Sexism and Islam: 'Where I'm From, This is Handled By Men'
The New Year's Eve attacks on women in Cologne have led to a new discussion within Germany about the treatment of women in Islamic societies. The issue has become central to the country's heated refugee debate. By SPIEGEL Staff
The Erich Gutenberg College is a trade school in Mülheim, an economically underdeveloped district in Cologne. Two-thirds of the students here are first- or second-generation immigrants, and most are Muslim. A few days after the incidents in Cologne on New Year's Eve, in which a large crowd of men with supposed immigrant backgrounds harassed and sexually assaulted women in the city's main train station, a female teacher stood in front of her class at the school and tried to talk to her students about that night's events.
She was horrified by their reaction. "What exactly do you want?" one of the students shouted. "That's what women can expect if they walk around there at night!" No one in the classroom protested. The girls were silent. "They have their thoughts on the issue, but they often say nothing," says the school's principal, Rolf Wohlgemuth. After the incident, he went into the teacher's classroom and tried to explain to the students that the government protects the rights of everyone, including women. He is skeptical that the message will have a lasting impact on all the students.
Three weeks have passed since New Year's Eve in Cologne. About 800 women have filed complaints with the police since then, and the shockwaves from Cologne are still affecting politicians in Berlin. The police are still searching for more suspects, even as the country remains mystified by their motives. Cologne could go down in history as a turning point in Germany's refugee debate, but there is also another, more fundamental dimension. Even though the Cologne perpetrators constitute only a tiny, criminal minority within the migrant and refugee population, the most important aspect of the attacks is that their victims were women, bringing women's rights to the forefront of the integration debate.
The attacks sparked a major debate in Germany and raised important questions about gender roles in society. Critics have noted that many Muslim societies have patriarchal inclinations that define gender roles between men and women far more narrowly than in the West. Did the attacks in Cologne cast light on tensions between these patriarchal tendencies and Western notions of society and equal rights for women? The Economist tackled the issue in mid-January its article "Migrant Men and European Women." In an interview with SPIEGEL, leading German thinker, writer and Islam scholar Navid Kermani posed the question of whether Germany will succeed in its integration challenge. Meanwhile, the left-leaning weekly newspaper Die Zeit asked: "Who Is the Arab Man?"
It's a question that many women in Germany are asking themselves in the wake of Cologne. There is myriad anecdotal evidence of German women experiencing the culture clash firsthand. There are reports of men who refuse to shake hands with women. Some female teachers have to deal with fathers of students who refuse to speak to them, or parents who don't want a woman teaching their child. And there are instances in the business world where men refuse to work with women and demand that a woman's male superior be appointed as their point of contact in dealings. "This macho culture can already be found in Germany," says Ahmad Mansour, a Palestinian-Israeli who works as a psychologist focused on integration issues.
New Debates about Islam
Representatives of official Muslim religious organizations claim that discrimination and violence against women have nothing to do with Islam. "Islam assumes that woman and man are equal before God and the law," says Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. It is true that Islam and patriarchy are not inevitably intertwined, and because Islam has no supreme leader like the pope who can establish a binding interpretation, the religion permits a liberal interpretation of the Koran. In reality, however, the global Muslim mainstream has very different notions of equality than the West, and the Koran is often used to justify patriarchal and misogynistic convictions.
In predominantly Muslim regions, the state of women's rights is especially troubling. Polling indicates that the majority of Muslims do not take it for granted that men and women have the same rights. The Pew Research Center in Washington surveyed 38,000 Muslims between 2008 and 2012. More than half -- and a whopping 87 percent in the Middle East and North Africa -- held the view that a woman should always obey her husband. In fact, only a quarter of those questioned in the Middle East and North Africa felt that daughters and sons should inherit equal shares of their parents' money, and only a third said that women have the right to get divorced.
Lamya Kaddor is tired of the debate over Islam. The liberal Islamic scholar has been working as a mediator for years. She explains Islam to non-Muslims in Germany, and she explains non-believers to Muslims. There has been much to explain since Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center in the name of Allah. The discussion about terrorism was followed by a series of debates, on forced marriages and honor killings, female genital mutilation, Salafists, the construction of mosques and now, once again, the image of women. "Now I'm starting to explain what Islam is all over again," says Kaddor.
The 37-year-old teaches Islamic Studies in Dinslaken, in northwestern Germany. The image of women held by many migrants is indeed a problem, she says. They have come to a free country from "oppressed societies," she says. "Then they have to wait 15 months to find out whether or not they can stay. This is too long. It allows people to fall back into old patterns," says Kaddor.
'Where I'm From, This is Handled By Men'
Many women come into contact with these patterns in Germany, not just in the form of sexual harassment, but in situations where it becomes clear that they are not being accepted in their professions and social roles. Most of the women SPIEGEL spoke with about the subject were unwilling to be quoted by name, fearing that they could be labeled as xenophobic, and they stress that difficulties are the exception, and that most Muslim men essentially have no problem with women.
"Muslim offenders often have a problem accepting female judges," says one judge from Hamburg. She claims they treat her with contempt, and use gestures or facial expressions to show that they do not respect a woman in her position. A female flight attendant says she "often has problems with Muslim men working as ground personnel." To avoid unpleasant situations, she says, crews often decide to send a male coworker instead.
Female German Federal Police officers who process immigrants at the border with Austria say that men ignore or berate them. Some spit on the ground in front of them, says one officer. "That sometimes requires a more robust effort."
The personnel manager for a company in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg remembers how a male employee snapped at her, saying that she, as a "German woman," had no business telling him what to do. On another occasion, an employee asked to meet with a male colleague instead of her. "I have nothing against you," he said, "but where I'm from, this is handled by men."
Maresi Lassek, president of an elementary school in the northern city of Bremen for 20 years, remembers "how fathers kept their hands clasped behind their backs" to avoid having to shake her hand. An elementary school teacher from the Odenwald region south of Frankfurt speaks of "outlandish experiences," and says: "I often had the feeling that fathers didn't take me seriously, because I'm a woman." A teacher from Hamburg says that fathers tried "to avoid us women and converse with our male colleagues instead." And when Annelie Hobohm, who teaches illiterate children in a Hamburg school, asks everyone in the class to clean up, the boys sometimes refuse to sweep the floor. Cleaning is women's work, they say.
Sineb El Masrar was born in Hanover in 1981, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. She's also a member of the German Islam Conference and a pioneer in the Islamic women's movement. Her book "Emancipation in Islam -- a Reckoning with Its Enemies," is set to be published in Germany next month. "There is a misogyny, a hatred for women," she says.
A Dichotomy in Images of Women
El Masrar says that the history of Islam, up until the present, has been shaped by the patriarchal oppression of women. She argues that the Cologne assaults were spurred by a number of things: crowded living conditions for migrants in hostels or small apartments, their lack of prospects and the neglect they experience when they lack the support and supervision of the family.
But there is also another reason, says El Masrar: "A culture that makes all things sexual taboo." The men came from an environment in which there is no tender sexuality, she explains. "Everything that's connected with tenderness and sex is placed in the context of prostitution."
She speaks of a schematic image in which women are either saints or whores, in which there is no room for self-determined women. For some Muslim men, says El Masrar, it is irritating and frustrating that not every woman in Germany is available, "just because she's walking in a miniskirt." Some, she explains "react by becoming extremely religious, while others become aggressive."
El Masrar points to Moroccan men as an example, noting that many experience frustration not only in Europe, but also in the country of their origin. "Sex is taboo, on the one hand," she says, "but on the other it's downloadable everywhere." There are even sex hotlines in Arabic, she says. The men act out their insecurities on the street, where women are harassed and propositioned. But women in the country have been fighting back for some time. In a movement similar to #Aufschrei (#Outcry), a German Twitter initiative to raise awareness about sexism and sexual harassment, women in Morocco have taken to the streets to protest "against all that ass and breast grabbing, the whispers and the perversions that women face."
Young men are also beginning to seek alternatives to narrow patriarchal role models. Asmen Ilhan is a case in point. A few years ago, the young man from Berlin caught himself pigeonholing the girls in his class into either "sluts" or "non-sluts," into girls who had a boyfriend, went out at night or wore tight pants, and girls who behaved in a way deemed appropriate by the Turkish community.
At the Carl-von-Ossietzsky High School in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, the question of which girls were considered "sluts," and which ones were not, was an important one -- both for the boys who kept a close eye on their sisters, even though they themselves were making out and having sex with girls, and for the girls, who were better off staying away from men altogether. No one would have been shocked to hear someone yell in the schoolyard: "I'll kill my sister if anyone touches her." And it would have been hard to tell whether statements like that were meant seriously.
Program to Change Minds
Ilhan was always caught in the middle. His parents came to Germany from Turkey in the late 1970s, and he was born in Berlin. To Germans, he was a Turk, and to Turks he was a Kurd. He was never accepted as a traditional Muslim because his father is an Alawite. His mother is involved in the women's movement within the immigrant community: a word like "slut" would never have been allowed at their dinner table.
But different rules applied in the classroom. Girls were expected to be pure and quiet and boys strong and loud, the latter fixated on their predetermined role as guardians and future breadwinners. Ilhan had already gotten used to this division, if only to fit in, but when he was 16, he began having doubts.
At the time, a friend invited him to join a group that met regularly to question their concept of how girls and boys should behave. The group members were at odds with a culture in which the honor of an entire family depended on whether a daughter was still a virgin at her wedding, and in which boys were obligated to defend that honor -- whether they liked it or not.
Ilhan and his friends became part of a project, called Heroes, in which young men from immigrant families campaign for women's rights. It has already trained 35 young men. Those who become "Heroes" are given a certificate to hang in their rooms. The program includes various role-playing games: In one, a strict father sends his son to bring home his sister, who is hanging out with friends, in another, a family forbids a son from marrying his Swedish girlfriend. The boys also play the role of the girl.
Heroes has held more than 1,000 of these role-playing workshops in schools and youth centers in the last seven years. Even the German president has visited the award-winning project. A photo taken on the day of the president's visit hangs on the wall, across from a poster with a quote from Albert Camus: "Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear."
A Bizarre Understanding of Honor?
"Cologne brought our issues to the fore," says theater teacher Yilmaz Atmaca, one of the co-founders of the Heroes project. Ilhan, now 23, studies psychology and works as a group leader. Seven boys from the program got together in the first week of January to try to come up with an explanation for the Cologne sexual assaults. In their view, the assaults reflect a bizarre understanding of honor. "I'm afraid that the perpetrators felt that women who were wearing Western clothes and were out alone at night had no honor. This is precisely the attitude we want to prevent with our work." At the same time, the young men also felt attacked. They have been campaigning for women's rights for years, "and now people are suddenly saying across the board that the Arab man is a threat."
Muslim men are not the only ones who feel unsettled since Cologne. Many people in Germany are concerned about the tension between the desire to stand up for women's rights and the desire to show solidarity for refugees. Is it acceptable to lower our standards on emancipation in deference to foreign customs? The Federal Employment Agency is also grappling with this question. It trains its employees in both "intercultural sensitization" and "gender sensitivity." The problem is that "intercultural competency" and "gender competency" are not always compatible. What happens, for example, when a Muslim customer refuses to shake a female coworker's hand? Should the woman accept this as being correct from an intercultural perspective, or should she take the standpoint of gender sensitivity and insist on a handshake? "There can be contradictions between a consultation that focuses on sensitivity to migrants and one that emphasizes gender sensitivity," says Eva Peters, director of a project that provides advanced training advice.
For Julia Klöckner, opposition leader for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the decision was clear. About four months ago, she chose not to meet with an imam who refused to shake her hand. It was a bold move, but one that raises a necessary question about the limits of tolerance. She was making the point that women cannot be expected to accept discrimination out of consideration for cultural differences.
This meeting of these cultures is, obviously, not always problematic. A 41-year-old management expert who volunteers to teach German at a refugee hostel in Essen, for instance, has nothing but good things to say about her students. They include construction workers and auto mechanics from Afghanistan, as well as pharmacists from Syria. Her students are always helpful, polite and respectful, she says. "Every time we meet, they are friendly when they greet me and say goodbye, they thank me after the lesson, and they offer to carry my bags when they are heavy. And they also respect my privacy. No one has ever called me at an inappropriate time."
On a Saturday in the Advent season, in the lead up to Christmas, the group organized a cooking evening. Men and women chopped vegetables together, stirred the pots and seasoned the food, and finally served up Syrian appetizers and an Afghan rice dish -- united in the proud recognition that their backgrounds and cultures were being honored in this way. As the volunteer teacher put it: "These Muslim men are more appreciative than many Germans I know."
By Christiane Hoffmann, Julia Jüttner, Sarah Kempf, Ann-Kathrin Müller, Cornelia Schmergal, Katja Thimm, Andreas Ulrich
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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