Taboos and Fear among Muslim Girls
By Güner Balci
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, 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.
For the girls, the worst thing is to be stigmatized as prostitutes, says Leila. "The entire family's honor is dependent on the virginity of the daughters." Sometimes girls call their fathers from her office at Papatya, only to hear shouted responses like: "Now you're a whore."
In many cases, the only solution for girls who have lost their virginity is reconstruction of the hymen. Although German health insurance agencies do not pay for the procedure, counseling centers offer discounted rates as low as €130 ($171), which is one-tenth the usual fee. The demand is apparently as great as the hope that a small piece of skin can save everything for the girls: honor, love and family harmony.
The counselors at Papatya are also aware of the drawbacks of hymen reconstruction, which they say only reinforces the girls' sense of guilt. "They are living a constant lie," says Leila.
Fear and shame also cause many young women to suppress their pregnancies and, when they have no other options, to obtain illegal late-term abortions. In theory, such abortions should not be necessary, because an exception is often made in Germany for underage Muslim girls. If a girl can prove that her life would be in danger if her family discovered her pregnancy, the parental consent requirement is waived for an early abortion.
A Matter of Life and Death
Nevertheless, it is too late by the time many of them arrive at the practice of Dr. Petra Schneider. She seems nervous as she closes the door of her stark examination room. She is afraid of being prosecuted, because the help she offers her female patients is illegal. "The girls usually don't come here alone. Sometimes the mother or the boyfriend comes along. All of them want the same thing: They want it to happen quickly, and to prevent anyone in the family from finding out," she says quietly. A recent patient was a 16-year-old Turkish girl who arrived with her German boyfriend and his mother. The young woman had concealed her pregnancy for six months, wearing baggy clothing and saying that she had gained weight. The family, says Schneider, was only too pleased to believe her.
Schneider spoke to the group for an hour before giving them the address of a clinic in the Netherlands. "I think they went there and had it taken care of," she says. Cases like the one she describes are matters of life and death, not just of the unborn child, but also of the pregnant girl, who could potentially fall victim to an honor killing.
"What am I supposed to do? I have to believe the girls. They don't seem as if they were faking their difficulties," she says. In some cases, she is even pleased that women willing to have a late-term abortion come to her office, instead of resorting to medieval methods carried out by their mothers and aunts, who attempt to trigger a miscarriage with homemade herbal tinctures, hot baths and kicks in the abdomen.
"End Your Silence, Not Your Life"
At the end of the conversation, Schneider shows this reporter the text of the law that defines advertising for abortion services as a crime -- yet another reason why people are unwilling to reveal their real names when discussing the issue.
"End your silence, not your life," reads a slogan on posters the Charité Hospital puts up in neighborhoods with large Turkish and Arab populations. The posters include the number of a crisis hotline.
Meryam Schouler-Ocak, a senior physician in psychiatry at Charité who runs the Suicide Prevention Initiative for Women With Turkish Immigrant Backgrounds, is behind the campaign. Schouler-Ocak, a petite woman with alert eyes, came to Germany from a Turkish village as a young girl. Before discussing her patients, she says, she feels that it is important to emphasize that honor killings and late-term abortions are not the only realities in the Turkish immigrant community, and that some women in the community live emancipated lives. "The people in my circle of friends and acquaintances all allow their daughters every freedom. Of course, they're all academics," she says.
Nevertheless, Schouler-Ocak is convinced that a liberal worldview and, most of all, equality of the sexes are not widespread among people of Turkish origin in Germany.
Almost all of her young female patients report that commands and taboos were the main reason behind their suicide attempts. "Their families forbid everything," says Schouler-Ocak, "and outside on the street, in school, on TV and among friends, they see normal lives in which women have every freedom. This creates a great sense of longing."
Schouler-Ocak is convinced that rigid sexual morals and the double lives of many Muslim women trigger emotional disorders and, in the worst case, can lead to thoughts of suicide.
According to Schouler-Ocak, some women agree to engage in sexual practices that disgust them and make them physically and emotionally ill. It is no secret, she says, that anal sex, whether it is practiced before or after marriage, often causes painful injuries in women.
Training the Professionals
The Berlin project also includes regular training sessions for general practitioners, gynecologists, teachers and educators -- all the people who are often the only point of contact for women outside their own families. The demand is tremendous. The initiators of the project aim to give women the opportunity to break their silence, to offer them direct and uncomplicated help and, if necessary, a referral for hymen reconstruction.
One of her patients, for example, "would have been spared a lot of problems if she had remained a virgin," says Schouler-Ocak. The woman's parents had married her off in an Anatolian village, but when it was discovered that she was no longer a virgin, she was sent back to Berlin. "After that, her father and brother severely abused her for years," says Schouler-Ocak. Only after a number of suicide attempts did the women end up at Charité and eventually find her way out of the family.
"It's hard for women like that to lead a normal life. The years of violence leave their mark," says Schouler-Ocak. She believes that women must be given the ability to strike back with every conceivable tool, as long as strict sexual morals prevail in their environments. The Charité pilot project continues until March 2011, when the crisis hotline will be discontinued.
Control and Suspicion
Gülay, the young woman from Neukölln, thought long and hard about saving up the money for a hymen reconstruction. Five years ago, her first boyfriend broke up with her after having promised to marry her. After that, other men behaved in the same way, because, as Gülay believes, she was already "dirty."
She and her first boyfriend reconciled a year ago. They were married in March, but only after Gülay had promised him that there had been no one else in her life.
Six weeks later, she left her husband because she couldn't endure his need for control and his suspicions. Now she is living at home with her religious mother once again.
Today, she says, she is only interested in marrying a man who doesn't care about virginity. "You just have to find the right one," she says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan