Muslim Women Behind Wall of Silence in Germany Tens of thousands of uneducated Muslim women are physically living in Germany but leading lives of isolation and violence in their homes. Many seek solace in religion. By reaching out to these women, Germany hopes to facilitate the integration of a larger Muslim community.

Muslim Women Behind Wall of Silence in Germany

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If you want to know how European Muslims affect America, consider one thing. Some of the 9/11 hijackers made their plans in Germany. You could also consider that moderate European Muslims are no threat at all. So this week on MORNING EDITION, we're going to track some of the ways that Islam is changing in Europe.

We will focus on the lives of European Muslim women. Some want to join mainstream society and others withdraw from it. And we begin in Germany. That's where the overwhelming majority of Muslim women are of Turkish descent. They are guided by strict Turkish traditions, which is why so many Muslim women live in the West yet spend their lives in a different world.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Berlin.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: "Turkish for Beginners" is a popular TV sitcom. A German psychotherapist who is a single mother of two teenagers falls in love with a policeman of Turkish descent who also has a teenage son and daughter. They all move in together and form a patchwork family.

(Soundbite of show, "Turkish for Beginners")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) (Speaking German)

POGGIOLI: Here the veiled Turkish daughter tells her new blonde stepbrother she wants her own plates not tainted by his German pork. The sitcom - written by a Turkish German - pokes fun at the cross-cultural family, but also raises more serious issues in a multiethnic society over religion and relations between men and women.

One of the biggest problems is the wall of silence behind which tens of thousands of uneducated Muslim women live. Many of them first met their husbands on their wedding day, only to disappear into a world ruled by rural Turkish traditions - unnoticed by their German neighbors.

Ms. SEYRAN ATES: They live in big families and family structures where they can't go out.

POGGIOLI: Seyran Ates is a lawyer and women's rights activist. She says many Muslim women in Germany lead lives of isolation and often experience physical violence.

Ms. ATES: They are under control of their man or of their families. This is women who are physically living in Germany, but psychologically living in another culture, which is looking much more for gender apartheid.

POGGIOLI: Polls show that only a third of Muslims in Germany want to integrate. And German authorities worry about the rise in the number of uneducated, imported brides and grooms from Turkey through both arranged and forced marriages. The interior ministry says nearly half a million spouses have been imported since the 1980s. Tens of thousands continue to arrive every year.

These families, where children don't hear German spoken and where the values of rural Anatolia prevail, are increasingly seen by authorities as an obstacle to integration. With every new imported bride, the parallel society grows, and it's as if each generation is a first generation.

Alarmed by the growing divide, the Berlin city council has turned to people like Nailya Alieva, an Azerbaijani who speaks numerous languages. In her modest apartment, she counsels Muslim women with problems. Her official title is district mother.

Ms. NAILYA ALIEVA (District Mother): (Speaking German)

POGGIOLI: It's very difficult for women, Alieva says, to go out from their closed world into an alien German society where they have to put on a smiling face and act self-confident.

As we talk, Shisek, one of the women Alieva counsels, drops by.

SHISEK: (Speaking German)

POGGIOLI: Little by little her story emerges. Shisek grew up here and speaks German well, but she was dragged back into the world of rural Turkey, she says, when her parents forced her to marry a much older man from their home village. Once he arrived in Germany, he began having girlfriends and beating her. Shishek is adamant that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps.

SHISEK: (Through translation) I want her to finish whatever studies she wants. I will not allow her to drop out of school as I did, or to be married off the way I was.

POGGIOLI: Many Turkish women have similar experiences. In 2004, the German ministry for family affairs claimed 49 percent of Turkish women had experienced physical or sexual violence in their marriage. And in the last decade, there have been 49 known cases of honor killings, 16 in Berlin alone.

Some women - those daring enough to break the family code of silence - flee domestic violence and seek help in the few existing shelters.

Social worker Gockcen Demiragli, German-born of Turkish descent, says every month 300 to 400 women come for assistance to her center alone. But most, she says, remain hidden in their homes, fearful of an outside world they don't understand. For them, Demiragli says, Islamic preachers are filling the void.

Ms. GOCKCEN DEMIRAGLI (Social Worker): The Muslim institutions, they see this problem, that families are having problems, and they say if you get back to your roots and your religious beliefs, then everything will become better. And that's why we have this movement, that religious institutions are becoming bigger and stronger.

(Soundbite of man singing)

POGGIOLI: On Friday evening, veiled women gather in their section of the Bilal prayer hall. It also serves as therapy, a place where women can find their equals and be reassured in their identities. They barely speak German and like 40-year-old Zinna Abbas, they say they feel comfortable only in the mosque.

Ms. ZINNA ABBAS: (Through translation) In the streets, you know, especially elderly people, they call me a foreigner. They kind of look at me in a certain way, so I do notice that they don't like me because, you know, the way I look.

POGGIOLI: Muslim conservatives are closing ranks, fearful the patriarchal family might be undermined if their women yield to the seduction of Western society. Schools are increasingly granting Muslim parents' demands that their daughters not take part in sports, sex education and field trips.

Iranian-born Mina Ahadi heads the council of ex-Muslims - a group founded here in February that has since spread to other European countries. She has received death threats and is under police protection. She believes Germany has allowed the construction of too many big mosques.

Ms. MINA AHADI (Council of Ex-Muslim): (Through translation) We want to show to the people that people from Islamic countries don't have religion as their main identity. And what we want to achieve is that politics acknowledges that there is no alternative to human rights, to women rights, and this is what we are fighting for.

POGGIOLI: In March, a Frankfurt judge rejected a Muslim woman's request for a fast-track divorce. She said her husband beat her, but the judge ruled that the Koran sanctions such physical abuse. Ahadi says this is an example of German condescension.

Under the guise of religious tolerance, she says, German institutions turn a blind eye to women's rights violations. Her group's main goal is to fight against both political Islam and German policies that strike compromises with Islamic institutions at the expense of women's rights.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Sylvia's reports continue tomorrow with the journey of a woman who broke away from her family and became a prominent women's rights lawyer in Berlin. You can read about Sylvia's experiences reporting on Muslims in Europe at

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