Forbidden Love Taboos and Fear among Muslim Girls
Young Muslim women are often forced to lead double lives in Europe. They have sex in public restrooms and stuff mobile phones in their bras to hide their secret existences from strict families. They are often forbidden from visiting gynecologists or receiving sex ed. In the worst cases, they undergo hymen reconstruction surgery, have late-term abortions or even commit suicide.
Gülay has heard it from her mother so many times: An unmarried woman who has lost her virginity might as well be a whore.
Gülay, 22, lives in Berlin's Neukölln, a district that is home to a high number of Muslim immigrants, and has little in common with the cliché of the "girl with the headscarf." She wears tight jeans, low-cut blouses and has long hair that she doesn't keep covered. She is self-confident and looks people in the eye. Gülay plans to begin a training program to work as an airport ground hostess next year. At first glance, she comes across as a poster child for successful integration.
Nevertheless, she is adamantly opposed to seeing her name in print, just as she would never meet a journalist for an interview in one of the hookah bars in her neighborhood that are so popular among Arab and Turkish immigrants. She is worried that someone could overhear her talking about her family's strict morals, and about the rigid code of honor in her social environment that prevents girls from having sex before marriage and forbids them from having boyfriends.
Gülay is thinking about how best to sum up her dilemma. She nervously stirs her tea before launching into a litany of complaints. "The boys can screw around as much as they want, but if a girl does it she can expect to be shot," she says. "That's just sick." She first had sex five years ago, and it completely changed her life. Since then, she has been deathly afraid of being branded by her family as a dishonorable girl -- or, worst yet, punished and cast out.
A Constant Tug-of-War
Hardly any other issue is as fraught with prohibition and fear among Germany's Muslim immigrants as sex. Many Muslim families adhere to moral values from a pre-modern era, and the separation of the sexes affects almost all aspects of daily life. At the same time, young female immigrants are faced with the temptations of a free life unrestrained by religious and cultural traditions. Their daily lives are a constant tug-of-war between two value systems.
Many of them suffer from this contradiction, and some crack under the strain. Doctors and social workers report on desperate young women coming to them with requests to reconstruct the hymen or perform late-term abortions. The elevated risk of suicide among young immigrant women even prompted Berlin's Charité Hospital to establish a suicide prevention initiative for women from Turkish immigrant families. In a multi-year study, the group hopes to discover why the suicide rate within this population is apparently twice as high as it is among ethnic German women of the same age.
The consequences of living this double life have been poorly studied. Almost no governmental and non-governmental organizations, from family and education ministries to immigration authorities and self-help groups, can offer reliable figures or well-founded conclusions on the issue.
"The problems these women face are caused by the patriarchal and traditional structures in families," says Berlin's commissioner for integration and migration, Günter Piening. According to Piening, youth welfare agencies, government offices and schools have been educated on the issue for years, "but a lot remains to be done."
Being Home by 8 p.m.
Of course, these problems do not exclusively affect Muslim groups. Young women in other social groups also suffer as a result of strict moral codes and domestic violence. And there are also Muslim families in which the daughters lead a modern, self-determined life, a fact that Piening and other politicians are quick to point out.
But doctors, social workers and the operators of crisis hotlines and youth clubs often experience a different reality. They note that, like in Turkey, equal rights are usually only experienced in families in academic or artistic circles. Otherwise, strict traditions dictate that fathers and brothers control the lives of their sisters and daughters.
This helps to explain why many girls with Turkish and Arab origins are so candid about their double lives, but only as long as they are not named.
One of the places where they are more likely to speak their minds is a Berlin youth club for girls from devout families, which is strictly off-limits to boys -- the perfect place for Gülay and her girlfriends to meet. Otherwise, they are not permitted to go out. Going to a party is tantamount to turning tricks, and girls who are not home by 8 p.m., when shops close, need a good excuse to explain their tardiness.
The only freedom these girls enjoy is at school, while shopping or in youth clubs. "When I go home I hide my mobile phone in my underwear," says Sibel, giggling as she extracts a mobile phone from her bra. "I'm not allowed to have a mobile phone or talk to boys. What else should I do?"
Twenty Minutes in a Public Bathroom
A small group of teenagers has congregated in the youth club kitchen. The girls are talking about sex, and almost all of them have something to say, something about their families that upset them. "The first thing our parents think is that we're up to no good," says one of the girls. Nevertheless, most have boyfriends, and even a visit to a gynecologist would be unthinkable for many of these girls, for fear of being spotted by relatives who would automatically conclude that they are there to get the pill -- and are therefore sluts. "There are girls who would rather die from the pain," says Gülay.
Sex education in school is also taboo for many young Muslim girls, says Gülay, who was the only one of 15 Muslim girls in her grade who attended the classes. Her fellow female students from the most devout families, says Gülay, "asked me all kinds of questions about how to use a condom and how to get the pill. Some of them didn't know anything at all." And some, according to Gülay, believed that all they had to do after having sex was to rinse themselves thoroughly with water. Others, especially "headscarf girls," only engage in anal sex with their boyfriends, believing that in this way they can protect their "honor," says Gülay.
Taking a boy home would almost be suicidal, say the girls at the youth club. The thought alone is so unheard-of that it triggers hysterical laughter. They rattle off the places where they have their rendezvous: hallways, park benches or the public restroom on Boddin Square in Neukölln, where person can get 20 minutes of privacy for 50 cents. Some girls are lucky enough to have a boyfriend with his own car or who can at least afford to pay 20 ($27) for a hotel room.
Connecting with a Hotline
And what happens then?
Papatya, a Berlin crisis center and shelter for girls of Turkish origin, provides neither an address nor a telephone number on his website. For more than 20 years, Papatya has been offering protection and shelter to young immigrant girls and women fleeing domestic violence. The organization is careful to keep its identity and whereabouts a secret. When it comes to injured family honor, anyone who so much as helps the girls can quickly get into danger.
Those who want to contact Papatya are asked to leave a number on an emergency hotline. A short time later, a social worker or a psychologist calls the girls.
One of the staff members at the center is a woman named Leila. In the eight years she has been working at Papatya, she has heard the same complaints again and again. Her list runs the gamut from girls being kept at home and barred from going to school to forced marriage and acts of violence committed on behalf of parents. In her counseling sessions, the girls repeatedly talk about their virginity, and about the fact that their happiness, or lack thereof, can depend solely on a few millimeters of skin.
- Part 1: Taboos and Fear among Muslim Girls
- Part 2: Honor and Virginity