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INTERVIEW: ‘I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about’

Born amid the horrors of war in Iraqi Kurdistan, Danish author Sara Omar now uses her voice to denounce violence inflicted on women in the name of reactionary Islam, a "calling" that has left her living under police protection.

INTERVIEW: 'I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about'
Danish author Sara Omar. Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

“I broke the taboo. I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about. If I don't do this, who will?” the 34-year-old tells AFP in an interview in Copenhagen.

Her first novel “Dead Washer” sold more than 100,000 copies in Denmark when it was published in 2017, a literary feat in the country of 5.8 million where it was hailed as the “MeToo of Muslim women.”

It has since been translated into several languages, including Norwegian, Swedish and French.

In her writing and when she speaks out publicly, Omar describes abuse inflicted on women and children behind closed doors — rapes, beatings, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes.

Her depictions have angered a small fringe in Muslim societies and required her to now live under 24-hour police protection.

Her bestseller tells the story of a girl named Frmesk, which means “tear” in Kurdish.

It follows her from her birth in Sulaymaniah, Kurdistan, in 1986 — just like Omar — to a hospital bed in Denmark in 2016 where she meets a medical student, also a young Kurdish woman, who dreams of breaking free from her overly controlling father but doesn't dare.

Omar says that many Muslim women — especially in the Nordic countries, where they often find themselves caught between the liberalism of their adopted country and their parents' conservative values — have approached her to thank her for bringing their sufferings to life through Frmesk.

“My books have started a very quiet movement among women, especially women of Muslim background in Scandinavia, because they identify themselves with the topics and the characters in the novels,” Omar says.

“A reaction that affected me, and touched me in a way that I started crying, was from a woman between 45 and 50 years old. She came to me and she whispered in my ear: 'Thank you for giving me a voice'.”


Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

As combative as her protagonist, Omar now refuses to speak about her personal life, “due to her security situation and since her words can bring about severe consequences,” according to her assistant.

What is known from earlier interviews is this: After several years in refugee camps, Omar came to Denmark at the age of 15, like Frmesk. They also share a distinctive look — a streak of white in their jet-black hair.

Omar has previously revealed that she has been married, is “the mother of a murdered girl” and began writing Frmesk's story while in a psychiatric ward after several suicide attempts.

For her, writing books is not “a dream.”

“I see it as a calling, because I have sacrificed everything for it,” she says with a fiery look in her eye, which gives way to a melancholic smile as she refers to her security situation.

While she calls herself an “agnostic Muslim”, the author is not out to criticise Islam as such and says her message is universal. 

“Any monotheistic religion has a dark side and a light side. Islam also has this dark side but it is still up to interpretation. It's all about who is holding the book,” she says.

In a country preoccupied with immigrants who don't assimilate and which is still recovering from the explosive Mohammed cartoons scandal, Omar's ardent defence of freedom of speech has been warmly welcomed in Denmark.

“As long as we have other people who are threatening authors and people fighting for the right to use words… then we have a problem,” she says.

Omar isn't done telling Frmesk's story.

A sequel was published in 2019, “Shadow Dancer”, it too the recipient of literary prizes in Denmark.

“I'm not finished with Frmesk's story because I think she's more than an abused child and an oppressed woman. She's more than that. She's a fighter and I need to write the rest of the story,” she says.

Omar is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Political Science, and is translating her own books into Kurdish and Arabic, which she plans to publish at her own expense to avoid any censorship.

By Camille Bas-Wohlert

READ ALSO: Danes reveal love for detective yarn in study of reading habits

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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