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Tolerance for the tolerant

Minority protection with respect to Islam can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women, warns German-Turkish lawyer Seyran Ates.

The German title of the article "Making multiculturalism work" published on signandsight reads "The protection of minorities – a lesson from history". This title gave me a premonition of what I was in for. I thought to myself: "Please no, not you too, Frau Limbach, don't do this to us. We need women like you if things are going to change. And you've already done so much to get them heading in the right direction." Why are a few particularly estimable, highly intelligent women and men in very prominent positions, blind in one eye when it comes to the protection of minorities? Why are they blind in that eye with which they have otherwise promoted equal rights for the sexes, and still do? The so-called minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women, and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures.

The situation of Muslim girls and women in Germany has been played down to an extreme. I still don't know why – above all when it comes from personalities like Frau Limbach. That is why I must first of all state my fervent wish: let's finally talk straight. I want to know, and many thousands of Muslim girls and women have a right to know, why understanding and infinite tolerance is practised with particular cultural traditions that are clearly oppressive of women. Human rights are universal and unconditional. And that goes most certainly for religious objectives.

It is only girls and women who are forced to wear head-scarves. And it's also a majority of girls and women who are affected by forced marriage. I don't want to enter into the debate about women and schoolgirls who wear the headscarf of their own free will, or about the difference between arranged and forced marriages. Just one note: silence cannot be understood as assent. But very many girls are brought up to be silent on such topics. This is very much in the spirit of a certain reading of the Koran where it's written:

5137, Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, reported: I said: "O messenger of Allah, a virgin is abashed!" And he responded: Your consent is your silence."

Girls are excused from swimming class, field trips and sex education. The coeducational approach, the idea of using mixed classes to convey equal rights between the sexes, is undermined in the name of religion. It is Muslim schoolgirls who bear the brunt of this.

Of course, we mustn't forget the boys and men. They too are affected by these archaic traditions. They are forced to play the man, the protector of morals and family honour. They bear the responsibility for keeping the sexuality of the female members under control. A free, autonomous life, the esteem for a person's individuality is seen to endanger the far more important community feeling, the group identity. In extreme cases, men are turned into murderers because the social system demands this of them. Because otherwise, they cannot live after their honour has been violated. What will become of the Muslims who don't have the personal strength to defend themselves against the community and the clan because of this outmoded tradition? What will become of the little machos who already play the Pascha in kindergarten and grade school?

But closing one's eyes to such realities in the name of minority protection cannot be in the spirit of a modern democracy. The minority has the right to participate in all the basic rights that the majority also enjoys. We do not prevent attacks by youths of the third generation by unconditionally protecting "their" culture, but rather by learning to live together on the basis of a common constitution and by observing common basic values.

We must finally stop allowing human rights violations in Muslim parallel societies to be shrugged off with appeals to German history, while pointing to human rights and demanding respect for the rights of women in the negotiations with Turkey on its bid to enter the EU.

I hold Frau Limbach in very high esteem. And she has certainly been a role model for me as a lawyer from time to time. On March 17 of this year, the Berlin House of Representatives awarded Frau Limbach with the Louise-Schröder-Medal for her work and engagement, for equal rights for women in particular. I had the honour of attending as a guest, and I fully supported the honour bestowed on her, and applauded from the depth of my heart. Anne Will delivered a wonderful, impressive speech. Frau Limbach swept us away with her thoughts on equal rights for men and women, as factual, clear, eloquent, and tastefully humorous as ever. She pointed out what has been achieved, and how difficult it was and still is, to be seen as a woman.

She illustrates this with the example of the prize's namesake, Louise Schröder. Frau Limbach emphasised insistently that there are hardly any written records of Louise Schröder, not to mention literature. If Louise Schröder had been a man, there would have been meters of books on her, as she achieved much of significance – this was the gist of Frau Limbach's comment. This sentence was burned into my memory. We know that this sentence applies to many women, and we know that we are very far away from equal rights of the sexes worldwide. But there are cultures that have come a long way, and it can't be denied that there are cultures that are just beginning, and of course there are many in between.

Too bad that Frau Limbach only dedicates two small paragraphs to the (Islamic) women's question, although it is precisely this domain that raises the question of the inviolability of human dignity.

Many judgements have been handed down in Germany which have excluded Islamic girls from school classes. The arguments always tend in the same direction. The "others" don't have to live like we do. For example, in its judgement of March 24, 1994 (InfAuslR 8/92, S. 269), concerning the exemption of an Islamic schoolgirl from gym class, the higher administrative court in Bremen ruled:

" is irrelevant that adolescent Muslim women are prevented by the demands of their religion from achieving equal status as women in Western society..."

There are two yardsticks concerning the human dignity of women, even though the Basic Law mandates that no religion be treated preferentially. On the matter of women, Islam enjoys in many senses an unlimited preference in Germany, to the point that individual human rights are violated.

We are surrounded by Islamic associations that aspire ever more to a social order that envisages a clear separation of the sexes. For that reason, I have to wonder when Frau Limbach, writing on the "limits of tolerance", spends very little time on the women's question, although it's precisely this question that will be decisive for integration.

The idea of multiculturalism is good, as was and is the idea of socialism. Only its implementation was wrong. That's life. It's true that theory and reality are always splitting apart, as so often in life. But the question remains, what the "right" implementation would be.

It is certainly not exclusively but largely the "wrong" implementation of the multicultural society that we have to thank for insular and hardly accessible parallel societies. What other factor could there be? It was always said: leave the minorities in peace, they'll integrate in time and of their own free will. That was not, however, an essentially "wrong" implementation. That was a deliberate policy of non-integration. Because the fans of the multi-culti society hardly have a notion of the real cohabitation of cultures. That becomes clear when you ask how many non-German friends these proponents of multiculturalism have. Very much like the motto: I'm for equal rights for men and women, but not in my house, because there I'm the boss.

Should minorities be deprived of the achievements of modern democracy under the guise of a false understanding of tolerance, because it's too uncomfortable and dangerous for the majority society to support a reform process, for example in the Islamic minority? Is that how the "host culture" should look?

I demand the support and protection of all cultures in Germany, but only within the framework of our Basic Law. The German state doesn't preserve its neutrality when with it becomes a protector of an extreme and fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran in its judicial judgements.

Tolerance of the tolerant (who said that again???)

If you really want to unite the aspiration and the reality, you have to take a closer look at the reality of the minority. Only then is a realistic protection of minorities possible. And don't be shocked, as the English were, by what you find. The reality is more dreadful than our imagining of it.


The article originally appeared in German in Perlentaucher, on September 2, 2005.

Seyran Ates, born in 1963 in Istanbul, has lived in Berlin since 1969. She studied law at the Free University of Berlin and has been working as a lawyer since 1997. Her areas of expertise are family and criminal law. She is the co-author of the book "Wo gehören wir hin? Zwei türkische Mädchen erzählen", which appeared in 1983. At 21, she was nearly killed in a political attack. In 2003, her autobiographical "Große Reise ins Feuer" was published by Rowohlt. She is campaigning for forced marriage to be treated as a criminal offence in its own right.

Translation: jab, nb - let's talk european