Postcard From Germany: Bad Godesberg′s ″Women in Black″ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.06.2006
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Postcard From Germany: Bad Godesberg's "Women in Black"

Once renowned as Germany's posh diplomatic district, Bad Godesberg has seen a growing number of veiled Muslim women congregate in the town's center. While some feel threatened, others welcome their presence.

Veiled women are becoming a common sight in Bad Godesberg

Veiled women are becoming a common sight in Bad Godesberg

As twilight turns to dusk at Bad Godesberg's central Theater Square, flocks of women cloaked from head to toe in flowing black robes gather in groups, speaking in Arabic. Their faces are veiled, with just a slit for the eyes.

They are virtually indistinguishable from one another, except for the shoes. One has designer pumps on, another platform heels, and yet another is wearing sports trainers. One of them pulls out an accoutrement of the digital age -- a mobile phone, which somehow seems incongruous with the abaya, the traditional Saudi veil.

Fußgängerzone in Bonn Bad Godesberg

Some "women in black" in Bad Godesberg's pedestrian zone

But many in this slow-paced suburb of Germany's sleepy former capital said the presence of veiled women doesn't mean alarm bells have to start ringing.

"These visitors might not speak any German, but their eyes are so expressive, and the laughter shines through," said Bad Godesberg's district mayor, Annette Schwolen-Flümann, adding that more people should try to speak to and get to know the women.

Some are spooked

Other long-time residents are less thrilled about the women in black.

"I feel so spooked seeing swarms of black-hooded figures, which remind me of Halloween ghosts in an empty square when it's dark outside," said one woman, a long-time resident of Bad-Godesberg who didn't wish to be named. "I start wondering: What are they up to? Where am I? What country is this?"

Häuser in Bonn Bad Godesberg

The neighborhood was the diplomatic quarters when Bonn was the capital

Misgivings about conservative Islam deepened in Bad Godesberg in 2003, when German authorities threatened to close down the local King Fahd Academy, a Saudi-sponsored private school, amid allegations of inciting anti-Western violence. But ties to terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, could not be conclusively proven.

Only 6 percent of all inhabitants in Bonn are actually Muslim and mostly of Turkish or Kurdish origin. They tend to live in the working class districts to the north. Relatively few live in Bad Godesberg's former diplomatic quarters south of Bonn's city center, where magnificently restored art nouveau and Victorian villas that used to be embassies and diplomatic residences grace the tree-lined boulevards.

Attractive medical care

So why this sudden influx of veiled women? The answer lies in Bonn's unrivalled state-of-the-art infrastructure that's a result of the city's former status as the federal capital.

"What Bad Godesberg has to offer in terms of scientific research and medical facilities is extraordinary, which is why so many well-off Muslim-Arabs seek treatment here," said Schwolen-Flümann, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union. "Quite a few of those veiled ladies even seek cosmetic surgery."

The Reha-Klinik or rehabilitation center, for instance, has attracted top specialists in neurological care. The overwhelming majority of patients from abroad come from the oil-rich Gulf states, where it is customary for women to be completely veiled in black, according to Munir Abdalla, who is in charge of medical services for foreign patients at the clinic.

"Some patients are sheiks or princes, and they bring their entire entourage," said Abdalla, who is a German of Palestinian origin. "Others are ordinary citizens from Kuwait, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, who can afford the best treatment, since all medical and travel costs, plus accommodation for accompanying family members are paid for by the individual states."

Good for business, too

Fußgängerzone in Bonn Bad Godesberg

Food shops cater to the guests

The wealthy medicine-seeking Arabs have prompted the establishment of an entire service industry, with a downtown strip catering to this transient Muslim population. Call shops and Internet cafés abound. There are laundromats for those living temporarily in apartments or hotels. Some restaurants serve food that is halal, or permissible under Islam, a kiosk sells magazines in Arabic and there's a makeshift mosque in a courtyard.

And far from simply congregating at Bad Godesberg's main square when shops are closed, the women in black have become an important factor for the city's financial future.

"They also boost the retail sector here with their spending," Schwolen-Flümann said.

In this new occasional series, "Postcard From Germany ," DW-WORLD.DE offers you snapshots of places around the country. Please let us know if there's a town or city you'd like to know more about.

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