How a Posse of Women Network to Get Ahead, Islamic-Style
By Isabel Schayani
COLOGNE, GERMANY. They get off the bus, cross the road, hurry past the slaughterhouse and disappear into a former office building.
Finally, they are among themselves -- on 500 square meters (600 square feet) reserved strictly for Muslim women, Shiites and Sunnis alike. You can hear their laughter and see practically every model of veil the Islamic world has to offer -- from Bosnia, Cologne-Ehrenfeld, Somalia. Without a headscarf, they feel undressed. In each room there is a group of Muslim women, calling each other "sister" in all manner of languages. Children flit about between the eagerly gesticulating women. Even if most of them live as foreigners in Germany, here, at least, they feel at home.
This meeting place in Ehrenfeld, a district of Cologne, does not have a special name; it is simply called the "Muslim Women's Assembly and Education Center." But it is probably the most successful project by Germany's still-young Islamic women's movement which exhibits a distinctly Islamic form of emancipation. Although it has little in common with the German concept of women's rights, it is changing a lot of things for Muslims in Germany.
"We would like Muslim women to play a part in this society," says Erika Amina Theissen, who runs the facility. But, she adds, only women with an education can join in social life. And she often cites the Koran in support of her educational mission: "That is precisely what the Koran expects from a woman. After all, 'Read' is the first word in the sacred book of Islam."
Together with 30 other Muslim women, Ms. Amina Theissen -- a German-born Muslim -- founded the Islamic self-help organization in 1996. Since they were not prepared to defer to any big religious association and Muslim men had difficulty accepting an independent center for women, they received hardly any help. So, at the time, the founders would never have dreamed that one day up to 500 women a week would attend a wide range of 40 courses. As the Muslim women learn to read and write, recite the Koran together or surf the Internet, other women take care of their children.
No German social worker would be able to get close to these Muslims. Very few of them speak German, and they are seldom even seen on the streets, thanks to strict fathers and jealous husbands.
The center is run by practicing Muslims like Ms. Amina Theissen, who wear veils and can give men religious reasons for what they are doing. To keep the facility a "man-free zone," a camera has been installed over the entrance. If a workman comes, the women are informed by loudspeaker, so that they can quickly don their scarves. But most keep their heads covered anyway, thereby robbing their menfolk of the last reason to forbid them from visiting the center.
Ms. Amina Theissen and her helpers can act as role models for the young women in particular. They are believers, socially committed and go out to work at the same time. They encourage newcomers to catch up on their schooling. To this end, the center established a "finishing school" where adults and girls are coached in small classes for their final high school exams. More than 70 students have already obtained their diplomas.
"I used to hang around in parks and always skipped classes," says 18-year-old Sengul. Then she dropped out of school and her parents married her off to a man in Turkey. She left Germany, only to return a few years later. Suddenly she wanted to learn. Her young husband still lives in Turkey. "He didn't really want me to go to school, because he's jealous. He said there would surely be boys at the school."
But after she told him it was for girls only, he said no more. Now she is preparing for her high school diploma. Once the women have completed their schooling, however, they often encounter rejection on the labor market.
"It can only be the headscarf," Ms. Amina Theissen says. She believes it is the Germans, and not Muslim men, who are holding the women back. "Or have you ever heard of a Muslim woman with a headscarf working in a public agency?" she asks.
For more than two years, an increasing number of Muslim women, mostly third-generation immigrants, have been getting together to set up women's groups and Islamic networks in Cologne, Berlin, Munich and other cities. As Muslims in Germany grow more self-confident, so, too, do the women. Similar trends are apparent in France, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
"Of course it is much easier to keep uneducated women under your thumb," says Ulrike Thoenes, the women's representative on the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. "Islam doesn't need a women's representative, because it's men who subjugate women and not Islam. And that is why Muslim women certainly do need a representative."
Having lived in Egypt, Ms. Thoenes is familiar with the attitude of many men in the region. In Germany, she untiringly exhorts her "brothers in Islam" to let their women out of the house so they can learn to read and write and receive religious instruction. She encounters little resistance: "When men listen to me, I often have the impression that basically they realize what they are doing. But it has become standard operating procedure, and it's more convenient for them."
The women's representative is demanding a special court of justice where Muslim women can take legal action against their husbands and where they could be counseled and divorced by female Muslim judges. So far, no woman has dared apply to a German court when her husband presents her with his new second wife, says Ms. Thoenes. But, she adds, cases of this kind could be avoided if the Muslim women were to draw up a marriage contract, as set out in the Koran. Ms. Thoenes offers a standard marriage contract which stipulates that the couple will be divorced immediately if the man marries another woman. Prenuptial arrangements could be made, she says, on maintenance and the right to work.
To publicize such marriage contracts, the women's representative is working with Huda, an Islamic women's magazine that also provides a cornucopia of other services: an Islamic matchmaking agency and advice on work, studies and nursing children. The editorial department (www.huda.de) also helps look for Islamic forenames and has set up a telephone help-line.
Islam in Germany is heterogeneous, and the currents running through the women's movement are equally varied. Huda addresses topical issues, such as abuse in Islamic marriages. "Islam does not permit the husband to abuse his wife, either physically or mentally," female Malaysian academics write.
Whereas the women's center in Cologne tends to shy away from this subject, the members of the Center for Islamic Women's Research in Cologne are not afraid to stand up to Islamic clerics. They want the preachers at Friday prayer gatherings to denounce wife-beating. But it takes a lot of courage to criticize men in public. Together with other women, a female student stood up during a recent Friday sermon and publicly contradicted the cleric. Although this form of expression by women was familiar back in the times of Caliph Omar, nowadays men react negatively to such behavior.
The women prepare for actions of this kind with specific "assertiveness training." And they also practice coping with everyday life in Germany while fasting, praying and wearing veils.
Many women have great respect for Emine Erbakan and her 30-year-old daughter, Sebiha al-Zayat, who runs the center for women's research. She is also a doctor, an Islamic scholar and mother and the niece of Necmettin Erbakan, the former chairman of the now-banned pro-Islamist Virtue Party in Turkey.
Highly articulate, faithful to the Qur'an and able to hold her own in any discussion, she is exemplary of the new Islamic elite in Germany. And she encourages women her age to follow in her footsteps.
Feb. 28, 2001