This article is the outcome of an ongoing collaboration with the Syrian Female Journalists Network to support Syrian female writers and media professionals.
(Berlin) More often than not, those escaping to Europe end up dead. But that doesn’t seem to matter much, so long as the survivors make it to the promised land where they hope to lead new lives in countries that are “free, democratic and dignified.”
I arrived in Germany in late 2015. I arrived as a refugee seeking the democracy, freedom, and human dignity offered in this new land. Like many others, I had to stay at one of the initial reception centers where I met many other refugees like myself.
Many of the women at the center were in their prime, having fled Syria carrying their hopes and dreams of liberation and education. Wives and mothers had left their husbands behind and sought asylum, in hopes of being granted the right to family reunification at a later stage. Others were the wives of detainees, the kidnapped, and the forcibly disappeared from different political parties fighting in Syria. They fled to Germany hoping to get their voices heard by the international community to push for information about the fate of their sons and husbands. Widows carried their woes and whomever was left of their children and ventured across the sea, hoping of a bright future for their sons and daughters.
But war has never been the only reason why women flee their home countries. Other reasons include domestic violence, social violence, sexual abuse, forced marriages, and underage marriages. While each woman has her own dreams, most agree that the desire to live freely and with dignity remains the core drive behind their decision to leave.
A few months after I arrived in Germany, I was granted the right to reside. I was taking my first steps towards settling down, and had started looking for a job and a place to stay. During that period, I met (and I still meet) women refugees who either used the same smuggling routes that are now known or who got to Germany when they were reunified with their families. Yet all of them were fixated on the idea of living freely and with dignity. So has this materialized for these women?
From my personal experience, I can say that most European countries in general, and Germany in particular, guarantee a large margin of freedom that is protected by the law, allowing women to pursue their education, their careers and social circles. This also allows them to work and have ambitions of progress away from the taboos that were instilled in them as they grew up in the Arab world. And we have known and heard of many women who have excelled in different scientific and vocational spheres, some of which were simply not possible in their home countries.
On the other hand, there are many women refugees who still live under the patriarchal authority of their male relatives, bound by social codes enforced by men refugees who often become more conservative in a new environment.
Consequently, women have become more vulnerable towards different kinds of violence at the initial reception centers, where refugees live with their families in a space that doesn’t offer any kind of privacy and where they are under psychological, economic and social pressures. Even beyond the centers, small communities have emerged at the margins of German society, where its members have kept to themselves.
However, the one thing that could help women gain their much-deserved freedom is making them aware of their rights as stipulated by the law. While some women express a deep desire to be independent and self-sufficient in hopes of breaking away from the violence imposed by the patriarchy, this comes at a hefty price. Continuous, hard work is imperative for them to win their freedom and dignity, especially since they need to learn a new language, find a job, and an independent place of residence.
But in many cases, silence has become women’s last refuge. They often worry about being morally judged in such closed communities, and consequently, they fear losing the protection offered by their husband, father, or brother. In this case, things are not very different from how they were back home. In light of this, how does the law protect women in Germany?
One in four women in Germany has been the victim of domestic abuse at least once during their lifetime, according to one study.
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, define such violence as “any act… that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life,” such as the marital home.
As a result, Germany instated several laws to protect women. In 2002, it passed the Violence Protection Act, which allows the police to take immediate measures to protect female victims even before a court verdict is reached. Examples of such measures include forcing the male spouse or perpetrator to leave the house, as well as getting a written affidavit not to contact, approach or talk to the victim.
Additionally, according to German law, any civil or religious marriage in which either partner is under 18 years of age is automatically deemed illegal. According to the most recent statistics, there are currently 1,475 child marriages in Germany of which 1,152 cases the female partner is usually underage, making young girls the main victims of child marriages.
The German Penal Code also considers any form of sexual harassment or forced sexual intercourse, even among married couples, to be a criminal act. It’s defined as “sexual acts undertaken through violence or through threats and against the victim’s will,” including rape. Acts of sexual harassment also include: being touched without one’s consent, being stared at, verbal abuse (including cat calling, shaming, and use of inappropriate language), forced intercourse, forcibly watching others have intercourse, and verbal abuse on account of one’s sex or gender. Such acts of sexual harassment can happen in public spaces, at home, or in the workplace, and the perpetrator could be a stranger, your relative, your friend, your colleague or even your boss.
In addition to the above, German law is clear when it comes to supporting women in the work place as well as in political representation. It aims to provide equal pay between men and women, bans unpaid labor, gives women the right to abortion, prohibits female genital mutilation, prostitution, human trafficking and many others.
In any of these cases, victims can file complaints with the police directly, or call state guidance centers that provide victims with the protection, support, and privacy they need.