often also forced marriages, fuelled by the wishes of non-western family
members to gain access to wealthy Europe. Thus, purportedly, daughters in immigrant
families were often used as ‘human visas’ – as an influential Norwegian debate book was
entitled (Storhaug 2003), simply to provide an entry into Europe through marriage. Even
though the size of the problem of forced marriages could not be objectively ascertained, the
public concern with the marriage patterns of immigrants took the form of a moral panic (cf.
Rytter 2003: 43) and the political wish and ambition to curb the phenomenon increased.
Whilst to be anything but against forced marriage was generally difficult, a central
question in this debate amongst politicians, NGOs, researchers and feminists became how the
categories of forced marriages and of arranged marriages related to one another (cf. Bredal
1999). Should they be understood as separate categories, or were they fundamentally alike
and thus both to be considered problematic?
One position in the debate insisted that the two types of marriages differed: whilst an
arranged marriage involves the active engagement of parents and sometimes other family
members it also requires the acceptance and consent of the young individuals involved.
Furthermore, different degrees of arrangements in marriages are common world-wide. Forced
marriages are here seen as an aberration – a marriage arranged against the wishes and consent
of the young people involved (Gullestad 2002:33). The opposite position in the debate argued
that forced and arranged marriages cannot (and should not) be dissociated, as all types of
arrangements imply degrees of pressure and force from the family, with the young people
having no free will or real choice. From this perspective arranged marriages are just as
problematic as forced marriages.
Given these conflicting understandings, clauses on immigrant marriages had to be
omitted when the government of the Social Democrats and the Social liberals in 1999 passed
a Law of Integration. Formulating clear statements on this subject was simply not possible
(Bredal 1999:75). Instead, the government of the time tried to use legislation to prevent
transnational forced marriages, even though the existing Danish law on marriage already
made it illegal to force anybody into marriage. Thus in 1998 and 2000 the government passed
rules for preventing entry visas from being issued when young people had been forced or
pressured into a transnational marriage. A rule from 2000, for example, stated that non-
Danish citizens aged 18-25 were to be interviewed when applying for family reunification
with their foreign spouses, to assess whether the marriage undoubtedly could be considered
contracted according to the [Danish] resident’s own wishes2.
These rules, however, led to only very few visa rejections. Politically, their low impact
was interpreted not as an absence of forced marriages but as due to young peoples’ fears of
opposing their parents3. According to the Danish political understanding, the evident
inefficacy of the rules arose from young people not daring to identify themselves as being
forced to marry even though ‘in reality’ they had been forced. Consequently, the authorities
could not categorize their marriages as forced or deny them family reunification. For the
authorities to deal effectively with the problem, the problem itself thus had to be redefined.
The political disagreement as to whether forced and arranged marriages were separate
categories changed after the 2001 election. Brought to power on promises of reducing
immigration, the new Liberal-Conservative government soon explicitly conflated voluntary
arranged marriages and forced marriages. Thus the first action plan in the area is entitled The
Government’s Plan of Action against Forced, Quasi-forced and Arranged Marriages 2003-
2005. This action plan states the following:
In Denmark it is customary for young people to choose their own marriage partner and
enter a marriage based on a loving relationship [….] The practice of arranged marriages
2 Aliens Act, § 9, stk. 2, no. 7; 31st of May, 2000.
3 Remarks to Parliament 1999-2000, supplement A, p.5816, on Act no. 424, 31st of May, 2000.
is a violation of the right of the individual to freely find and choose a spouse (Action
Plan 2003: 5).
As both the title and this statement confirm, the official state definitions of legitimate
marriages had changed: forced marriages and arranged marriages were now two of a kind,
constituting a continuum of marriages all of which were to be prevented. However, by
enlarging the categories of problematic marriages, the government had also dramatically
enlarged the presumed problem at hand (Hervik & Rytter 2004:136), by making a large
proportion of transnational marriages amongst immigrants unacceptable. This extension of the
problem, by the fusion of marriage categories that had heretofore been considered different,
paved the way for the introduction of a strict national immigration regime.
The rule of supposition of forced marriage
Entangled in the political desire to redefine ‘the problem’ was the issue of cousin marriages.
Such marriages were generally considered problematic, even though marriages between the
children of siblings – i.e. first cousins – are legal in Denmark. In contrast to Danish majority
practices, consanguineous marriages are common in countries such as Pakistan and Turkey,
and migrant families from these countries often continue this marital practice after moving to
Europe. In line with the broad range of motives underlying transnational marriages more
generally, a range of reasons exists for such consanguineous marriages, including wishes to
renew family relations, to keep resources within the family, and to find spouses believed to
embody country of origin norms and values (Beck-Gernsheim 2007; Charsley 2006; Rytter
2012b; see also Shaw’s chapter in this volume).
As to the extent of extended family marriages among immigrants, a Danish survey
based on data from 2003 showed that 24% of the young Turkish and 47% of the young
Pakistani informants had married a relative (Schmidt & Jakobsen 2004: 127)4. These numbers
match the results of a large study amongst immigrants in Norway. Findings showed that 26%
of the first and 22% of the second generation of Turks in Norway had married within the
extended family, and 54% of the first generation and 47% of the second generation of
Pakistanis had done the same, making endogamous marriages especially important in the
latter group (Suren, Grjibovski & Stoltenberg 2007: 24ff.).
4 Because of small sample size, these numbers are not fully reliable (Schmidt and Jakobsen 2004:127).
When the Danish government in 2003 passed the rule of supposition its explicit
intention was to reduce the number of forced marriages by targeting transnational marriages
between relatives. The rule states the following.
Leave to remain…cannot be granted, if it can be deemed questionable whether the
marriage has been contracted, or the cohabitation has been established, according to
the wishes of both spouses…. If the marriage has been contracted between closely
related, or otherwise closer related relatives, it is considered questionable – unless
specific reasons mandate otherwise – if the marriage has been contracted according to
the wishes of both parties (Aliens Act § 9, stk. 8, pkt. 2).
According to this rule, a transnational marriage within the extended family of ‘closely related
and otherwise closer related relatives’ equals a forced marriage. Consequently, leave of entry
for this kind of foreign spouse is denied.
One important aspect of the rule is that it introduces a new way for state officials to
identify ‘forced marriages’; officials no longer have to interview young spouses regarding the
character of their marriage. Instead, the officials are now instructed to use a kinship diagram
to accept or reject applications for family unification. The significant category of ‘closely
related and otherwise closer related relatives’ not only aims at extended family networks but
…encompasses relatives in the direct descent of the spouse’s grandparents’ and the
spouse’s grand-parents’ siblings…. That means that the two persons [who wish to live
together in Denmark] cannot have the same great-grandparents, and that one person’s
great-grandparents cannot be the other person’s great-great grandparents (Danish
Immigration Service, 2009: 4).
This delineation of a broad part of the extended family makes clear that the ‘problem’ of
immigrant transnational marriage has exceeded concerns of genetic risks. The categories of
relatives seen as problematic thus include not only such distant relatives as ‘the grandchildren
of grandparents’ siblings’, but also relatives of step-parents (Jørgensen, 2012) 5.
Figure 1 (from Danish Immigration Service, 2009, p.5, authors’ translation).
Figure 1 illustrates that the applicant (in the lower left corner) cannot obtain a visa if marrying
a spouse within the box. A marriage to an individual outside of the box (‘sponsor’ in the
lower right corner), however, will not be considered ‘forced’.
But how do the Danish authorities justify their equation of transnational marriages within the
extended family with forced marriages? The following section covers this issue.
The political rationale behind the rule of supposition
In his 2003 introduction of the bill in the Danish parliament, Minister of Integration Bertel
Haarder, representing the Liberal Party, presented three arguments for the bill. Notably, none
of the three referred to genetic or health concerns.
Haarder grounded his first argument in the number of applications for entry visas that
the Danish authorities turned down due to suspicion of forced marriage: from the start of 2001
through the middle of 2003, 27 couples received such rejections. Haarder then proceeded to
say the following:
5 In the Action Plan (2003), the increased risk of hereditary diseases in consanguineous marriages is mentioned
in a fact box, but this genetic risk does not figure within the plan’s main body of text.
In 11 of the 27 cases, the information provided shows that the marriages were
contracted with a close or otherwise closely related relative… In the present Danish
society, it is uncommon for young people to wish to marry a relative… especially if
the parties, prior to the marriage, have had no contact other than what stems from their
being related. Studies show that cousin marriages are often forced marriages,
contracted because the families in the home country – to ensure a future in the West
for their children – pressure the Danish immigrants into entering the marriage6.
Haarder’s first argument is numerical: a considerable proportion of transnational couples
whose applications were rejected due to suspicions of forced marriages were married to
relatives. Taking this observation as documenting a substantial overlap between marriages
within the extended family and forced marriages, Haarder thus argued that preventing the
former type would prevent the latter type from occurring. However, the total number of cases
to which he referred is small (27), amounting to less than one case per month in the period
investigated. Furthermore, the majority of the rejections based on suspicion of forced
marriage were issued in marriage where the couples were not relatives.
Haarder’s second argument was the claim that in Danish society both cousin marriages
and arranged marriages (where spouses have had little contact prior to the wedding) are
‘uncommon’. Apparently the differences between the marriage practices of the majority and
arranged cousin marriages within Muslim minorities makes the latter less legitimate. The
argument, however, does not concern whether arranged cousin marriages are also due to
Haarder’s third argument was the claim that ‘studies show’ that cousin marriages are
often the result of enforcement, centrally motivated by extended family wishes to send their
children to the affluent West. Whilst Haarder does not specify what studies he is referring to,
we know of no such studies, other than a brief written for the weekly magazine ‘Monday
Morning’ by researcher Anders Hede (2002). In this brief, Hede uses anthropological studies
from Norway, the United Kingdom and elsewhere to argue that consanguineous marriages are
6 https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=100336, authors’ translation.
often forced marriages. However, several of the scholars quoted in the brief disagreed
strongly with Anders Hede’s use of their research (Fischer 2003, Bladet Forskning 2004).
In the same parliamentary speech, Haarder also underscored that he is aware that not
all marriages between relatives are forced. Haarder stated that if a married couple, who are
related to one another…
... can demonstrate to the Danish Immigration Service that the marriage is contracted
(or the cohabitation established) according to their own wishes, they will not have
their application for spousal reunion rejected on this ground. The aim of the proposal
is to help young people in danger of – against their own wishes – being forced or
pressured into marriage with a close or otherwise closely related relative.7
Here, Haarder claims that spouses in couples, who can demonstrate that they married
‘according to their own wishes’, will be able to obtain a Danish entry visa. Thus the rule of
supposition, which initially presumed all marriages between relatives to be forced, actually
allows for the initial definition to be reversed, in cases where the plaintiffs can substantiate
that they, themselves, wanted the marriage. This possibility of having marriages between
relatives reclassified from forced to voluntary marriages makes the bureaucratic procedures
for achieving such reclassification relevant to our analysis here. We investigate these
procedures in the next section, which shifts to the perspective of three married couples whose
lives have been severely affected by the rule of supposition.
The rule of supposition and its effects on transnational couples
The following three cases exemplify the hardships that related couples could encounter as
they try to have the Danish authorities reclassify them as living in marriages that were ‘not
forced’. Such a reclassification could be a prerequisite for obtaining the coveted entry visa
7 https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=100336, authors’ translation.
CASE 1: Danish-Pakistani Hamid and Pakistani Aisha
In the spring of 2005, Hamid – a Danish citizen, born and raised in Denmark by Pakistani
parents and studying to become an engineer – became engaged to Aisha, his maternal first
cousin from Pakistan. Their marriage had been planned within the family for years. Hamid
knew of the rule of supposition and did therefore not even bother to apply for family
reunification in Denmark.
Instead, being a Danish citizen, he could exercise his right of free mobility
within the EU8 and move into an apartment in Malmö. As Malmö is only a 45-minute drive
from the Danish capital of Copenhagen, Hamid could thus keep studying in Denmark. In the
summer of 2005, Aisha and Hamid were married in Pakistan. From his new place of
residence, his wife then applied to the Swedish authorities for an entry visa, and in 2006 the
couple began their life together in Sweden9.
After living in Malmö for almost a year, in December 2006 Hamid applied for
permission to return to Denmark with his wife. He had recently qualified as an engineer, a
profession included on the ‘positive list’ that the Danish Government created to ease entry
into Denmark for certain groups of highly qualified professionals. In 2007 Hamid found a job
in Denmark and started commuting between his home and wife in Sweden and his work and
parents in Denmark.
After waiting months for an answer, he called the Danish immigration authorities and
learned that his application had been rejected under the rule of supposition, which supersedes
the ‘positive list’. He learned that because Aisha and he were first cousins, their marriage had
been classified as a forced marriage, and their application for a visa to Denmark had been
denied. Ironically, had Hamid not been a Danish citizen but instead a Pakistani engineer
coming to Denmark with his Pakistani wife to work, they could both legally have entered
Denmark on the basis of his professional skills.
Case 2: Danish-Turkish Baha and Turkish Gülser
Baha was born and raised in Denmark of Turkish parents. In 1999, at the age of 17, he met
8 Following the common ambition of creating a Nordic region it has since 1954 been possible for Danish,
Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish citizens to move freely within this region.
9 This strategy of moving to Sweden has been widely used by immigrant couples. Indeed, in 2007, 12% of all 25-
year-old Danish-Pakistanis had moved to Sweden (Schmidt m.fl., 2009:103). This relatively large proportion is
partially attributable to Pakistanis predominantly living in the Danish capital, and thus having only a short move
to the other side of the Danish-Swedish bridge. The comparable proportion for Danish-Turks is 5% (ibid).
Gülser through distant relatives while he was on holiday in Turkey. Over the following years
the couple kept in contact by telephone, and during several holiday visits in Turkey their
relationship developed to the point where they decided to marry. The wedding took place in
Turkey in 2002. When they later applied for family reunification in Denmark, the newly-
introduced requirement that both partners should be at least 24 years of age – a requirement of
which they were unaware when they married – led to a rejection of their application.
Consequently, the newly-wed Gülser – who had come to Denmark on a tourist visa –
had to return to Turkey. Although the separation was difficult, the couple projected that by
2004 they would both be old enough for Gülser to obtain a visa. For the next two years Baha
lived in Denmark, continuing his education at a business academy, whilst Gülser commuted
between Turkey and Denmark. Using consecutive tourist visas, she could stay with Baha in
Denmark for six months at a time, after which, to qualify for a new tourist visa, she had to
leave Denmark for a similar period. When they both turned 24, they applied again, only to
learn the following:
[The authorities] gave us a rejection. They said it was a forced marriage. They had some
stupid reasons. It was about our grandparents being siblings. I can’t understand where
they get those crazy ideas from. We hadn’t known each other before [meeting when
Baha was 17].
With common great-grandparents, Baha and Gülser were classified as ‘closely related’
according to the bureaucratic system’s use of kinship diagrams (fig.1). Thus their marriage
was assumed to be due to force, and their visa application for Gülser was turned down.
Strategies of re-classification
In both of these examples, each couple found that – regardless of their considering their
marriages to be based on their own free will – the Danish authorities had categorized them as
living in forced marriages. However, as stated by then Minister Bertel Haarder, such couples
should be able to have their marriages re-classified as ‘not forced’ if they could prove that the
marriage was indeed according to their own wishes.
Naturally, both Hamid and Baha tried to have their marriages reclassified. However,
they found the process very difficult. According to Danish jurisdiction, to have their marriage
reclassified, couples must be able to demonstrate that they, for example, have…
…had a lengthy and detailed acquaintance before the marriage…, that the couple have
planned their wedding themselves, or that the couple has cohabited before marrying
(Danish Immigration Service, 2009).
Consequently, transnational couples’ own direct statements that their marriages are voluntary
are not given weight. Instead, the Danish authorities scrutinize the period before the wedding.
Hence, couples who do not have an intimate and romantic relationship before the marriage
face great difficulties in having their marriages reclassified as ‘voluntary marriages’,
regardless of mutual consent, the desire to live together and the development of a subsequent
love relationship. Indeed, a primary avenue of achieving reclassification by the Danish
authorities is through documenting premarital cohabitation – a practice that flies in the face of
the norms of premarital chastity prevalent in many immigrant groups.
When Hamid learned that his wife’s visa application had been rejected, he appealed
against the verdict, stating that their marriage had not been forced. To document their
relationship, he submitted more than seventy photographs to the authorities: from their
wedding in Pakistan, from their apartment in Sweden, and from a family holiday they had
taken together, long before their engagement. Regardless of this documentation and the
couple’s stated wishes to be together, their appeal for reclassification was turned down.
Baha also appealed against the decision in his case, with the same negative result.
Subsequently, he did the following:
I spoke with a lawyer – to learn whether there were alternatives. I had heard a bit about
going to Germany or Sweden. But I was totally against it – I did not want to leave, I did
not want to quit the fight; this is not the mentality we have here in Denmark. As an
ordinary citizen, I also have some rights. In Denmark, it is not illegal to marry your
cousin. Yes, some are forced to marry, but that shouldn’t affect all of us – us, who have
a good life and do well in society.
Baha even contacted local politicians and local media, attempting to have the authorities re-
evaluate his case, but to no avail.
By refusing to leave Denmark, the couple had to continue their disrupted family life,
with Baha living in Denmark, and Gülser living partly in Turkey and partly in Denmark as a
Numerous other couples also experienced the authorities’ wrongly classifying their
marriages as ‘forced’. In 2007 a number of couples had their cases adjudicated in the Danish
court system, and in several cases the courts overruled the Danish Immigration Service’s
rejections of family reunification visas. These court cases created a legal precedent for how
couples could achieve the coveted reclassification of their marriages as being not forced10.
On the advice of his lawyer, at the end of 2007 Baha set out to document his and
Gülser’s relationship before their 2002 marriage and to document how their wedding had been
planned. On a trip to Turkey, he was able to recover phone bills dating back to 1999, proving
his and Gülser’s extensive contact before the marriage. He also visited the town where they
married and found several witnesses who could testify that it was he, rather than his parents,
who arranged the wedding ceremony. After receiving this documentation, the authorities
finally agreed to reclassify his marriage from forced to voluntary – and in 2008 Gülser
obtained her visa and came to Denmark as a marriage migrant.
Hamid and Aisha applied a different strategy for entering Denmark. When Hamid had
his first appeal rejected, he simply gave up battling the Danish authorities. Instead, he and
Aisha continued to live in Sweden, because after two years of living in Sweden, Danes at the
time could become Swedish citizens11. Hamid chose this option. As long as he was a Danish
citizen, the strict Danish rules regulating family migration applied to him, if he wanted to
return to Denmark with his wife. Given the common rules of mobility with the Nordic region
and EU in general, however, as a Swedish citizen he had no problems moving to Denmark
with his Pakistani wife and Hamid did so in 2008. As planned from the beginning, the couple
settled in the home of Hamid’s parents. Since then they have been blessed with a daughter
who has become a Swedish citizen like her father.
10 For important court cases, see Danish Immigration Service (2009). Moreover the “rule of presumption” was
amended slightly in 2005. After the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles
criticized the Danish family migration rules, the clause “including consideration of the unity of the family” was
added as a “special reason” through which leave of entry could be granted to related couples.
11 Today, Danish citizens have to live five years in Sweden to achieve Swedish citizenship.
These two cases show, first, how Baha managed to have his marriage reclassified by
following the rules of the game of the bureaucratic classification system. Second, they show
how Hamid – by becoming a Swedish citizen – was able to change which rules were to guide
his situation. Following different routes, the two couples in question were thus able to achieve
the desired result – the ability to live together in Denmark. Other commonalities are the years
of arduous struggles both couples underwent to obtain this result, and that during the process,
the outcome was far from certain.
A third possibility, however, is that of not succeeding in gaining access to Denmark. We
illustrate this possibility with a case of a closely related transnational couple who were unable
to make the authorities re-classify their marriage as not forced.
CASE 3: Failing to have a marriage re-classified
The last case comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration’s database of
administrative decisions that ‘all are of instructive or principal value, and illustrate present
practice’. The anonymized case in question bears the title ‘the forced marriage’ and
exemplifies the interface between applicants and the authorities, where the powers of
definition are firmly vested in the latter.
The couple in question belongs to the same ethnic minority group. The couple married
in 2000 and their application for family unification was rejected for unstated reasons the same
year. They remained married, however, and in 2006 again applied for the wife’s entry visa. In
2007, the Ministry, (at the time entitled the Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration
Affairs) made the following observation in its decision.
Based on the questionnaire that you and your spouse filled out in 2006, it is evident that
you are cousins and have known each other since childhood; that you have had personal
and telephone contact both before and after marrying; that you have not cohabited
before the marriage; that you, yourselves planned the wedding; that the marriage was
contracted due to your own wishes.12
Regardless of their premarital contact, their own planning of the wedding, and their
4A0B14CFE6AF/0/A14_NY_afgorelse.pdf – accessed 30.05.2012.
testimonies of wanting the marriage (also evident through their staying together, despite their
year-long inability to gain family unification), the Ministry rejected the appeal on the
The Ministry places decisive weight on you and your spouse’s familial relationship….
The fact that you at a personal visit to the ministry declared that the marriage is not a
forced marriage, and that you and your spouse love each other, and that evidence shows
that your spouse visited Denmark in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and that you visited your
spouse in 2005, is not sufficient evidence for the ministry to remove the presumption
about forced marriage (ibid).
The Ministry further stated that it lacked documentation for an in-depth and long-term pre-
marital personal relationship as anything other than a familial one, and that it saw no proof of
the couple’s own planning of their wedding. A further argument for the rejection is that both
spouses were young when they married.
As the couple was indisputably closely related (probably first cousins), the marriage was
thus deemed ‘too arranged’ to overturn the ‘forced’ classification. We cannot know whether
this decision in part stems from the couple’s inability to document the details of their
relationship before their marriage in 2000, at which time they had no idea that they would
later be called upon to substantiate their early contact with one another.
The case shows that the authorities upheld the initial classification of this marriage as
forced, despite the couples’ personal testimonies and their lengthy struggle to create some
semblance of family life through repeated visits to each other’s countries. Subsequent to
receiving this decision, the wife had immediately to leave Denmark – again.
We do not know what this couple subsequently did – did they separate, did they
continue their intermittent family life, or did they both leave Denmark for good? They may
even have gone to Sweden, trying to follow the route along which the cousins Hamid and
Aisha had succeeded in entering Denmark. We do know that, despite a seven-year struggle,
this couple was unsuccessful in achieving their aim of beginning a normal family life in
As this example shows, the Danish state’s conflation of forced marriages with
transnational, arranged marriages between relatives may place ethnic minorities in situations
where the bureaucratic system ignores their personal understandings of their marriages and
forces them to rescind their future aspirations.
Personal consequences of the fight for reclassification
The very broad Danish definition of forced marriages applied in the rule of supposition has
most likely prevented some marriages in which young people would otherwise have been
pressured or forced into transnational marriages against their own wishes13. But, as this
chapter makes clear, other couples found their desired marriages classified as ‘forced’, with
dire consequences for their personal lives.
As the chapter’s three examples illustrate, the state-sanctioned classification system
places some transnational couples in a bureaucratic limbo with blurred horizons (Rytter
2012a: 100-1), where they merely wait and hope for a positive outcome of their appeals. This
period of uncertainty somewhat resembles the situation of asylum seekers awaiting decisions
on applications for residency – a situation that may have serious consequences for their
physical and emotional well-being (cf. Vitus 2010; Whyte 2011). As Baha said about his
Psychologically, she suffered most. She did not have anything to rely on. It was half a
year here and half a year there. That was the only way. When I met her, she had just
finished an education in trade and wanted to continue at the police school. But she had
to give that up for us to live together. She didn’t know when she would come to
Denmark. She has been very affected by it. She has really had a tough time.
Both Baha and Hamid expressed frustration and rage. Hamid bitterly regretted his honesty
with the authorities: ‘Many of my friends do not say that they are marrying within the family,
so they do not have any problems, but I do’. Hamid also felt that the long waits for answers to
the visa applications were part of an official strategy to cause stress to and weaken applicants
through prolonged uncertainty.
13 Some young people from ethnic minorities support the tight rules of family migration, as they believe that
these rules support their independence (Schmidt et al 2009; Schmidt & Jakobsen, 2004). Numerically speaking, a
prominent consequence of the legislative changes around 2002 has been a marked decrease in non-western
family migration to Denmark (RFF, 2009).
On a similar note, Baha – born in Denmark – said that the experience of being denied
family life in Denmark had undermined his feeling of national belonging:
I feel I am unwanted here. But what have I done? I have educated myself. I have no
criminal record; I have been diligent and have worked in the labour market. What more
can I do? I cannot change my skin colour. I think it is really wrong for the government
to decide whether or not my wife and I are suitable for each other.
Thus one consequence of the rule of supposition is that Danish citizens such as Hamid and
Baha are locked in a structural position of being ‘not-quite-real-Danes’ (cf. Rytter 2010), to
the detriment of their feelings of belonging in Denmark.
Since 2003, the rule of supposition has generally prevented transnational couples married
within the extended family from gaining family unification to Denmark. This rule was not
passed primarily because of the potential health risks for children born of related parents.
Instead, the rule is part of a larger legislative complex created with a twofold objective: to
prevent forced marriages and to reduce especially non-Western marriage migration. If the rule
had focused on the genetic risks in consanguineous marriage it would have lost much of its
ability to restrict marriage migration, because it would have had to restrict itself mainly to
first cousin marriages. Such an argument would also conflict with the present legality of first-
cousin marriages in Denmark. Instead, it appears obvious that the state policies and
immigration regime of 2002-2003 are aimed at stemming marriage migration of certain
categories of individuals. The rules have reduced immigrants’ and refugees’ and their
descendants’ abilities to obtain family reunification (regardless of whether or not they are
Danish citizens) more than they have limited the majority Danish population from bringing in
spouses from abroad (Jørgensen, 2012). This objective is especially well met in the rule of
supposition: while every young transnational couple in Denmark is potentially affected by the
24-year-rule, the rule of supposition exclusively affects marriages in settled ethnic minority
communities: majority Danes rarely have family networks or cousins abroad whom they want
to marry – and, should such a case arise, the marriage most likely will not be ‘arranged’ in
The rule of supposition has contributed to altering the marital patterns of ethnic
minorities in Denmark. As this chapter shows, the rate of consanguineous marriages and
marriages within the extended family was substantial among people of e.g. Pakistani and
Turkish descent before the legislative changes of 2002-2003. However, as family
reunification between closely related spouses has become very difficult to achieve, the
proportion of such marriages must have declined significantly. Nonetheless, marriage
preferences do not change overnight. Some immigrant groups may still exhibit a preference
for marrying within the family network. If so, they have other options: if they already have a
network of extended family in Denmark or in other EU countries, they may seek spouses
there. They may use the same strategy as Hamid and Aisha and move to Sweden for a while,
before settling in Denmark. Or they can seek to conceal their family history and kinship
relations from the Danish authorities. Few related spouses are, like Baha and Gülser,
successful in having their marriage reclassified from a forced marriage to a voluntary one.
And, as the last case in this chapter shows, some couples may marry, only to realize that they
may never be able to live together as a couple in Denmark.
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