Arab refugee women in Germany speak out on International Women’s Day | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.03.2017
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Arab refugee women in Germany speak out on International Women’s Day

To mark International Women's Day, three refugees living in Germany spoke to DW about how they perceive their economic, political rights. Social life now, the women said, often mirrors life in their native countries.

The significant number of refugee women living in Germany casts a slightly different light on this year's International Women's Day and brings new questions to the surface. How do female refugees view their rights and freedoms before and after receiving asylum in Germany? What are the barriers they face that can limit their freedom and prevent them from exercising their rights? How do they interpret the meaning of women's rights?

DW met three Arab refugee women to ask these questions.

Facing social stigma 

Muna [not her real name - eds.] comes from the northern Syrian city of Qamishli and now lives in one of the special apartment accommodations for refugees in the German city of Mainz. This housing complex has created a little Syrian community within the city.

Mona: nicht hat sich geändert (DW/N.Yakine)

Muna feels she is still bound to old traditions even in Germany

Life in Mainz is not that different from life back home in Qamishli for Muna. After her divorce in Syria five years ago, her life changed dramatically. After the divorce, she felt disdained by her her family, her husband and even her neighbors. The meaning of rights and freedoms for women in the Arab states differs entirely from that of European countries, she told DW. In Europe women and men have become equal, and women have reached positions where they can make workplace decisions. Arab women often can't exercise their freedom - sometimes even when it comes to choosing a life partner. 

Before her marriage, Muna said, she was under the authority of her father or her brothers. She was prevented from wearing makeup in the house or from talking to the boys next door - that would be a dishonor to her family's reputation and would have harmed her or her sisters chances at marriage. She did not choose her husband, but during her marriage she could put on makeup or visit her family alone. Life after the divorce is no different for Muna than life before marriage. "I am a woman handcuffed to tradition, I prefer to spend my time away from those other Syrians who control my looks and see me in the streets of Mainz. Nothing has changed," she said. 

Disowned by family for her views

Halima [not her real name - eds.], is a cultured young woman from the Libyan capital of Tripoli. She said she believes tradition and the law in Libya restrict women's rights. She called Libya a largely tribal society that sees educated women as being crazy or as outcasts. Halima said she suffered greatly because of her liberal differences and her determination to stick to her opinions. This made her vulnerable to beatings and punishments by her father, her uncle, and even her young brother, she told DW.

Deutschland Merkel würdigt ehrenamtliches Engagement für junge Eltern (picture alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

Angela Merkel is a role model for Halima

German Chancellor Angela Merkel "encouraged her to seek refuge in Germany,"  she said. This is not necessarily because Merkel opened the door to refugees but because Halima said she regards the German leader as a strong woman and role model. Escape from Libya, for Halima, is the beginning of a break with the myths woven around a women's personality in her home country. Halima can now work, express her views and live independently. But she paid a cost for coming to Germany -  she was disowned by her family.

Awareness of rights

Nesrine taught English in the Syrian coastal city of Lattakia. She said it's obvious to her that Arab women are not aware of their rights.

International Women's Day isn't just about giving roses, as is promoted on social networking sites, she said. It's about assessing how a woman's social and economic status has developed. With a wry smile, she said she knows many Arab women in Germany who have heard of International Women's Day. Finding out about the day leads them to ask their husbands for gifts like an iron or a washing machine.

Nesrine said she made use of her rights as a woman in back home in Syria and made her husband and family respect these rights. She told DW that her self-confidence and awareness of her rights kept her from being a prisoner of old traditions and that her situation as a woman has not changed in Germany compared to Syria.

Personal and cultural factors 

 Zineb Daoudi Sozialarbeiterin (DW/N.Yakine)

Zineb Daoudi works for the "Oum el Banine" association in Düsseldorf

Zineb Daoudi, a social worker at the Oum El Banine women's association in Dusseldorf, told DW that certain factors in Germany can prevent a refugee from enjoying her full rights. Besides psychological barriers due to the instability of a refugee's life, complex issues related to personal identity also come into play. A woman is seen as responsible for her honor, her family's honor and the honor of her country. She's responsible for her behavior and how she deals with the new and open German society, this is especially the case if she is still waiting for her husband or family to join her in Germany.

The stability that comes after being granted asylum, Daoudi told DW, signifies freedom for a female refugee. Women's level of cultural awareness plays a huge role in how they perceive their rights and freedoms in the new country. Social, economic, and personal differences among female refugees also contribute to how they perceive their rights.

"Women with strong personalities have the ambition to be self-assertive and to change," Daoudi said. "Others with more timid personalities became reliant on others - particularly those around her who are from the same country."

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