In the last five decades Germany has become quite a multi-cultural nation. Some people came to Germany as guest workers, mainly from Turkey, others moved to Berlin in the decades immediately after the Wall fell, to be a part of a vibrant city reclaiming its hipness. Immigration always brings challenges to an especially homogenous society, as is usually the case in European countries, but it also forces the immigrants themselves to be challenged in a world which may look very different from what they know. When social standards and mores from a different minority culture clash with the surrounding majority culture, it is often the women who face the biggest problems. This post is not specifically about immigration as that is a subject that deserves a discussion of its own but it is relevant to consider the role that the status of certain immigrants plays in a liberal, dominant society. Germany is a fairly liberal country that has increasingly been forced to confront its multicultural self and the problems that can arise from it. Helping women from traditional cultures, where they are forced to live by anachronistic standards, is something that Germany has finally become more proactive about recently, mainly as a result of honor crimes perpetrated on its soil.
Germany’s relationship with multiculturalism is an uneasy one but tremendously significant. In the absence of a consistent policy on guest worker immigrants, Germany has developed two largely exclusive societies where ethnic Germans and those who feel like they are German in whatever way live one way, and those who have not assimilated in another way. People, who come from cultures that do not resemble European models of social order, have faced additional hurdles against integration, especially since the State has been operating without a comprehensive plan that would welcome newcomers and work to build a mutually respectful, accommodating society. Germany spent too many years assuming that guest workers from various countries would eventually return to their home country without paying attention to or investing in the promotion of a multicultural community that doesn’t marginalize foreigners. The State denying foreigners a way to become full members of German society and immigrants mainly seeing Germany as an economic haven but not an official home has created a variety of problems.
Many of the immigrants who live in Germany today come from much more traditional societies, whose ideas they continue to preserve in their new land. Unfortunately, reconciling the traditional with the more modern way of life has become difficult for women of poorly integrated families, who want to live according to the standards of larger German society. As Spiegel writes, it is from these un-integrated families that numerous women seek help from authorities as they fear violence after making it clear that they have a desire to live a freer lifestyle. Honor killings have made the news in recent years, but in various cases, women who need support from German authorities, extend beyond that extreme. Sometimes other forms of control are exerted over these women, like forced marriage for example.
Transitioning from a sheltered existence within their tight-knit communities and facing various threats from their families, requires the State to understand the problem and work to ensure adequate ways of helping all the women who require it. Throughout Europe, the police and courts have not always been fully aware of the extent and nuances of the problem they are dealing with when it comes to cultural restrictions on women, their behavior and its consequences. A Newsweek article notes:
whether out of xenophobia, indifference or multicultural tolerance, host societies have tended to turn a blind eye. In Germany, for example, judges have often handed out lower sentences for such crimes–in two recent cases going so far as to reduce murder charges to manslaughter–out of deference to so-called cultural differences.
Much like those who handle domestic violence or rape, authorities dealing with honor crimes need to be specifically trained and given tools to sufficiently protect women who are in danger. While Germany and other European countries have gotten better at handling these types of threats and crimes there is still more to be done.
Fully understanding the root of the problem is essential in not only punishing the perpetrators of crimes already committed against women but to make sure that they can be avoided in the future. The above cited Spiegel article quotes Jan Kizilhan, a psychology professor and ethnologist: “Archaic traditions and patriarchal ways of thinking do not grant women free will.” He goes on to say that “extended families who are poorly integrated into German society have a ‘collective understanding’ about what women are permitted to do and what is considered dishonorable behavior. ‘This understanding structures and regulates communal life.” What is important to keep in mind Kizilhan asserts is that:
behavioral rules [mentioned above] stem from a time when there was no police and no rule of law in many of the immigrants’ regions of origin, so that patriarchs fashioned their own laws in the villages. ‘In some families, these rules are passed on, without thinking, from generation to generation, and religion is wrongly used to legitimize them.
In addition, assessing each problem on its own and figuring out the level of threat against a woman will be imperative in helping her. The article features multiple examples of women, who lost their lives because they did not fully comprehend the level of danger they were in and were not strongly enough advised on how to proceed. The application of German criminal laws against perpetrators in these cases has been uneven but a more recent case from 2009 may set a precedent in how judges view instances of honor motivated offenses. Furthermore, identifying the seriousness of the threat against a woman by properly trained officials and connecting them with support that includes shelters or safe houses will also help tremendously. For very dangerous situations swift identity changes and secret relocations are also very important.
Organizations like Papatya in Berlin and the Rose Shelter in Stuttgart are just two examples of institutions that receive applications from women “who have run away from their families because of cultural conflict, and who had faced the prospect of abduction, forced marriage or even death.” Unfortunately the demand for these types of services is often greater than the supply so likely many more shelters will have to be created in order to ensure that every woman can feel safe if her immediate community threatens her. Also other experts assert that granting dual citizenship to women, who are nationals of foreign countries, could help in cases where they travel to the country of their ethnic background and are forced into marriage; the existence of a German passport would ensure that a German national is protected should she require it. Finding ways to support women who come to Germany and find themselves in a forced marriage or a dangerous situation by granting them legal status not connected to their husband could also be beneficial. Lastly, although certainly not unimportantly, working to integrate immigrant communities and teaching tolerance in schools from a young age, including expectations of a free, open-minded, liberal society is the key to avoiding honor crimes in generations to come.
Germany’s current situation teaches us that a nation that turns away from caring for any of its inhabitants will only exacerbate the expansion of ghettoized communities, where people live by alternate standards. Opening up and creating a distinct space for newcomers, one that doesn’t require complete assimilation but doesn’t allow for total self-segregation, is the most productive way of coexisting. Germany cannot hold itself up as an example for progress if all people and especially those women who are most vulnerable are not afforded protection from ancient ways of keeping order. Unwavering help for them from the State and penalties for individuals, who transgress boundaries of modern society, will continue to send a strong message about what is acceptable and what will never be.