Faculty of Law
New honorary doctor

Spotlight on the international family

Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg is one of those lucky people who have lived to see the career path she chose in her youth, growing ever more relevant and interesting with time. On January 25th she received her honorary doctorate at the UiB.

Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg
Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg
Kjerstin Gjengedal

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Text: Kjerstin Gjengedal

"Now I'll just lean back and enjoy, isn't that what an honorary doctor is supposed to do?" she says, laughing. Originally, Jänterä-Jareborg was scheduled to attend the doctoral degree ceremony in August last year, together with the other six honorary doctors appointed at the same time, but an accident prevented her from coming. Only now has she finally received her diploma and ring.

Her great interest has always been international private law. As a girl, Jänterä-Jareborg attended a school for children of diplomats, and she became interested in the international family constellations that surrounded her. Nevertheless, specialising in international family law wasn't easy in her native Finland. She went to Uppsala in Sweden for her postgraduate studies, and there she stayed. She has built a comprehensive career as a researcher, and is also much sought after as an expert consultant for government white papers and for international commissions. She notes that her academic field has only become more relevant since she started her studies. When mothers, fathers and even children all come from different countries, which rules should apply to the relationship between them?

Takes the courts by surprise

"Everyone knows somebody who is married to, or cohabiting with, or has children with, a foreigner, or somebody who has their origin in another country. More and more frequently, the courts are confronted with the expectation that legislation from other countries should be taken into consideration, and this often leads to controversy," she says.

Modern society brings with it many issues which are new and unexpected to the jurists and court rooms. As an example, she mentions an instance some time in the 80s, when it was suggested in a Swedish white paper that couples might get married simply by filling out a form, with no official ceremony of any sort being required.

"Many jurists were thrilled with the idea, just think how simple it would be! This was back when cohabitation was increasing very strongly, and the aim was to remove any obstacle that might prevent cohabiting couples from getting married. But then someone discovered that in our society, there existed a subgroup of young people who were not allowed to choose life partners on their own. Marriage by registration meant there would be no way to make sure that marriages were voluntary. In order to function, such a system would need to be based on all citizens sharing the same values, and there were no guarantees for that," she points out.

Asks for tolerance

Denmark, too, got in trouble a few years ago, when the Danish government decided to grant asylum to everyone who had worked as interpreters for the Danish contingent in Iraq during the war. One of the interpreters had two wives, which is in compliance with Iraqi law, and he wished to bring both wives with him to Denmark.

"The Danish government ruled that in order to stay in Denmark, the man would have to divorce one of his wives. In the end, the family preferred to return to war and uncertainty in Iraq." 

Nordic principles are put to the test when people who follow completely different rules, suddenly need protection in our countries. Jänterä-Jareborg thinks our courts need to develop a greater understanding of conditions being different in other parts of the world, and of the fact that not everyone shares Scandinavian values.

"The case with the Iraqi interpreter is substantially different from, say, a Norwegian man traveling to Iraq with the objective of marrying several women. The second case would be a clear instance of circumventing the law. The Iraqi did not; he followed the laws of his own country. I myself am of the opinion that the right to privacy and family must include polygamy if the marriages are in accordance with the law in the person's country of origin."

What is freedom of religion?

Over the last few years she has become more interested in questions arising in the intersection between law and religion. People from different countries tend to disagree about whether religious or secular entities should have authority over family life. How should we react when someone claims that their religion ranks above the law? There is often great confusion concerning what should be labeled religion and law, respectively, and this confusion can obviously be exploited in order to manipulate people, for instance by saying women should have fewer rights than men for religious reasons. The consequences of freedom of religion have not been sufficiently investigated, according to Jänterä-Jareborg. It seems clear to her that politicians in the Nordic countries are unskilled in principled thinking when it comes to religious questions.

"This is a very exciting field of research because people tend to have very fixed, and diametrically opposite, opinions. Accusations of cultural relativism and racism abound, and conflicts arise very easily, even in academic circles. Many jurists treat these questions somewhat clinically, and then they get accused of lacking the understanding of how things are out there in the real world. I, for example, believe that the law ought to allow people to make their own choices, but is that the same as saying all choices are equal? These are difficult questions," she says.

Law is an international subject

Jänterä-Jareborg was appointed honorary doctor by the University of Bergen following a recommendation from the Faculty of Law. Previously, she has also been appointed honorary doctor at the universities of Oslo and Helsinki. She assumes the reason is that Nordic scholars of law are familiar with each others' work.

"Nordic researchers cooperate on organising conferences, and they work together in research groups. You would think that law is a national subject, but it's really not. The considerations to be made are the same in every country. These days, law is going through a very strong process of internationalisation, and if you want to do research, you need to travel and get to know the systems in other countries. The international dimension needs to be taken into account in the educational system as well, and a lot has happened on that score. Many students want to become lawyers, and in order to do your best for you client, you need to know about legislation in different countries," she says.

Within the EU, private law across borders is now a topic of priority. But the EU is under constant obligation to respect the national identity of its member states, and thus far, the EU has had to keep off national private law. At the same time, many research projects have been initiated, where the aim is to compare private law between countries.

"It has become very clear that some countries, above all the Nordic countries, have liberal rules while other countries lag behind. Research projects of this kind interest politicians too, which means that scholars can really have a strong influential power," says Jänterä-Jareborg.