Working Together against Legal Discrimination and Male Violence

Patriarchy and the resulting violence against women and children are increasingly being viewed as a problem both in the western and Arab/Islamic worlds. A group of women’s rights activists from the Maghrib came to Germany to gather information and learn from their colleagues. Martina Sabra reports.

Patriarchy and the resulting violence against women and children are increasingly being viewed as a problem both in the western and Arab/Islamic worlds. A group of women’s rights activists from the Maghrib came to Germany to gather information and learn from their colleagues. Martina Sabra met the women in question.

Patriarchy and the resulting violence against women and children are increasingly being viewed as a problem both in the western and Arab/Islamic worlds. The women in both regions, who are working hard to achieve equality of the sexes and combat male violence, can learn a lot from each other despite their different cultural and economic backgrounds.

Participants of the delegation; photo: Martina Sabra

​​These two important conclusions were reached at the end of an intense exchange between women’s rights activists from North Africa and Germany, which was initiated by the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Cologne and Duisburg. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been supporting independent women’s organisations in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia since 1994 as part of the ‘Social democratisation in the Maghrib’ project. The aim of this project is to improve both women’s legal standing and the availability of assistance for female victims of violence in these countries. In all, eight female employees from centres that deal with emergency calls from women and women’s refuges in Algiers, Casablanca and Tunis had the chance to learn all about the general situation for women in Germany and German strategies for preventing or combating male violence against women and children and, last but not least, to inform German women’s organisations about their project work and the legal and social status of women in the Maghrib and the Arab world.

Morocco’s feminists defend themselves

Just how important that latter issue is and how little is known in Germany about women’s standing in the Maghrib, the women’s lib movement and feminism in that region became clear during the course of the ten-day visit. Alice Schwarzer, publisher of the German women’s magazine Emma, was asked by visitors about many things including the effects of the fall of the Berlin wall on German women. She herself was eager to learn about the situation in North Africa. Schwarzer, pioneer lady of feminism in Germany, was quite surprised to learn that religious fanatics in Morocco have stepped up their attacks on women - which range from verbal insults to murder - in the name of Islamic morals. Even though Morocco’s women are defending themselves, the German media has paid hardly any attention to their plight. The German women were astounded to learn that giving women access to political posts in North Africa is partly counter-productive. While a quota for women was introduced in the Moroccan parliament in the summer of 2002, the majority of the thirty women elected to parliament in September of last year belong to the conservative Islamist camp and are unlikely to launch initiatives to reform the sexist Islamic family law (the mudawwana). On the contrary, they insist on the implementation of male-dominated interpretations of the holy Islamic texts. Other women in Berlin and Cologne found it hard to imagine that feminists and feminist projects even exist in Arab/Islamic countries. They were even more surprised to learn that the history of the women’s movement in Tunisia began in the 1940s, that the first women’s refuge in Algeria was opened in 1993 and that over a dozen women’s organisations in Morocco came up with the idea behind the ‘summer of equality’: a national campaign to abolish the Islamic family law.

For their part, the visitors from North Africa were astonished to learn that trade in women and forced prostitution in Germany have increased considerably and that in addition to women from Eastern Europe, an increasing number of women from the Maghrib are being forced into prostitution. They also learned that as part of the Protection against Violence Act, which came into force in Germany on 1 January 2002, violent men can now be banned from the marital home.

No legal framework for women’s refuges

The women from the Maghrib were also surprised to hear that advice centres for female victims of violence in Germany often share the same difficulties as those in their native countries: they were all too familiar with the problems recounted by a representative of the Berlin model project SIGNAL, e.g. the lack of training for doctors and other hospital personnel in terms of dealing with victims of domestic violence. During their visit to a women’s refuge and the women’s advice centre run by the association BORA, the North African delegates found out that, like in the Maghrib, there is no legal framework for women’s refuges; a status that has a negative effect on their funding.

They were, however, very impressed by the work done by the Berlin-based model project BIG (an intervention centre against domestic violence), which was built up jointly by the centre and Berlin’s criminal investigation department. The aim of BIG is to improve co-operation between centres that take women’s emergency calls, the police and municipal authorities. In addition to seminars about providing initial telephone advice, crisis intervention, networking of institutions and strategy development, a two-hour conversation with the director of criminal investigation Ursula Falkenstern was on the group’s agenda. Falkenstern is the co-ordinator of a major training programme that aims to combat domestic violence and has already trained over 4,000 police officers. Fella Bourahmani from the women’s emergency call centre in Algiers displayed muted optimism about the chances of implementing such a programme in her native country. ‘We would really like to work more closely with the police, but for most people in the Maghrib, the police symbolise the mechanism of oppression and the majority of police officers is not interested in helping women in distress. Whenever we do succeed in establishing good contacts with the police, the officer in question is usually transferred a short time later. Then we have to start all over again. Still, this example is encouraging.’

The visitors made note of the way that the German women’s movement is firmly anchored in the institutions and the enormous variety of feminist support and advice services available to women. ‘The autonomous women’s movement has been active in Germany for over 35 years,’ says Zahra Azirae, employee at the women’s advice and documentation centre CIOFEM in Casablanca. ‘We, on the other hand, are only starting out. Nevertheless, we can still learn a lot from the experiences gained by women in Germany.’

Co-operation possible

Overall, the delegates from North Africa and their German colleagues considered the visit both very informative and fruitful, especially as many of the organisations publish information material in several languages. In short, the language barrier is not as high as it used to be. ‘I think it is great that organisations such as ‘Zartbitter’ (which fights to combat sexual abuse), BORA, BIG and many other advice centres in Germany have brochures in German, French and even Arabic,’ said a delighted Halima Jouini from Tunisia. It is certain that the international exchange will not end with the reading of the brochures: ‘I am delighted that we have at last met personal contacts from Morocco,’ said Sister Leonie, who works at the SOLWODI organisation in Duisburg. SOLWODI works to combat the trade in women and forced prostitution. ‘An increasing number of Moroccan women are turning to us. Sometimes we have no-one who can answer our questions. Now we know of organisations in Morocco to whom we can turn for assistance.’

Martina Sabra

© 2003,

Heinrich Boell Foundation
BIG Berlin (information brochure in Arabic)
Zartbitter (tips for youths in Arabic, Turkish and French)
SOS Femme en Détresse (emergency hotline for women in Algiers)
Association Marocaine de lutte contre les Violences à l'égard des Femmes (emergency hotline for women in Casablanca)
Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (emergency hotline for women in Tunis)
CIOFEM (documentation and support centre for women in Casablanca)

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