Friday, June 30, 2017

Fleeing Forced Marriages--or not--in Germany: A Teacher's Perspective

The more terrifyingly out of control things get, the more young women seem to keep things to themselves, desperately hoping that the problem will, if not evaporate, become more bearable. At least, so it seems to me when I talk to those whose families insist that they marry. One, who just took an exam with me, casually mentioned her family wanting to take  a vacation in a country she fled as a child, where her parents were killed, a country currently enforcing Stone Age laws regarding women, and with a war in every corner. She seemed embarrassed to have raised the topic, especially after I and the other professor giving the exam reacted with horror. We waved our arms around begging her, "Don't go! It's your life!"

Most of the young women in danger of these marriages come from countries ending in -an. They are Muslim and grew up in Germany, or arrived before their teenage years and have gone to school with German girls who take for granted freedoms of which my Muslim students never dreamed. Some of the Muslim students shyly conform and I never hear from them. Some tell me in a resigned way and with a shrug that they're getting married, or just got married, and a few have desperately recounted their unwillingness to defy their families.

And no wonder. How many sixteen-to-twenty year old women have the emotional strength and financial resources to give up their families forever? Brave possible beatings or so-called honor killings if their hiding places are discovered?

I have yet to meet one. 

But I did, a few days ago, see a student who had been in our Masters program and done well, then disappeared. She vanished three or four years ago, and about a year after that, I happened to enter a shop one day and found her behind the counter with a man old enough to be her father--maybe her grandfather. On the tip of my tongue was the question, "Oh, is this your dad?" when she beat me to it: "This is my husband." 

Now she's back in my office, some years later. The husband is gone--the shop is gone--she has the young child and the husband's parting words were that she could return with him to that country ending in -an, where he would support her. Or she could be on her own and raise the child in Germany. 

She's staying. I applaud her! But how will she do it? Where are the support groups?

Here are some resources I'd like to provide, where you can ask questions, not be judged, and get, at the very least, a listening ear:

Founded by a Pakistani woman who refused a forced marriage and converted from Islam to Catholicism, this organization helps women and girls flee forced and abusive marriages. 

This Catholic organization helps women of all faiths to find safety.

That brilliant atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, runs this organization that helps to protect women and girls from genital cutting, forced marriages, and honor killings.

I'd like to keep a stack of copies of her book, The Caged Virgin (see chapter ten for practical tips on getting away from a forced marriage!) on my desk, and hand it out to any student I suspect of being on her way to one of those miserable marriages.  

But most of all, I would like for these young women to be able to say to themselves, "I want a life! I want to live, not be hustled into a marriage before I've finished high school or college. I want to choose my husband or partner, or I want to live alone, unmarried."

I want them to say "I" with an exclamation point, to feel that their feelings and wishes are important. I wish them courage. 

The student I just examined, the one going on the vacation from which I fear she may not come back, is focused on a sibling, and the sibling's safety. The sibling doesn't want to leave Germany either, but neither of them dares to sneak away from home, find a shelter or a job or a community. 

Guilt--that dreadful power of the weak over the strong ("I'm getting old! You can't leave me! I've got cancer. You can't leave me! I fed you and clothed you! You can't leave me. I took you in when you were an orphan. You can't leave me!") remains a powerful deterrent to the freedom these young women deserve--a freedom that should be their birthright. 

When I teach American literature, we often read Harriet Jacobs' harrowing narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, about her owner's sexual harassment and abuse, about her struggle to keep her children safe, about her dangerous escape to the North. Jacobs' memoir was published in 1861. Her goal, to inform Northern white women about the rape, abuse and torture routinely experienced by women like themselves who happened to be black, strengthened the abolitionist movement, and slavery was abolished in 1863.

 At least theoretically, at least in America, the land where, even under Trump, and even in a gun-mad world in which a movement devoted to Black lives mattering is essential, girls can't legally be thrown into marriage. 

My point: my German students read the book in a rage, wondering how such things were ever possible. The quieter students, the Muslim girls, many in hijab, read the book and I wonder what they are thinking. Are they making comparisons to their own lives? Are they just sliding the contents of the book into a mental drawer marked "school" and avoiding any conscious awareness of similarities to their own lives?

The problem comes down to the pronoun "I" and the sense that one has a right to use it--to be a person with needs of one's own. 

I write in a certain amount of despair myself, having not had that sense of a right to say "I" when I was a young woman. I didn't go into a forced marriage, but the West has its own problems with patriarchy and I fell down a rabbit hole with an authority figure I should have shrugged off much sooner than I did.

And now, like so many old people, I hope to prevent the young from making that particular mistake. 

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