Issues for Muslim Women in Europe Evolve

Mahera Ruby and Lubaaba al Azami, i i

hide captionLubaaba al Azami (left) and Mahera Ruby, at the East London Mosque, say they have found empowerment in their Muslim identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Mahera Ruby and Lubaaba al Azami,

Mahera Ruby, on the right in black, and Lubaaba al Azami, next to Ruby in beige, sit with friends at the East London Mosque. The two say they have found empowerment in their Muslim identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Women in the Neukölln district of Berlin i i

hide captionWomen in the Neukölln district of Berlin. Officials are now focusing on Muslim women in the hope that they can facilitate Muslim integration into mainstream society.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Women in the Neukölln district of Berlin

Women in the Neukölln district of Berlin. Officials are now focusing on Muslim women in the hope that they can facilitate Muslim integration into mainstream society.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

When I first started reporting on Muslims in Europe more than a decade ago, I soon learned that women, more than men, want to be a part of European societies.

When given the opportunity, Muslim girls and young women eagerly seek education to widen their horizons. Everywhere I went, I heard that it was the girls who did well in schools, while boys seem more often to have problems adapting.

Eren Unsal, a German-born schoolteacher in Berlin, told me in 1999 that her parents strongly desired that she integrate into German society.

"My mother left her headscarf on the plane" from Turkey to Germany, she said. But today, walking through Berlin's Neu-Koln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods where many Turkish immigrants live, it's immediately clear that many headscarves are no longer being left on the flight from the homeland. Most women, young and old, are covering their heads — and not with the flowery cotton squares typical of rural Anatolia. Today, they tightly wrap their heads in what has become known as the Islamic headscarf.

In Britain, I also observed a significant increase in headscarves among Muslim women, many of whom have even taken to wearing the niqab, the face-veil that leaves only the eyes visible.

The way Muslim women dress and cover their heads is a topic of fierce and emotional debate in Europe: some non-Muslims see it as a sign of rejection of modernity and even of radicalization — and many believe it is a sign of women's submission to male power. The debate is made more strident by the simple fact that Europe was not socially and culturally prepared for the post-World War II influx of immigrants; no country had an integration policy, and the arrival of millions of Muslims re-awakened centuries-old animosities between Islam and Christendom. Tension turned to alarm after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings.

As I traveled through Europe this fall to report for this series, I remembered the words of filmmaker Yamina Benguigui, my first guide into the world of what she called "ghost women." French-born to Algerian parents, she broke with her strict patriarchal family and married a non-Muslim Frenchman.

In her documentaries, Benguigui explored the phenomenon of some young French Muslim women who, in the early 1990s, had taken to wearing the headscarf even when their mothers did not. While many of these young women said the headscarf was a mark of their cultural identity in a society where they felt discriminated, Benguigui said it was also something else: a way of getting around the dilemma of living a double life in two different cultures. Instead of breaking with their families, "they decide to take the Koran as a weapon against their families, by submerging themselves completely in religion, brandishing the veil and the Koran, they become the leader in the family ... (the Muslim girl) will not be forced to marry and she can come home when she wants. She can drive a car and she's completely free," Benguigui told me in 1995.

Twelve years later, I met many Muslim women who still have not found their places and are still torn by two cultures. But I also met many Muslim women who are asserting themselves much more forcefully — either in identifying with European secular culture and demanding the same rights as their Western sisters, or by appropriating Islam for themselves, through a new female perspective. Or in a combination of the two.

While there is no distinct Europe-wide pattern, in many places a quiet revolution among Muslim women is under way.

In Britain, I encountered some highly educated women with a confrontational attitude toward non-Muslim Western society. I met women, British-born citizens, who do not vote and will not vote unless their ballots were to lead to the introduction of sharia, Islamic law. I met students at the London School of Economics who party — but girls-only, segregated by gender. I met women whose major concern is to avoid too much mingling with Western culture. Some of them are pressuring their mothers and grandmothers to wear headscarves for the first time in their lives to further underline their Muslim identity. And I was able to enter one of the few mosques that are opening their doors to women. I found a high degree of self-confidence as more and more Muslim women use education to appropriate the Koran for themselves — and take part in a debate on the nature of Islam that had always been a male-only domain.

In staunchly secular France, women wearing headscarves can be seen mostly around mosques. The fierce headscarf debate over the 2004 law banning it from schools has faded away. The law was more sharply criticized abroad than at home. I met many secular and observant Muslim women, all of whom identify themselves first as French, then Muslim. This widespread embrace of civic values is unique to France, despite continued, overt discrimination against Muslim minorities. And it is in France where women have made huge inroads in religious studies — many are enrolled in Islamic theological departments. Sociologist Douna Bouzar, herself a Muslim, told me that these women are the first French generation of Muslim faith, a generation of women who do not seek answers in the Islamic homelands of their parents and grandparents, but whose reference point is French, secular society.

The situation is very different in Germany, where the level of education of Muslim women is generally much lower than of those in France and Britain, and where the non-Muslim society is more distant and less welcoming. Turkish and German cultures differ sharply over the roles of women, the notion of arranged and forced marriages and of individual freedom — Turks see the family as the ultimate arbiter of what its members can do, while Germans consider parental involvement in their children's marital choices an infringement of personal freedoms.

In contrast with the first women immigrants who arrived from Turkey in the 1950s and 60s, who went to work directly in factories, the more recent immigrants are all new spouses. Muslim women activists strongly oppose the practice of importing brides from rural areas of Anatolia, which they say perpetuates separation. In fact, I met Turkish women who told me they had met their husbands just before their wedding days. Several said they don't want the same to happen to their daughters.

Turkish-German sociologist Necla Kelek is the author of the best-seller The Foreign Bride. She says that by importing women, sometimes as young as 14, Turkish patriarchs strengthen their families' segregation, relegating these young women to a state of anti-Western isolation. She writes, "they live in Germany, but never arrived here."

Muslim women who have broken with the patriarchal system are also seen as a threat to the Turkish rural family structure. Several books by Turkish-German women who describe their painful struggle for "emancipation" have become best-sellers in Germany, but at a large bookstore I visited in the Neu-Koln neighborhood in Berlin — where those books were prominently displayed — a saleswoman told me that she has never sold any to Turkish-German women — that it's only Germans who read them.

Lawyer and women's rights activist Seyran Ates told me it is very difficult to reach women isolated behind their walls of silence. Contact is usually made only with the few who are brave enough to scale those walls and seek refuge in a woman's shelter.

For Muslims in Europe, the main issues — discrimination by host societies, difficulty in finding jobs, and family conflicts — have remained more or less the same since I first started looking at immigrant communities in Europe. But with regard to Muslim women, I've seen changes — albeit in different directions and at different paces. It is still hard to say where these changes will lead. But at a time when Europeans are beginning to question the notion of multiculturalism that often leads to separate, parallel societies, authorities are now looking to Muslim women in the belief that their empowerment can facilitate their communities' integration into mainstream societies. And Muslim women themselves, better-educated and more experienced than their mothers and grandmothers, are beginning to grapple with the obstacles and abuse facing women in both their communities and in the broader society.

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