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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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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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