A Center for Muslim Girls

Boys Stay Out

Parents control the home, and boys the street. The MaDonna center for girls is one of the few places in the troubled Rollberg area of Berlin's Neukölln district where girls from Muslim families can meet undisturbed. Lennart Lehmann reports

photo: MaDonna Center
The MaDonna Center is a girls-only place – consequently pubescent boys in the area tend the regard the center for girls as a provocation

​​"Girls hardly have the opportunity to meet each other in their own homes," claimed Filiz. Overflowing with cheerfulness, she is one of the young, trendy looking women working as supervisors at MaDonna. "For one thing, apartments are overcrowded. Many parents also fear that friends will encourage their daughters to rebel. They are afraid a friend might say something like, 'You are having a really hard time here. Why don't you just pack up and leave?'"

The streets, on the other hand, are already occupied by the boys. Everywhere in Neukölln and Kreuzberg districts of Berlin you can see small groups of boys standing around the corners. They talk, smoke, and munch on sunflower seeds. This is no place for girls. In addition, many sons regard themselves as the long arm of their parents and feel they have to watch out for the "honor" of their sisters.

Parents' fantasies have no bounds

"Parents fear that their daughters will earn a bad reputation, and that people will say they saw their daughter at such and such a place," explained Filiz. As is well known, parents' fantasies have no bounds. On the other hand, her colleague Cigdem, dressed in traditional Turkish garb, believes that many girls overdramatize the situation. As one girl says, "My father often says that he would kill me if I did this or that. But I am sure he wouldn't do it."

There are a number of postcards on display in the foyer of MaDonna. "Until death do us part" is printed on one with a picture of a bride having hung herself in the basement. Another shows a bridal couple next to a box full of money and a pile of vegetables beside the groom. "Forced marriage is a crime" is written on the backside. On the wall is a scrap of paper with the words "When the boys start getting on your nerves again…" and a telephone number.

Marrying a stranger

Almost everyone is familiar with stories like the following. The older sister was in love with a classmate. Yet her parents forced her to marry a man whose name she didn't even know. She became very sick and developed psychological problems. Now she has three children and is happy. But she has never forgiven her father.

"I was also forced to marry my cousin," relates Filiz. "It was horrible. I didn't want the marriage and neither did he. After three months, I went back to my parents and said, 'Either you take me back or I will run away and you will never see me again.' My parents were very strict with me afterwards. I wasn't allowed to meet with anyone. Three years later, I married another man."

This is not an unusual story for any of the regulars at MaDonna, nor are reports of beatings from brothers or fathers when a girl is caught out with a friend. "It is a mistake when parents force us to do something," thinks Filiz. "All the problems will just come back on them. You have to defend yourself. If you always just keep quiet, then you sink. No one will bother to help." And then she adds, "I want to be friends with my children."

Many parents are now more relaxed, observes Hülya. She used to be beaten when she came home even five minutes late from school. "My little sister can now go to the movies alone." Cigdem even managed to get her parents' permission to rent her own apartment. This fact, together with her conservative manner of dressing, provokes amusing remarks from colleagues. "What a family! She isn't allowed out, but she can live alone!"

Rumors and defamation

Pubescent boys in the area tend the regard the center for girls as a provocation, since they aren't allowed entry. They curse it as a center for whores and prostitutes and spread the wildest stories about what goes on inside. Envy and desire probably play a role here, but also the intention of discrediting center visitors and making verbally clear that they see a woman's place as being elsewhere.

No amount of transparency can change these views. "If they could come in and see that we offer Internet access to girls, they would find that too much to take."

An open door policy fares little better. For a time, MaDonna attempted to temporarily open the center for a chosen group of boys. The result was that some of the Arab mothers refused to let their daughters continue to take part in recreational activities or come for help with their homework.

There was no other option than to throw the "lords of creation" back onto the street. So when the street dance group practices evenings at MaDonna, the curtains continue to be drawn.

Lennart Lehmann

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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