Squeeze the integration policy!

The original Norwegian version of this post contains material that relates directly to the resolution on Integration Policy which was up for discussion on the session of the Socialist Left party National Board of Representatives 5th-6th September 2014. The English version has been edited to frame the analysis in a broader, societal frame.

A confession

I’m a racist. I think racist thoughts all the time. Perhaps not as often as I think about sex, but often enough that I’m frequently ashamed of myself. A surprising number of people will argue that this sounds like a paradox, given that I’ve got both a sister and a daughter who don’t look “ethnically Norwgian”. Seeing that I’ve not only got friends, but family ties with non-white children, it ought to be impossible for me to judge people by the colour of their skin, right? Nonetheless, I felt a sense of fear and unease as a guy who looked like he might be Romani passed me on his bike this morning. I immediately corrected myself, mentally. I don’t act racist — I try to be nice. But why did I feel like that? No Romani has ever hurt me or been a nuisance to me in my everyday life in any other way than silently sitting by the roads I walk with their beggar cups (which I regard as a human right). The obvious answer is that my thoughts were a distillate of the stories that I’ve been exposed to about Romani, many of which are not particularly nice — but neither are they my responsibility.

Romany granny. Photo: Anglos. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Romany granny. Photo: Anglos. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Polls have shown that in Norway, those who hold the most negative views about immigrants are those who’ve interacted the least with them (Norwegian .pdf pp143f). This illustrates the same point: The stories about immigrants are far worse than reality, and those who only have the stories to relate to therefore form opinions that are more negative than those who have real-life experience. Discourse is a term that describes a collection of stories in a given field. When it comes to how we as humans relate to people around us, discourses about Otherness play a significant role. We frequently define ourselves in opposition to someone on the outside of our community (in an abstract sense). We do this on a micro level, in the form of gossip, on a macro level, in the form of e.g. political antipathies, and sometimes it’s even done between countries and people — as in the Russian Slavophile discourse, which defines Russians and Russia in opposition to Europe. Some such discourses are entwined with shame, mostly because we know they’re unethical. I’ll return to this matter later on. For now, it will suffice to write that racism and xenophobia can be seen as outgrowths of discourses about the Other. This means that we should carefully consider which stories we hand on, and how we frame different subjects.

A third way?

Here, I’ll present an example of a framing that I consider to be unfortunate. Let’s begin by considering the construction of the term “integration policy”. The last part is “policy”, which in this specific context describes how the general society has decided to act on a matter. The first part is “integration”, which describes the process through which people — in a collective or singular sense — who are not yet full members of society can acquire full membership. Integration policy, thus, is the action society takes when it approaches an arriving minority. It’s a common fact that whoever defines a problem will incorporate their impression of reality into their definition. As far as integration policy is not informed by a perspective where the majority is forced to consider itself critically, society will always define the problems of integration in a manner that puts the responsibility in the hands of the arriving minority. The discourse on integration is necessarily a discussion about the Other.

This is reflected even in the policies of one of Norway’s most liberal parties, my own Socialist Left party. A resolution on integration policy passed in 2010 contains passages that are typical of the present Norwegian discourse on immigration.

Two opposing views have dominated discussions on integration. On one side, there are those who believe that minorities ought to become as similar to the majority as possible, and therefore have to give up their identity. On the other side, there is the view that different cultures in a society should cherish their differences and have separate values and ways of life, even when these are opposed to fundamental common values. The Socialist Left party works towards a third way in integration policy.


The third way is built on an insistence that there exists a set of fundamental common values and duties, but that a large space remains in which differences in ways of life, culture and religion may be realised. The Socialist Left party considers diversity to be a value in its own right. Democracy, gender equality and social equity are non-negotiable, fundamental values in the society we strive to build. We will struggle against all attempts to compromise these values, also when they are motivated by religion or culture.

Another passage which, despite an ambivalence, makes the point that Norwegian values stand in opposition to those of the Other, reads as follows:

A well-functioning multicultural society is preconditioned on a set of common rights and duties. The Socialist Left party strives to base the Norwegian society on democracy, gender equality and social equity. These are universal rights which have a strong standing in Norway as a result of political and social struggle over many decades, and not something that can we can take for granted as “Norwegian values”.

The construction of otherness

Let us now recall the construction of the term “integration policy”, and hold it up against this professed “third way”, and we see that when society’s approach to an arriving minority is considered, even the Socialist Left considers the arrival as a threat to society’s fundamental values. This is not a third way. Rather, as has been pointed out by several scholars in the fields of culture, racism and security policy (all are pdf links to research papers), it is a fundamental part of one of the most problematic discourses on Otherness that Europe presently has to deal with: That which tells stories of an alleged Islamic threat and has substituted religion and culture for race to perform an act of intellectual necromancy and raise the spectre of racism once again.

Facies rasa. Photo: Carsten Frenzl. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0
Facies rasa. Photo: Carsten Frenzl. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Thus, even one of the Norwegian society’s most progressive voices is unable to avoid placing the blame for societal malfunction on the arriving minorities. In doing this, better explanatory variables are overshadowed, and more precise definitions of societal problems deferred: The negative discourse of integration is continued and the stigma placed on the Other increases. If there is a third way, surely it must aim to move beyond this negative discourse.

Breaking the taboo

Above, the entanglement of some discourses about the Other with shame was discussed. The discourse on integration, it seems, is growing — even though it has such entanglements. The “integration perspective” is introduced on a growing number of fields, and frequently in areas where it would, until recently, seem absurd to find such a perspective. One such case is that of head garments as part of public uniforms. In Norway, a sikh served in His Majesty’s Royal Guards with a turban in the eighties (see facsimile). It was considered a curiosity. When the use of hijabs in the Defence was discussed quite recently (or even more acutely, hijabs on police officers or judges), it was framed as a threat against fundamental societal values. Now, however, there’s many more than that single Sikh, you might argue, it’s the sheer numbers that has made this an issue. However, that’s simply not true — the issue is largely a hypothetical one.

Facsimile of news clipping from Retriever: The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten writes about a Sikh who was allowed to use his Turban during service in His Majesty the King's Guard. License: None, cf. Åndsverkloven §22 (Norwegian IPR law).
Facsimile of news clipping from Retriever: The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten writes about a Sikh who was allowed to use his Turban during service in His Majesty the King’s Guard. License: None, cf. Åndsverkloven §22 (Norwegian IPR law).

I find an interesting parallel to this in Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality”, where he shows how the concept of sexuality as a part if human nature and identity, not to mention the term itself, is a relatively recent invention. He writes about how the sexual is taboo, entwined with shame, and regarded as something primal, over which it is attempted to achieve control by explicitly thematizing it in public. “We must dare to have this discussion,” is a trope that is widely recognised as a cliché (at least in a Scandinavian context). It has been masterly deconstructed by Swedish MP for The Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), Ali Esbati. But the fact that we have acquired knowledge about the function of this trope has not stopped us from being its thralls.

The collective self-denial of individual liberty

As Esbati deconstructs the trope of alleged moral courage, Foucault shows that the modern public discourse on sexuality is really limiting, despite, or rather because of, its incessant explicitness. As with racism, the taboos of sexuality are so stubborn that it is still possible to frame plays on one of literary history’s most dominant tropes that of the whore versus the madonna as an emancipatory project. A treatment of this which is both acadmically stringent and stands in historical continuity with current Norwegian discourses can be found in Gro Hagemann’s work (cited from Svein Atle Skålevåg: «Kjønnsforbrytelser, sedelighet, seksualitet og strafferett 1880-1930» (“Sex crimes, Vice, Sexuality and the Penal Code 1880-1193”, in Norwegian):

Suffragette Waltz. Record cover from the USA, 1914. License: In the public domain.
Suffragette Waltz. Record cover from the USA, 1914. License: In the public domain.

[In Hagemann’s view], the defining schisma of the cultural debates of the 1880’s was a divide between an individualist cultural radicalism on one side and a societally oriented cultural conservatism on the other side (exemplified by Monrad), which was concerned with the collective morals. In this conflict, the question of women’s emancipation became “the debate’s most flammable issue”.


The opposition between individualism and collectivism constituted a “moral dilemma”, which, for its part, was immanent in the fabric of the feminist project, in Hagemann’s opinion. “The debate about vice accentuated an ambivalence that had been latent in the women’s movement from the very beginning. And over time, a shift in the relationship between the two positions took place. While the cultural radicals in the 1870’s and 80’s broadly speaking supported an equity-oriented feminism, women’s organisations in the 1890’s to a greater extent reflected a values-oriented conservative position focused on gender differences.

At this point, it seems appropriate to highlight which side in these debates which used traditional values to frame the Other as a threat: Those who would conserve the societal status quo, the sexuality and societal order which they had come to regard as normal.

The attack on normality

Returning to the term “integration” in the Norwegian context, it is clear that the opposition our – Other is an inherently conservative framing of the issue. Frequently this is embellished with lists of phenomena belonging to the Other: Typical themes of “integration” are forced marriage, women and children’s exposure to domestic violence, social control, extremism, genital mutilation and demands of separate boy and girl classes. Here, I would like to restate some of the main points of Ali Esbati’s piece, which I referred to above: The result of these debates on integration isn’t that we arrive at new solutions. The result of framing the problems as issues of “integration” is also not the formulation of a powerful policy to bridge differences in the general society. On the contrary, the debate on integration serves as a quasi-legitimate coat rack for emotions that can’t be legitimately expressed in other contexts, and lists of the above type leads the thought toward the general typologies for demonisation of the Other (Norwegian, .pdf). To many it is even an opportunity to thematize taboos — as long as it is done within certain rules.

Tidemand: Farmer from Vossevangen. License: In the public domain. (via Ola Nordmann goes west
Tidemand: Farmer from Vossevangen. License: In the public domain. (via Ola Nordmann goes west

Integration policy thus becomes an excuse to collect all problematic issues where immigrants are overrepresented under one umbrella. People of Norwegian ethnicity are wildly overrepresented among persons committing internation tax evasion crimes (in a Norwegian context) and among persons who serially import women from Eastern Europe and Asia in order to marry and beat them. We don’t make Norwegian-political resolutions to discuss these issues. To many, even the notion of doing so seems absurd. But it doesn’t seem absurd to collect all forms of problems where immigrants are over-represented in integration policy, and thus use this field to underscore the attack that immigration, allegedly, mounts on “normality”, “the Norwegian”, or “tradition”.

A positive project

Having mounted an attack on the notion that a third way has successfully been paved out — what do I propose in stead? Is there a positive project to be found in this criticism? In my opinion, the first step is to make the matter of integration as small as at all possible. We need to include the Other in the We that formulates policies regarding Us. Integration policy needs to become a matter of the mere first steps: The help, support and incentives that are the new arrivals’ very first meeting with our society. Next, we need to get used to the phrase “this isn’t about integration, it’s about the social or material circumstances.”  Integration policy can only be ethical if it remains entirely positive in its perception of the Other.

Many of the subjects that are currently treated as matters of integration will continue to be important in political discourse. However, in stead of integration policy, consisting of the perspectives of the welfare, regulatory and judicial institutions on immigration (or the Other), we need to address specific issues in specific contexts: People with a different country background than Norwegian are probably over-represented in the target group of the Child Protection Services (CPS), at least in Oslo. That’s a matter of CPS policy and not immigration policy, because it concerns the CPS and not a public institution of immigration.

What about my racism — can I get rid of it? Hopefully, I can, but there’s an obvious need for a lot of help from everyone else. To paraphrase a frequently misunderstood quote by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norwegian newspaper article): We need to deconstruct integration policy until it’s impossible to speak of integration as a singular phenomenon or immigrants as stereotypes ever again.

A culturally biased interpretation of law

This post is an edited translation of a text that was first published on the Norwegian feminist blog maddam.no. The Norwegian version was published in the daily Klassekampen April 24, 2012 (see picture below).

Faksimile av Klassekampens utgave av artikkelen
Facsimile of the article published in Klassekampen April 24, 2012.

The hunt for beauty has found a path to the crotch. Designer vaginas are perhaps not a part of the mainstream, but the demand for surgery that aims to beautify the female genitals appears to be on the rise. Legal regulations (at least in Norway), however, seems a little unclear. The Law on Genital Mutilation (Norwegian: Kjønnslemlestelseslova) states that whoever makes irreversible changes to female genitals should be subject to legal penalties. Still, no plastic surgeon has been charged or prosecuted with such a crime. The parliamentary deliberations, which in Norway serve as a source for legal interpretation (link to Norwegian text here) states that the law targets a specific cultural practice. Is that reasonable?

Before continuing, I’d like to explicitly condemn the genital mutilation or so-called «circumcision» of young girls. No-one in their right mind would claim that we should tolerate such practices in Norway. However, if my interpretation of the law stands up to scrutiny, the consequences when it concerns adult, consenting women appear absurd.

In the parliamentary deliberations mentioned, some actions are explicitly excluded from the regulations in The Law on Genital Mutilation:

«The prohibition does not apply to procedures which have a medical reason, e.g. procedures that are necessary during the delivery of children, the removal of genital organs in the course of cancer treatment etc. Corrections of congenital defects, e.g. hermaphroditism, as well as legitimate sex reassignment surgery are also not prohibited.»

This seems to be a reasonable exclusion from the scope of the law. The list of exemptions is not exhaustive, but mentions examples in two main areas: Procedures that are medically necessary and procedures that relate to sexual identity in a strict sense. Does this include genital plastic surgery? In an interview, a Norwegian plastic surgeon performin such surgery, Halfdan Simensen, tells a online celebrity site about his business (link):

«As with breasts, labia come in all shapes and sizes, and almonst anything is normal. But individual freedom is an important point here, and having performed about 500 procedures of this kind, my experience is that they serve a real need. Unfortunately, many gynecologists don’t care about what the women themselves feel.»

In online fora for women, genital plastic surgery is discussed. Some share experiences about problems which obviously need medical attention. Others relate how bicycle seats and underwear are uncofortable. Many stories are about beaty ideals.

One user, for example, explains:

«I don’t dare to wear a bikini, because it makes a big lump appear between my legs. And I’m very afraid of getting intimate.»

Another user appears to have greater issues with her self-esteem:

«The problem is that I don’t want to give birth before I’ve done it [have a labioplasty, my note], no midwife would want to receive a child from my ugly loins…»

Whatever one thinks about these statements and the plastic surgeon’s appeal to heed women’s feelings about genital plastic surgery, it’s difficult to see how the parliamenatry deliberations supporting The Law on Genital Mutilation take into account its subjects individual freedoms and feelings:

«One of the purposes of this bill is to regulate those instances which are not covered by The Penal Code. In particular, consent from a legal and capable adult to a minor procedure could be exempt under The Penal Code. The Ministry proposes that the prohibition applies whether the women has consented to the circumcision or not.»

The Law on Genital Mutilation thus prohibits procedures that permanently alter the genitals of adult women with full mental capabilities, even if they have explicitly consented to them. But isn’t culturally dependent genital mutilation objectively different from genital plastic surgery?

Let’s see what clinics have on offer. One clinic, Plastikkirurgisk institutt, explains in detail which procedures are offered:

1) «reduction and shape correction of the labia minora»

2) «reduction and toning of the labia majora»

3) «shape correction of the clitoral area»

4) «increasing the volume (labia majora, entire genital complex) with the patient’s own fat»

5) «vaginal rejuvenation, i.e. reduction of the inner diameter of the vagina»

6) «liposuction of the genital complex»

According to the definitions put forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), these procedures clearly belong within three of four defined main groups of genital mutilation. The group that is not covered is that which contains the most harmful procedures – among them the so-called pharaonic variant or infibulation – where the labia majora are sewn together.

Bilde som viser de ulike formene for kjønnslemlestelse skjematisk. Et normalt underliv, type I, der klitoris eller bare klitorisforhuden fjernes, type II, illustrert ved at også deler av de indre kjønnsleppene er fjerna, og type 3, der det i tillegg til fjerning a v disse kroppsdelene sys sting på tvers av de ytre kjønnsleppene, slik at hele genitalområdet lukkes.
Schematic illustration of a normal genital area and female genital mutilation of types I, II and III in the most common variants.

Going into details, according to the definitions in the WHO report Eliminating female genital mutilation, a «shape correction of the clitoral area» to some extent falls under FGM type I, partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. Any procedure that alters the shape of the clitoral area will likely entail the removal of parts of the clitoral prepuce.

«Reduction and shape correction of the labia minora» will be covered by type II, removal of the labia minora only. A variant, type II a, defines as FGM procedures that only target the labia minora

The other procedures will all be covered by the WHO definitions of type IV, a cover-all category for all other harmful or potentially harmful practices that are performed on the genitalia of girls and women. Piercings are explicitly mentioned – body artists beware! Stretching of the labia minora is another phenomenon that is mentioned. Such stretching is not a part of the debate on FGM in a Norwegian, European or North American context, but the WHO’s reasoning for including it is highly relevant to the present discussion:

Labial stretching might be defined as a form of female genital mutilation because it is a social convention, and hence there is social pressure on young girls to modify their genitalia, and because it creates permanent genital


Cutting the vagina or the introduction of harmful substances to make it tighter or to increase one’s own or the partner’s sexual pleasure is also mentioned. «Vaginal rejuvenation» would surely be covered by this definition.

How do the plastic surgeons draw the line? The aforementioned Halfdan Simensen says:

«I reject few, but I want young women to have a referral from a gynecologist and an approval from their mother.»

How then, does he, hypothetically draw the line between an ethnic Norwegian 16 year old, bringing a letter from her mom and saying that «she can’t live with her hideous crotch» and another 16 year old with Senegalese roots who says «I can’t stand the thought of walking around with an unclean, uncircumcised vulva – please remove my labia minora,» while her approving mother waits just outside the doctor’s office.

Or even worse: What about legal adults? If the law currently in effect is interpreted not to prohibit the purely cosmetic surgeries, the only reference in legal texts supporting such a position would be the followin passage in the parliamentary deliberations:

The ministry states that it considers it to be very important that immigrant cultural norms are taken into consideration, but not that any norm is worthy of protection, when the norms in question are repressive or physically destructive.

It could be argued that the immediate harms of cosmetic surgeries are minuscule when compared to genital mutilation. The Law on Genital Mutilation considers the immediate harm when judging the severity of the criminal surgery/procedure. A precondition for a ruling that a case of genital mutilation is «severe», entailing a sentence of up to 8 years of prison, is that

«the procedure leads to illness or incapacity to perform work that lasts more than two weeks, or that an irreparable injury or harm results from it»

A user in a women’s online forum relates her experience with labioplasty:

«I’d got a leave from work for 2 weeks and 3 days. Way too long leave, I thought. Gosh, was I wrong! [I] had such a swelling that I couldn’t leave home for 10 days, and it only subsided after the 13th day. and after three weeks was almost back to normal»

In practice, this means that the only objective legal difference between cosmetic genital surgery and severe genital mutilation, when adult, consenting women are concerned, is the cultural environment in which the desire to have the procedure performed orginates. If the decision is made on the basis of beauty ideals originating in Western culture, whoever performs the procedure seems not only to go free from legal penalties, it’s even allowed to market the procedure and perform it on legal minors. If the decision is made on the basis of other cultural norms, especially African, whoever performs the procedure must face charges.

If this is indeed the legal situation, the part of The Law on Genital Mutilation that concerns adult, consenting individuals, quite surely will be covered by The Law on Discrimination (link to Norwegian text). If we’re not willing to go so far as to prohibit scalpel prettiness, we should at least consider how we relate to the question of being an adult and taking on the responsibility for one’s own body. There is solid, general wording in The Penal Code covering coercion and bodily harm. Is it really necessary to have an extra law just to penalize Africans?