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Gender equality has become a touchstone to determine the extent of Islam’s acceptance in Western societies, where many are already convinced that Islam and gender equality are irreconcilable. But regarding this perceived tension between freedom of religion and gender equality, do Muslim women need to be saved? To answer this question, I will present some observations from meetings at a refugee camp in Brandenburg, where I spoke to 12 Muslim women of Arab and Chechen backgrounds about a variety of topics regarding gender equality. I will highlight what the women who participated had to say about their personal experiences in relation to gender inequality and being a Muslim woman in Germany.
I met the women eight times over four months, totaling at around 21 hours of deliberation. As a native Arabic speaker, it was easier to arrange more frequent meetings with the Arab women, as the Chechen women spoke neither German nor English, making the presence of a translator necessary. Half of the meetings were thus conducted only with Arab women, due to the fact that the translator for the Chechen women wasn’t available all the time. The Arab women came mostly from Syria and Iraq, except for one woman who came from Jordan. All of them were married with children. Overall, between 3 and 12 women participated in each meeting.
Throughout the meetings, I encouraged the women to share their personal stories and opinions by challenging social and religious boundaries. We played card games in all four languages and watched short movies to encourage a discussion around the topics of the meetings. By playing games and watching subtitled docs we tried to overcome the language barriers and to keep the flow of the conversation going. his eventually allowed for an easier communication between the women of the group. Despite the fact that they all lived together in the camp, interactions between the Arab and Chechen women outside of the meetings barely existed.
We touched upon a variety of topics regarding gender equality, covering women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the move to Germany. At the first meeting, we introduced the topic of gender equality through an activity: after reading statements such as “women and men are inherently different”, “women should be obedient”, “women have the right to decide on their bodies”, and “more women should govern the world”, the participants had to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the given statement. Having picked a side, they had to explain their answers, thereby launching discussions. The goal was to build a foundation for the rest of the meetings and break the ice between the women.
It didn’t take much time until Islam was part of the conversation; verses from the Quran and quotes from prophet Mohammed were used to justify positions. The women agreed with the value of equality. Everyone should be equal and the differences between the genders shouldn’t suggest superiority. The majority of Chechen women saw the gender norms of the Islamic society as a way to protect them. They also claimed that men’s life is harder than women’s life: they experience more danger and they need to take care of everyone, while women are protected at home with kids. They see this segregation as a way of showing love and respect for women. However, all the Arab women in the group took offense to that, explaining they don’t need male protection and the gender roles are discriminating against women and limit their opportunities. The only reason they are coping with it is to preserve the family entity. Some women suggested that the change should be from the inside of the community.
There was a clear division between the Arab and Chechen women in the group, especially regarding the role of the Islamic religion in influencing gender inequality in the Muslim community. The Chechen women believed that God gave males and females different rights and responsibilities that fit their abilities, but that does not mean they are not equal. One woman stated: “it’s what it’s supposed to be and it’s God’s will”. By contrast, Arab women argued that Islam is equality. Moreover, they blamed gender-based inequality on the patriarchal society and not on the Islamic religion, and found evidence from Islam to support their efforts to gain more rights within their social circles.
The Quran offers verses supporting both arguments. It preaches that everyone is equal, yet also provides instruction on how to discipline your wife or how to justify marital rape. It gives the women some rights but gives the men a lot more. It contains many contradictions, which allows it to be used as a mechanism to control women or other minorities in the community.
During the next meetings, we discussed gender equality in Germany, the women’s expectations and how it influences their lives both socially and personally. A lot of the women used the word “safety” when they were asked what their expectations were after moving to Germany. Even when we talked about racial harassment, which a lot of them experienced in Germany, they still showed appreciation for being here. As one woman explained: “Here there are some bad people, but at least they don’t kill you. In my country, they killed Muslim women”. Another added: “People have more rights in Germany, there are better opportunities and future for our children”.
When it comes to women’s rights and equality in Germany, we explored the women’s movement in Germany and the legal amendments that took place to ensure equality during the last 100 years. The women’s expectations were high when it came to equality in Germany; some of the women were shocked to find out that marital rape in Germany was punishable only after 1997. When we discussed equality in German law in regards to employment, marriage and family life, they guessed wrong again. Regarding laws like the needed permission of husbands to take up a paid job (annulled in 1969), or the right of husbands to exert full control over all family affairs (annulled in 1958), they had expected a much earlier liberation.
When they were asked if they would take advantage of the legal rights granted to German citizens, only 2 out of 11 women said they would do that only in cases of domestic violence, especially if the kids were involved. Despite not condoning violence against women, the majority of women felt uncomfortable with the idea of filing a complaint against their husband. As one Syrian wife explained: “I wouldn’t want him to get in trouble, he has been through a lot already”. Others suggested that in case of a dispute it’s better to ask for help from trusted men, such as a family relative or the Imam, instead of official authorities.
As a follow-up, I spoke with Arab women about violence against women. We touched on topics such as different types of domestic violence, forced marriage, marital rape, and so-called “honor killing”. In regard to physical violence, four out of five women in the group had experienced physical abuse during their marriage. Three out of five women in the group had experienced sexual abuse or marital rape at least once in their marriage. And when it came to psychological and economic abuse, all of the women in the group had had or still experienced this type of abuse in this way or another. Three women from the group were forced to marry their current husband before they were 16 years old. Furthermore, none of the women had considered filing a complaint or asking for a divorce.
A Jordanian woman explained: “Women in the Arab world are under pressure not to divorce their husband, no matter what kind of oppression he puts her through. She can’t risk the chance of losing her kids, the social blame, the negative stigma, and the fear of getting bullied or even getting killed”. An Iraqi woman added: “Our community expects women to stay quiet and give sacrifices for the sake of her husband, her kids or the extended family”. She has to accept any treatment, any condition she is in, without complaining or seeking other options for herself. Otherwise, she is considered disloyal to her family.
Many Muslim women seem to prefer to stay in abusive spousal relationships than being forced to cope with the rejection they would endure from society and family members if they left. Even asking support from the inside can already put them in a more vulnerable position.
Seeking support from outside the community is problematic as well. So far, Germany is generally failing to provide the needed help for domestic violence victims. More than 114.000 women were reported victims of domestic violence in 2018, yet there are only about 350 crowded women’s shelters and 600 specialist counseling centers that can help no more than about 30.000 women each year. That said, the government is aiming to raise awareness and encourage victims of abuse to seek support. Within the next four years, the government plans to provide €120 million for women’s shelters and women’s counseling centers, and women affected by violence will be legally entitled to a place in a shelter in the future.
In conclusion, and to answer the question, do Muslim women need to be saved? I believe the answer should be affirmative. Often these women are victims of some type of domestic abuse, physically, sexually, psychologically, and\or economically. While fleeing to Germany might have saved them from war, so far it did not always save them from suffering severe inequality within their communities. Obviously, the freedom of religion is an essential value. Therefore, I do not wish to take too lightly the value of Islam to its followers. Nor am I indicating that Islam is in fact the only reason for this inequality. However, isolating women from society, controlling all aspects of their lives, inhibiting their freedom, and denying them the right to choose, is unacceptable, also when it is done in the name of religion.
While domestic violence is a real issue in Germany, so far there is no sufficient support for all victims. Germany is able to provide more help to female refugees by above all valuing personal freedom. This can be done by building effective and custom integration programs for Muslim women into German society. In addition to teaching the German language and the country’s history, culture and legal system, courses are wanted about women’s health, domestic violence, and rights. To empower them also more programs are wanted where women can learn new skills to help them find jobs or volunteering opportunities. More than today, the German government should try to prevent the segregation or isolation of Muslim women.
Emma Eden is a Palestinian Israeli graduate from Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in Israel. She studied Psychology and Criminology as part of her dual subject bachelor. As an Arab woman growing up in Israel she observed the Israeli – Palestinian conflict from both sides and from different perspectives. She examined this in her BA thesis on the integration of Arab female students in Israel. This integration creates an ethnic identity dilemma and Emma analyzed their way of coping with it. Additionally, Emma led a workshop bridging Arab and Jewish students and encouraging them to open a conversation touching on both their issues and concerns.
 “Germany: 1 woman per hour is victim of domestic violence – DW.” 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-1-woman-per-hour-is-victim-of-domestic-violence/a-51396638. Accessed 2 Jun. 2020.
 “Domestic violence on the rise in Germany with one woman ….” 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.thelocal.de/20191125/domestic-violence-against-women-increasing-in-germany. Accessed 2 Jun. 2020.