Book Bestsellers: Europe's Muslim Women

Reply Sat 20 Aug, 2005 12:02 pm
From the English sites of the online version of the German magazine SPIEGEL

August 19, 2005


Best Selling Books Tell the Horrors of Forced Marriage

Stories of the suffering of young Muslim women forced into marriage are best sellers in Germany. But are these books about rape, violence and abuse socially beneficial or simply a cynical and salacious way of making money?

Autobiographical accounts of forced marriages are flying off the shelves.

Hülya Kalkan shakes with nervousness as she waits for her younger sister, Esme, in the arrivals area at Frankfurt's Rhine-Main Airport. Esme is fleeing from an arranged marriage with one of her Turkish cousins in Antalya. She is traveling with a forged passport arranged by Hülya, to escape an arranged marriage with one of her Anatolian cousins.

The family in Turkey has been searching for Esme for some time now. Normally, she isn't allowed to leave the house for even a few minutes without an escort. When Hülya, still waiting at the airport, receives a call from her mother, all the mother can do is scream, "I hope you both die," into the phone.

Hülya knows exactly what Esme has been through. She also fled back to Germany from Anatolia to get out of a marriage her mother had arranged with a stranger. Like Esme, she was suddenly taken out of school in a southern German town at the age of 13 and sent back to Turkey to attend one of the country's strict and now forbidden Koran schools. It's a fate Hülya and her sister share with thousands of other girls of Muslim heritage.

After years of shame and silence, Hülya Kalkan, 26, has written the story of her life, titled "I Just Wanted to be Free." It's not the only accusatory essay of its type. There are now many books that recount the experiences of oppressed women in Islamic societies and call for the liberation of Muslim women. Almost all are top-sellers in the German book market. German publishers are launching six new titles this summer alone.

Tell Us All about It

The books are almost identical in terms of form and dramatic structure: first-person accounts, usually in the present tense, simple chronological arrangements of events and dialogues. But the gruesome details of these women's stories of suffering are disturbingly specific, stories of men imprisoning their wives, routinely beating and raping them, pouring acid on their "dangerously attractive" faces, of grandmothers who mutilate the genitalia of their young granddaughters with glass shards to prevent them from feeling sexual pleasure.

The details of these tortures seem to strike a chord with a broad readership that's apparently fascinated by the sheer horror of it all. The stories of the suffering endured by these women promise to provide grisly entertainment value to readers ennobled by the sensation of helping to further a good cause.

The seductive titles serve this purpose perfectly:

* "I Accuse," by Ayaan Hirsi Ali * "Nobody Asked Me," by Ayse * "Choke on your Lies," by Inci Y. * "Fundamentalism Against Women," by Nawal El Saadawi * "Kidnapped in Yemen," by Zana Muhsen

The books are selling like hotcakes. Eighty thousand copies of "I Accuse" have already been sold. Readers snapped up more than 20,000 copies of "Choke on your Lies" within a few weeks after it hit the bookstores. The publishing houses expect similar successes from "Nobody Asked Me," "I Just Wanted to be Free" and "Fundamentalism Against Women," initially published in printings of up to 30,000 copies each.

In most cases, the women wrote the books with the help of journalists. The manuscripts were offered to publishers through literary agents or directly by the ghostwriters. To protect themselves against attacks by their relatives, Inci Y. and Ayse did not use their real names.

An Author in Hiding

Inci Y. has also refused to be photographed and hasn't told her children that she wrote a book. "Only when they are old enough to understand my story will I reveal my identity to the public," she says in an interview with SPIEGEL, "for my family, the book is a good enough reason to kill me."

Inci Y., 35, has brown eyes and angular, sharp features. Her voice is clear and deliberate. She meets with interviewers in her apartment in a small German city. The door to the interior courtyard of the well-kept subsidized apartment is left open to allow a small amount of daylight to penetrate into the tiny front room with its plain gray furniture. It is here that the author very occasionally meets with visitors.

More Muslim women than is commonly thought suffer abuse in forced marriages.

She was born in Germany in 1970, the child of Turkish guest workers. When she was a year old, her parents sent her to Ankara to stay with her grandparents. From a very early age, she was taught that girls and women are less important beings, and that they should remain silent in the presence of men. As a teenager, Inci Y. returned to Germany, where her lack of a decent education kept her from finishing even the lower level in a German secondary school. "The teachers have their own strategy to abdicate all responsibility," she writes, "they just give you what's called an 'n.d.' (not determinable), instead of a grade; that's the key."
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Sat 20 Aug, 2005 12:03 pm
But then came the biggest shock of her life. Her mother married off the attractive, 17-year-old girl to a dim-witted Turkish car dealer in Anatolia, forcing her into a marriage that turned into a prison. Rape and beatings sometimes bordering on life-threatening attacks soon became part of a daily madness. Once, when Inci Y. refused to grant her husband Hikmet the "matrimonial privilege," he sprayed her with insect spray, "like an annoying fly."

One day Inci Y. decided to escape from her hellish marriage and obtained a divorce. Soon the entire family clan began hounding her and calling her the "sinner."

In an effort to gain custody of the child they had together, her ex-husband tried to blackmail her into signing a pre-written "confession," which contained passages like the following: "I am a whore and I do not want my daughter to become a whore, as well. That is why I waive my right to custody of my daughter Sila and relinquish sole custody to my husband, Hikmet."

Inci Y. fled to Germany to escape the clan's harassment. After a second failed marriage, she and her now 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son moved to a cramped apartment, where they have been living for the past four years. She has no contact with her family and the father of her children. Her apartment is lovingly decorated. Inci takes a stack of photographs from a cabinet. She has only one photograph of herself with her first ex-husband. "I was truly disgusted by him and his stench," she says.

Forced marriages and the associated violent subjugation of young women, as described in these books, are not as uncommon as one might think, and not just in the Islamic world.

Marriages which are arranged and enforced by relatives are part of a phenomenon that has developed over the centuries in patriarchal family structures and authoritarian societies in the Middle and Far East, as well as in Africa. According to the women's rights organization "Terre des femmes e.V." in Tübingen, near Stuttgart, the practice also affects Greek, Italian and Brazilian women. In Germany, most women forced into arranged marriages are of Turkish descent, because Turks and Kurds are Germany's largest immigrant group.

Why Do Families Force Their Daughters to Marry?

Forced marriage is a strategy. Muslim families are usually part of a minority in the countries into which they immigrate. The only way to strengthen their base in a "strange land" and secure family assets is to encourage family relations within a clan. At the same time, by marrying off their children, they believe they are establishing a home "back home" to which they can return in old age.

The girls, who are often underage, are easily married off at a tender young age if they come from places like Turkey. The parents know that the younger the daughter is at the time of her wedding, the sooner her new husband will be paying her expenses. Besides, the girls haven't lost their virginity at this point.

Under recent changes in German law, forced marriage is now considered severe coercion, a criminal offence. But if women are married in another country, they are subject to the laws of that country.

Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has also written a first-hand account of her experiences in a forced marriage, is under constant police protection.

The things she experienced, says Inci Y., are "hair-raising" and "disgusting." Nevertheless, she adds, she doesn't want her book to generate pity. The authors' accounts, she says, should help Turkish women living in Germany "understand the core of their own tragedy," a tragedy in which they are refused all basic education and strapped to an "intellectual wheel chair." If they lack the necessary education, says Inci Y., "how can they gain independence and get on their own two feet to start a career?"

Written by Turks, Read by Germans

The readers these books are supposed to target are other women in similar situations. But do they even reach these women?

Most are either not permitted or have no desire to read such books. Wolfgang Ferchl, director of Munich-based Piper Publishing, says: "Titles like 'Choke on Your Lies' are bought almost exclusively by German women -- because they are beginning to become interested in the lives of the Muslim women who have been their neighbors for decades. Suddenly they feel a sense of solidarity."

In this way, the message tends to reach its intended audience indirectly. Seyran Ates, a Turkish lawyer in Berlin who represents countless women tormented by forced marriage and domestic violence, says this phenomenon is "terrific." "We urgently need the German women to disseminate the message," she says. Ates, who published the story of her own experience two years ago under the title "Big Journey into the Fire," says the books by young Muslim women are "important because they encourage people," and because they create awareness of the problems among Germans. "It's important that the readers realize what a horrible parallel world exists in their own country," says the attorney. That's because courageous Muslim women who fight for their liberation are still portrayed in their own culture as denigrators of their own kind -- and support from German women can sometimes be helpful in these situations.

Since March of this year, the popular Turkish newspaper Hürriyet which is also the most-read Turkish paper in Germany and has published articles condemning the male stranglehold on power, has been running a series about the authors of these first-hand accounts. The paper publishes excerpts from the women's books, but also prints its own, supposedly well-researched opposing views of their stories, which are intended to expose the women's confessions as vulgar lies. "They portray the women as greedy swindlers just looking to turn a profit with what 'Hürriyet' calls their made-up stories," says Ates, who is committed to the cause and expects to see many other first-hand accounts "in the style of Inci Y." in the future. "The more, the better," she adds, "because at least then German society will slowly but surely begin despising the violent patriarchs."

One-Sided Accounts

As disturbing as these stories are, the accounts almost always lack a differentiated tone and dramatic polish. Few of these books contain any passages of cooler argumentation or even a more dispassionate view of these women's plight. "After all, the Muslim man isn't born as a filthy pig," Inci Y. concedes in her interview. He too is cheated of almost everything that "can take place between a man and a woman." The Muslim man, she says, is put on the spot because he is the one who is expected to wield power.

Most of these authors justifiably fear violent retribution by fundamentalist Muslims as soon as their books are published. Ever since the murder of her colleague, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh ("Submission"), Ayaan Hirsi Ali for example has been under constant police protection in the Netherlands.

But Inci Y. remains combative. She puts out her cigarette and says: "Let them to try to kill me. I'm not afraid of anyone."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
0 Replies
Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 08:10 am
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 08:28 am
I think it might be one of those pendulum things. First something awful is quiet and covered up and not talked about. Then there are the first few brave voices... they get attention. Then it becomes a phenomenon, to the point where people get cynical about it. Then (hopefully), it levels off to a point where people know it exists but the backlash has faded.

(I'm thinking of childhood sexual abuse in America as an example...)
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 12:55 pm
Still thinking about this... lots of other elements, too.

- Just plain "true crime"/ horror stories, especially with a sexual element -- these nearly always have an audience.

- A convenient way to demonize Muslims for those who are usually uncomfortable with such things -- hey, it's feminism.

- An accessible way to learn more about a culture that people realize they don't know much about.

- A literary fad, in and of itself.
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 03:57 pm
How interesting.

I have an utterly unresponded to thread asking for help in finding really good novels or nonfiction about life in various Muslim countries.

I don't have time to read this thread right now, so this is a bookmark, but I was struck bu Soz's comment: " An accessible way to learn more about a culture that people realize they don't know much about."

That is what I want!

I hope these books do not demonize, but tell truth?
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 09:11 pm
It sounds a little demonizy from Walter's article.

Not so much that these specific men didn't do what they're accused of, but whether it as as symptomatic of the general culture/ religion as it is presented.

I don't remember seeing that thread. "In the Eye of the Sun" is a fiction novel, a bit overwrought, that gave me a good feel for... (lemme go grab it...) <segue to book jacket>

Set amidst the turmoil of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, this marvellously vivid novel by an Egyptian journalist is an intimate look into the often hidden lives of Arab women today.



Something of a landmark... exuberant and absorbing... a bold and important work. [This] is the first novel I know of that successfully renders an Arab, Egyptian Muslim reality in English. A tour de force.
-Leila Ahmed, Washington Post Book World

Raw, accurate, searing... Soueif [is] one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing.
-Edward Said, The Times Literary Supplement

Author is Ahdaf Soueif, published in 1992 so prolly not super-current. I remember being annoyed by it in parts but overall liking it a lot.
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 10:03 pm
I've read her 2001 novel 'The Map of Love' [that's, when the German version came out ] a couple of years ago - well, it's not really the literature I like ('love story')
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 10:19 pm
If you look up what I first said about Moghul Buffet, I thought it was demonizing for quite a while into the book, and then backed off of that. Set in Pakistan; I recommend it for a read - just a detective thing, but more. Suspect it was written by a non native (I sometimes like reading nonnatives, like Donna de Leon - rather more of an easy read - on Venice, but with an underlying punch), but Moghul Buffet is still interesting and glad I read it.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, glad I did read that. The woman who wrote is a fortunate person. A little self involved, but, hey, rightly so. I gained a lot of knowlege of some people at a tumultous time.

Will look more at these links...
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Reply Mon 12 Sep, 2005 10:30 pm
You know who I'd like to know more about (I should look her up) is Mary Anne Weaver. I always read whatever she or Jane Kramer write, in the New Yorker. There is another Weaver piece this week. Kramer covers Europe, Weaver more of the mideast/Asia. They both amaze me sometimes.

People close to the scenes of their subjects may argue - I don't know enough to do that. But their reportage intrigues me.
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Reply Tue 13 Sep, 2005 03:25 am
Ah. I was just finally able to pick Lolita in Tehran recently. It's in the queue...

Made me want to reread Lolita itself. Haven't since a teenager.
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Reply Tue 13 Sep, 2005 02:04 pm
Made me want to read it in the first place... (I only saw the movie).
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Reply Tue 13 Sep, 2005 02:06 pm
I've read it about 4 times -- the first one or two were with great indignation and anger at horrible men, the third was wait a minute, the fourth was loving the language and the writing. (In the first half anyway, the second part bogs down...)
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Reply Tue 13 Sep, 2005 02:50 pm
You might enjoy the discussion of it in Tehran! The book covers more than Lolita though..
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