Interview Halis Cicek

"Forced Marriage is a Contemporary Form of Slavery"

Halis Cicek feels that forced marriage is a taboo subject that needs to be discussed critically. Siegrid Dethloff interviews Germany's only Turkish sexual therapist

Depression, psychosomatic disorders, suicide attempts – Halis Cicek, who has his practice in Berlin-Kreuzberg, could compile a long list of the terrible things reported to him by his Turkish women patients. Most of them are young, and many of them were married against their will. It usually takes these women one to two years to pluck up the courage to seek out his help.

The UN has described forced marriage as "a contemporary form of slavery". In Cicek's view, it's a subject that's too often hushed up. In an attempt to break this taboo, he has now written a book: "Traditionelle Vergewaltigung" (Traditional Rape), a description of his experiences with the victims of forced marriage over the course of many years. It's intended as a wake-up call.

Herr Cicek, what motivated you to write a book about forced marriage?

Halis Cicek: For many years now, I have been offering therapy to Turkish and Turkish-German patients; my compatriots. I've helped a lot of people, but I feel it's not enough. There are so many things that demand to be discussed openly. I see this book as a source of information, because we're talking about a social taboo here. And many readers have said they were delighted by the book, for it's the very first of its kind.

Since 1994, I've been keeping notes on my therapy sessions. The book deals with rape, and with incest. It's essential that parents become conscious of what they're actually doing. They have never learned to talk about such things, because they themselves were forced into marriage. So they say "Never again!"… But then they go right ahead and do the very same thing to their own children.

Presumably men are also victims of forced marriage. But would it be fair to say they suffer less from this situation than women?

Cicek: Yes. From my own experiences, I can say that around 90% of my Turkish female patients have been beaten by their men. This includes women from academic backgrounds and purportedly left-wing families that see themselves as liberal and democratic. Such families also include men who call themselves "women's rights campaigners".

Well, they may go on marches for equal rights, but I've also seen and heard what some of them are capable of doing to their wives at home. A lot of these people are in permanent financial difficulties, or have problems living between two cultures. They're in a state of tension, because they're neither Turkish nor German – and many of them are stuck in disastrous, destructive relationships.

And there's a lack of understanding amongst parents?

Cicek: Parents often believe they're doing their best for their children by marrying them off to members of their extended family in order to protect them from strangers. Sometimes, they also want to help their relatives get out of Turkey. A lot of these parents simply don't know what they're doing. I'll say this quite openly: in many cases, it's like an import-export business.

But then the parents see the problems piling up after the marriage, they see how unhappy their children have become. So mothers and fathers also come to me complaining of depression. Indeed, some of them become quite seriously ill out of empathy with their children's suffering. Those who have come here from Turkey are generally very emotional: when one member of the family is ill, the rest of them share in that person's suffering to an extreme extent.

Many of your women patients, then, have been forced into marriage. What are their specific complaints when they come to you?

Cicek: A lot of them are depressive, for example. They have lost the will to live. They have no appetite, they're frightened of the future, they have no interest in life and no hope. They lose weight, they sleep badly, they're scared of sexuality, they can't enjoy anything at all. And when I ask them what's at the root of all this, it becomes clear that their problems really started when they got married.

Including actual somatic illnesses?

Cicek: Yes. For instance, most of these patients complain of headaches or stomach pains. Under stress, the stomach produces a lot of gastric acid, which can lead to gastritis, and this may in turn eventually develop into an ulcer. Many patients also suffer from insomnia or rheumatic pains.

How do you find out that forced marriage is at the root of these problems? Do your patients simply say so, flat out?

Cicek: Yes. Many of them, especially the women, speak surprisingly freely when they find someone they can trust. When I ask about their fears, about sexuality and about depression, they usually open up about the problems in their marriages very quickly. They'll describe their wedding, the first night, and how it went.

Then they might reveal that they had never even met their husbands before the wedding ceremony. Gradually, they'll find a way to start talking about matters such as violence, and compulsion; and eventually, they'll admit they were forced into marriage against their will. But before I can offer a diagnosis, I simply have to see their husbands too. Only then can I assess whether it's possible for me to help both of them - and if so, how.

Do your patients ever tell you they've been raped or physically abused?

Cicek: Very, very often, they describe being raped by their husbands.

Could you describe a specific case?

Cicek: There was one particular young woman who had been forced into marriage at the age of 13 or 14. She had been a very beautiful girl; then came the marriage. Her husband had various mistresses, she had to live with his in-laws, and she was not allowed to leave the house alone; the man was plagued with feelings of inferiority, and terrified that she might meet someone else.

Eventually – she already had four or five children by this time – she just got up and went out one day. Her in-laws came running after her: her father-in-law threatened her with a knife, and his wife tried to pull her back by her hair. Then her husband threatened to kill her. She brought charges, but the family kept on threatening her until she agreed to drop them.

This woman is still alive today, but her life is hell. Her husband beats her and rapes her. She wanted a divorce, but then her own father and her brother said they would come up here from Turkey and kill her. She is now about 30 years old. Her condition became so bad that she had to be hospitalised. Recently, she applied for a disability pension.

As a therapist, what concrete help can you offer to these women? Therapy can help to change the way people think, but what does it actually mean for the way they live their lives?

Cicek: I do my best to make it clear that they must try to become more independent. And to me, this means that a woman has to acquire an education and some qualifications. She has to be able to find a job; or, if she can, study to take up a profession. There are ways of going about this; there are institutions that can help these women.

In other words, you're performing something like social work?

Cicek: Yes, my working methods are very flexible and heterogeneous. I use relaxation training, for instance, but my preferred method is cognitive training: it's important for these women to develop a different way of perceiving the world. The worst thing is their feeling of weakness, of being permanently at a disadvantage because they see their men as so strong.

How often does it happen that women are so strengthened by a therapy that they actually change radically, perhaps leaving the family in order to take charge of their own lives?

Cicek: After only 10 or 15 hours of therapy, many women develop a much greater awareness of how things really are. This strengthens their ability to take steps to change their situation, and they develop a greater interest in doing so. If I offer them enough support and encouragement, some of them may start visiting women's advice centres or looking for work - even against the will of their husbands.

Have you ever seen it happen – when both partners were in therapy together, for example – that the husband changed his attitudes radically?

Cicek: Yes. There are men who look and act like machos, who behave brutally at home, etc, and who suddenly see themselves for the first time, as if in a mirror, when they come to my practice. When I really show them how they behave towards women, then they do sometimes change their ways, or at least they attempt to do so. Initially, of course, most of these men are frightened of going to a therapist in the first place. Often enough, they try to prevent even their wives from going. But it's terrific when these men do manage to change.

So some couples do manage to build up a good relationship, despite having been forced to marry?

Cicek: Yes, this too can happen. In other cases, the therapy enables them to separate amicably, for it's allowed them to see that there's no point in going on when they have nothing in common. Sometimes, even a divorce is a very positive move.

You mean some men do come to think, "This simply isn't the woman for me – and in any case, a marriage without consent is no real marriage, so I have no right to keep her against her will"? They realise that both they and the woman can live their own independent lives?

Cicek: Yes, such cases do exist. Sometimes a man will also realise that he too has made mistakes that he too had been incapable of resisting the pressure to marry against his will. And then it dawns on him that he's actually no more contented than his wife! This kind of understanding can emerge in contact with a therapist, who is a neutral third party.

So there are grounds for hope?

Cicek: Yes. But men, in general, are still more capable of rebelling than women, because women are still in a worse situation. I have to stress that it's often very difficult for a woman to free herself.

Interview: Siegrid Dethloff

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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