Violence Against Women: A New Direction?

In 2010, journalist-actress-writer-director Feo Aladag released When We Leave (Die Fremde in German), an award-winning film that explores the hardships that characterize one young Turkish-German woman’s transition from a suffocating marriage in Istanbul back to a new life in her native Berlin. Despite her intentions of running from her abusive relationship, she endures further physical abuse from her husband, and is unsupported by her family in her decision to run away with her son. When We Leave blends a number of issues into one story–from Germany’s struggles with multiculturalism to the concept of honor in many Turkish families.

Aladag, of Austrian origin and married to a Turkish-German TV producer, spent a considerable amount of time understanding domestic abuse by living in women’s shelters as part of a human rights group’s domestic violence awareness campaign. When We Leave received press coverage from around the world (some thought it was robbed of an Oscar by The Academy) and gained further attention from the lead actress’ controversial past as an adult film star. Debates over the film’s merit will continue, but there is an issue of much greater importance that has received little attention: Does the film really help prevent honor killings, domestic violence, and other abuse among segments of Germany’s Turkish populations?

Katherine P. Ewing, UW-Madison Professor of Anthropology, questions the approach that Aladag and others in Germany are taking to combat violence against Turkish women. In a review of her book, Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, Stanford University Press writes, ” Ewing asks why and how these stereotypes—what she terms ‘stigmatized masculinity’—largely go unrecognized, and examines how Muslim men manage their masculine identities in the face of such discrimination…Ewing examines a series of controversies—including honor killings, headscarf debates, and Muslim stereotypes in cinema and the media—to reveal how the Muslim man is ultimately depicted as the ‘abjected other’ in German society.” You don’t have to search far to find a perfect illustration of Ewing’s point–just see this Spiegel article.

In a recent email to Inside Islam, Ewing explains how current events and Germany’s political climate have contributed to the creation of When We Leave:

“The 2005 murder of Hatun Surucu, a young Turkish-German woman, which closely paralleled the events in Die Fremde, did in some ways fit the label of a family “honor killing.” This murder led to intensified but unjustified stereotyping of Turks as ‘other’. In the wake of Surucu’s murder, reporters retroactively labeled 5 or 6 other Berlin murders as “honor killings,” even though these murders did not fit a single pattern and were not clearly different from other cases of domestic violence in Germany. The result is that while Germans are said to commit acts of domestic violence, those of Turkish background are said to commit “honor violence.”  This focus on honor killings thus incorrectly reinforces the idea that Turks and Germans are fundamentally different because of their cultures and that Turkish men cannot be good German citizens.  The idea that “honor killings” are a direct result of repressive Turkish culture also distorts the complexities of famiiy dynamics among immigrant families.  It obscures the fact that an important trigger for violence is not Turkish culture but rather the experience of pervasive discrimination as a minority in Germany. When We Leave may thus serve as a vehicle through which liberal groups promoting equal rights and right-leaning political parties become “strange and unintended bedfellows” by exaggerating cultural difference and intensifying anti-Muslim discrimination.”

In October of 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted Germany’s failed attempt at multiculturalism, and cited Germans of Muslim backgrounds speaking the German language as the most important aspect of a “successful integration.” There are a number of issues at play in Germany, but unfortunately the xenophobic framing of the issue has narrowed the discussion and undermined any chance of decreasing domestic abuse against women and honor killings within Turkish-German communities.

Ironically, while honor killings and domestic abuse among segments of Turkish-German society are cultural in origin (both Christian and Muslim Turkish-German women fall victim to domestic violence), the best strategy to combat abuse and honor killings may come from religion. In the U.S., New York University Imam and NYPD Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif has been outspoken about the importance of gender equity in addition to strong renunciations of violence against women from other Muslim-American religious leaders.

Honor killings, domestic abuse, and patriarchal households are topics of great concern in many Muslim communities. Undoubtedly, and unfortunately, most of these issues exist in the majority of countries around the world, but Muslims are often unfairly targeted as being the primary actors in such power structures, abuse, and violence.

In Germany, women of Turkish origin experience violence that can be prevented. The question is whether films such as When We Leave and other efforts that emphasize cultural difference actually help these women or have unintended consequences such as alienating Turkish men, and consequently leaving women by the wayside. Ewing argues that the outcry doesn’t need to necessarily change Turkish culture, but rather change the situation of women in some Turkish-German families.

Is U.K. Multiculturalism Failing?

Billed as one of the most important speeches of his first nine months in office, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s address to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference in Germany highlighted his disapproval of multiculturalism and the alleged rise in extremism in the U.K. linked to its failure. Cameron criticized Britain’s “tolerance for segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to British values” and called on European governments to practice “a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.”

The majority of Cameron’s speech focused on Muslim communities in the U.K. (primarily of South Asian descent). To the British government’s credit, Cameron and top government officials have made it explicitly clear that they are not equating Islam itself with violent extremists espousing deeply conservative social values. They are targeting homegrown Muslim extremists, not Muslims in general. Distinguishing between the two is important. As this Guardian article points out, many Muslim leaders in the U.K. support the government’s sentiment to assist them in curbing extremist elements within their communities, but they felt betrayed by Cameron’s confrontational approach from afar.

Cameron concentrated on the latest estimate of homegrown extremism by Britain’s domestic intelligence service, the MI5: as many as 2,000 active extremists. (This equates to 0.0008% of the U.K.’s 2.5 million Muslims.) He also vowed to stop Muslim groups that propagate views hostile to values of gender equality, democracy and human rights “from reaching people in publicly funded institutions like universities and prisons,” and cutting off government support for such groups.

The government’s firm condemnation of sexism, homophobia, and other intolerance that remain pervasive in Muslim communities and exist in British society more broadly is a good thing. The issue lies not in the content, but rather in the approach. Change is most successful when it comes from within (as evidenced by Middle Eastern protests in comparison to the war in Iraq in bringing about democracy). Cameron’s tone implies his lack of faith in British Muslim communities themselves.

Furthermore, by giving the speech in Germany, Cameron has created deeper divisions in an already tense environment. With suspicion, hatred, and racism towards Muslims continuing to increase in the U.K, Germany and other European countries, Islamophobic rallies and protests are gaining momentum. Over 3,000 people turned out in Luton, England, recently for an anti-Muslim rally. Interestingly, despite widespread racism against British Muslims, a recent poll found that 77% of British Muslims identified “very strongly” with the U.K. as compared to only 50% of the general public.

Encouraging British Muslims to create social pressure within their own communities is the best policy. By chastising Muslims so publicly in Munich, on the international stage, Cameron furthers the isolation that already exists. The issues addressed in Cameron’s speech were too important to be given out of country and away from British Muslim leaders. Talking with community leaders in a town-hall format, with a healthy, at times uncomfortable, dialogue, is what’s needed for both Muslims in Britain to feel welcome and for Britain to grow as a nation.

A Swedish Perspective on the Muslim World

Michael Winiarski, a Transatlantic Media Fellow and Middle East correspondent for Sweden’s largest circulating daily newspaper, gave a talk in September 2009 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about the Swedish perspective on the Middle East.

How much do the Swedes care about the Middle East?

“They care a lot,” Winiarski replied, but more and more Swedes have gone from traditionally pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian because of the suffering and “very unfair treatment” of the Palestinians. But Swedes have also become very pessimistic on the prospect of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. “Nowadays nobody wants to talk any more about the peace process because nothing happens.”

What’s the public attitude about Islam and Muslim culture in Sweden since the country has received many Muslim immigrants in the past several years?

(2:50) The majority of the society has no problem with it, Winiarski said. However, there is a small but loud anti-Muslim group that may have a chance to get over the 4% vote threshold in year 2010’s election and enter the parliament. In comparison, there are much larger anti-Muslim parties in both Denmark and Norway.

Where do people get information about what’s going on in the Middle East and Muslim world?

(4:49) In Sweden, Winiarski answered, people get news from domestic media as well as international TV channels such as BBC and Al Jazeera English. After observing news in the US for a couple of weeks, he was surprised that American mainstream television has very little foreign news reporting (5:55). Even the CNN here is different than the CNN he watched in Europe (CNN International). There is much more foreign news in CNN International, he said, “here’s mostly entertainment.”


In a 2006 report entitled “Muslims in the European Union — Discrimination
and Islamophobia
,” the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights
presented data on discrimination that Muslims face in employment, education
and housing.  It outlined the nature of Islamophobia (the fear of Muslims
and Muslim culture) and called on EU Member States to ensure better reporting
of discrimination and violence against Muslims, while making suggestions
on how to prevent discrimination and promote integration and cultural understanding.

The report concluded that, although EU Member States vary greatly in terms
of their societal attitudes toward discrimination, “Muslims often
experience various levels of discrimination and marginalisation in employment,
education and housing, and are also victims of negative stereotyping and
prejudicial attitudes.”  The report continues that this discrimination
cannot always be attributed solely to religious affiliation, but also to
race/ethnicity, gender and language.  Islamophobic attitudes (combined
with racism and xenophobia) are part of a larger hostility toward migrants
and ethnic minorities in Member States.

The full report can be downloaded directly from the site of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

A companion report called “Perceptions of discrimination and Islamophobia” offers a picture of personal stories of discrimination, based on interviews with Muslims living in the European Union.

Islam and Media:
Lisa Bu, Jan. 25, 2010

Having lived through the atrocities of the Nazi era, Germany is very sensitive to issues of tolerance. Perhaps that is why it has put more effort into integrating its four million Muslims, or 5% of the population, into society than many European countries. For instance, German public schools now teach Islam along with other religions. A recent study found that many German Muslims are more German than expected, doing quintessentially German things such as joining soccer clubs or senior citizens? groups. For many non-Muslim Germans, as talk show host Michel Friedmann remarked, “most of those five percent are honest, bourgeois, boring and sweet — just like their German Christian neighbors.”

A great example of Germany’s effort to promote dialogue with the Muslims is, an Internet portal designed “to discuss controversial issues openly and to highlight common ground between cultures.Qantara means “bridge” in Arabic. Published in Arabic, English, German, Turkish, and Indonesian, the portal is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and is jointly run by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcasting service, the Goethe Institute, the Federal Agency for Civic Education, and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations.

What I like most about the portal is the depth of its content and the diversity of the voices presented. My favorite section is “dialogue” which contains letter exchanges between experts from different cultural and religious backgrounds, covering such heavy-weight issues as Sharia law, human rights, and globalization. The writers don’t always agree, but they argue in a sincere, thoughtful, and open-minded way.

Reading the argument on the role of Sharia law between Emran Qureshi and Heba Raouf Ezzat is like watching a ping-pong game. I can’t decide who’s winning because both give convincing yet opposite argument from their perspectives. This made me realize how simplistic and shallow mainstream media coverage of the topic is.

Another exchange is between two women, a non-Muslim journalist in Germany and a Muslim professor of philosophy in Pakistan. The professor wrote candidly about the responsibility the country’s educated elite, herself included, needs to bear for the plight of millions of poor and illiterate masses. “The educated elite is divorced from the realities and lives in isolated but protected islands. They do not feel responsible for the so-called ‘others’ for they cannot relate to them nor communicate with them. Society becomes truncated even schizophrenic.” Such a non-defensive remark is refreshing and admirable. For me, this represents the voice of those Muslims who think independently and act responsibly, whose faith is strong but not dogmatic. There are millions of them in the world but their voice is often not heard in the mainstream media.