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Women in Islam

Muslim Women in Europe
Caught between Traditions and Secular ethos
By Sylvia Poggioli

As immigrants from the Muslim world continue to settle in Europe, governments are beginning to question the notion of multiculturalism, the immigration model that has prevailed for decades in most parts of the continent.

This model has often led to the creation of separate, parallel societies ignorant of one another, and also to a large Muslim underclass.

Berlin lawyer Seyran Ates, a Turkish-German women’s rights activist, says that in Europe, “there are two societies with two different value systems living side by side, but separate from one another.”

Officials are now beginning to focus on the status of women; there is a growing belief that the empowerment of women is a key factor in helping their communities integrate into mainstream society. But, at the same time, the closer Muslim women get to European secular culture, the further they move away from their traditions and families a dilemma that often leads to solitude and alienation.

In Europe, large numbers of Muslims men and women are victims of discrimination. And Muslim women who observe a strict dress code are seen as a challenge to European notions of secularism and modernity. In addition, women are subject to the rules of their faith and some cultural traditions. They are often invested with the task of representing family honour particularly by patriarchs who fear the family structure might be undermined if their women yield to the seduction of Western society.

But many young European-born Muslim women are beginning to rebel against arranged and forced marriages the traditional practice of marrying a cousin from the homeland picked by their parents and they want to marry a person of their own choosing.

Some Muslim women are asserting themselves in other ways. While their own mothers may not have worn the veil, there are many young women who are covering themselves head-to-toe as a political statement and a sign of their newfound identity.

At the same time, thanks to religious freedom on the continent, the Muslim woman in Europe has the possibility to re-invent and adapt her religion to a modern, Western society.

This six-part series on Muslim women in Europe focuses on the three countries with the largest Muslim populations: France, where most are of North African origin; Germany, where most are from Turkey; and Britain, where most have roots in South Asia.

Germany: Part 1 explores a Muslim culture where many families are guided by the strict, patriarchal traditions of rural Turkey. The men say those customs are necessary to protect their women from what they see as the evils of Western secular societies. Many Muslim women first meet their husbands only on their wedding day.

They then disappear behind invisible walls of silence, unnoticed by their German neighbors. A 2006 Pew poll showed that only one-third of Muslims in Germany want to integrate into mainstream society. And German authorities worry about the arrival of tens of thousands of uneducated brides and grooms from Turkey, arriving by way of both arranged and forced marriages. In many of these families, children do not hear German spoken, and with each imported spouse, the parallel society grows. It’s as if each generation is a first generation. Many of these marriages simply do not work and some women are victims of domestic violence. A few women have the courage to break the family code of silence and seek help in the few existing shelters. But most remain hidden in their homes, fearful of an outside world they don’t understand.

A Leading Activist in Germany: In Part 2, we visit secular activist Seyran Ates, a lawyer who has had to abandon her legal practice because of death threats from Islamic radicals. She is a vehement critic of what she calls an excessively benign Western attitude toward the growing influence of political Islam in Europe. Ates ran away from home at 17. Three years later, living at a women’s center, a band of Turkish youths broke in and started firing guns. Ates was shot in the throat and the woman next to her was killed. Ates vowed she would become a lawyer and fight for women’s rights and that no man would spoil her dream. In 2005, she was named Germany’s Woman of the Year for her work for Muslim women in immigrant communities. But political Islam, she says, is getting stronger and makes it too dangerous for her to work out in the open.

Britain: In Part 3, we explore the concerns of British authorities over the growing number of British Muslim youth turning their backs on mainstream society. Most surprising is that second-generation daughters of South Asian immigrants are embracing a political form of Islam. Since Sept. 11, the 2005 London bombings, and the introduction of what many Muslims say are draconian anti-terrorism laws, more and more second- and third-generation British-South Asians are asserting not the nationality of their parents and grandparents, but their Muslim identity. Over the last year, there has been a visible increase in women’s use of the face-covering niqab. Many women have discarded the long, colorful scarves typical of their South Asian cultures, and now shroud themselves in black. Unapproachable and faceless, they can be seen along many streets of London. Many non-Muslims see the total cover-up as a sign of growing separation. Many Muslim women say it is a political statement, a sign of their newfound identity.

Radicalization of Muslims in Britain: Part 4 looks at a warning from British security experts that a form of militant Islamist feminism is beginning to emerge, and that many British Muslim women are starting to radicalize. The great majority of Muslims men and women espouse moderate views and do not pose any kind of threat. But there is growing concern over an Islamic reawakening among women that could further widen the divide between large sectors of Muslims and the wider society. Britain is being confronted with a wave of enigmas the increasing number of women who have taken to wearing the full-face niqab and the large numbers of British Muslims four in 10 who want sharia, Islamic law, applied in Muslim-populated areas of Britain.

France: In Part 5, we examine how France is Europe’s most rigidly secular society, relegating religion to the sidelines. Paradoxically, of all Muslims in Europe, it’s the French who most closely identify with their country’s values, despite widespread social discrimination. And it is French Muslim women who are in the forefront in both grassroots political activism and in forging their own interpretation of Islam. After his election in May, France’s new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, surprised the media and public with his appointment of three Muslim women to important posts justice minister, foreign undersecretary for human rights and undersecretary for urban affairs. The presence of minority women in the Cabinet has shown young Muslim women that it is possible to make a mark in France.

Female Genital Mutilation Part 6 explores an ancient rite practiced mostly in some sub-Saharan and North African countries. Many Muslims in that part of the world wrongly believe it is dictated by Islam. In recent decades, the practice has spread to immigrant communities in Europe. Women activists in France have led the campaign in prosecuting excisions performed on young girls, and the United Nations considers the practice a human rights abuse. GAMS, the French women’s association for the abolition of sexual mutilations, estimates that there are more than 50,000 mutilated women in France. On average, six to eight women come to GAMS every day to seek help in filing requests for political asylum in France to protect their daughters from being subjected to the practice in their home countries. Supporters of female genital mutilation say it dampens a girl’s sexuality and protects her honor. Female genital mutilation is alien to the great majority of Muslims in Europe. But GAMS claims there’s a growing number of fundamentalist imams funded by Islamist movements from abroad who preach that removal of the clitoris is endorsed by the Koran.