The Voice of the Oppressed

Times Staff Writer

The stolen bride in the photograph has aged, her face thicker around the jaw, the lines that arch from her eyes thin but prevalent. Her war has ended. The one between her and her family, written in the book lying next to her restless hands.

She calls herself only Ayse, an alias to protect her from family retribution. A Turkish woman forced into an arranged marriage and shuttled to Germany, she says she was beaten by her husband, robbed of her children and relegated to a slave’s life in a nation with a constitution eloquent on human rights. It is a common story, she says. But Ayse’s anger, unlike most, found its way onto the page.

Ayse’s tale, “Nobody Asked Me,” is one of at least eight memoirs recently published in German about Muslim women trapped by arranged marriages, religious fundamentalism, tribal chauvinism and violence. Most authors in this increasingly popular coming-of-age genre are immigrants or the daughters of immigrants squeezed anonymously between a liberal Europe they were forbidden to savor and the clan customs of a native land they couldn’t escape.

“Not every woman like me can write a book,” Ayse said recently while sitting amid coffee and chocolates at a Munich literary agency. “They don’t have confidence in themselves. They’re scared. This is something for my children and me. There are many, many women in Europe with lives like mine.”


Writers such as Ayse are producing a literature of awareness that reflects Germany’s awakened desire to understand its 3 million Muslims, mostly Turks who began arriving as “guest workers” in the 1960s. These best-selling stories are resonating on a continent shaken by terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, and bewildered over how to better integrate immigrant and Islamic cultures.

“Europe is discovering very late, especially in Germany, that these [Muslim] societies exist in a separate universe,” said Bernhard Suchy, an editor at Ullstein publishing house. “For a long time there had been no discussion in Germany about cultural relations. It was obviously ignored, but with these books and magazine articles, everybody’s finally catching up.”

The eastward expansion of the European Union also has provoked an examination of what is European, especially since the head scarf has become an emblem of debate between East and West.

“Turkey is the next country that wants to join the European Union,” said Linda Walz, an editor for Ayse’s publisher, Blanvalet. “We hope the book will be something to open the eyes of German women about the living conditions of many Turkish women in Europe.”

Like a peek over a reclusive neighbor’s fence, the books offer a glimpse of sequestered lives. The stories are simply sketched, elucidating hardships, beatings, rapes and young women’s attempts to flee oppressive clans, parents and rigid Islamic mentalities transported here from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.

Their titles are provocative: “I Accuse,” “Kidnapped in Yemen,” “Choke on Your Lies.”

One of the more compelling memoirs is “I Only Wanted to Be Free,” by Hulya Kalkan, an adventure story of forged passports and family battles as the German-born author and her sister escape the rigid Koranic schools and forced marriages arranged for them in Turkey’s Anatolia mountains. Kalkan is pictured on the book’s cover, a striking young woman with uncovered long, black hair and dark eyes, who seems at once to embody European cosmopolitanism and Muslim tradition.

Trapped in the apartment of relatives in Turkey, Kalkan writes: “I cannot stand on the balcony and cry for help. People would consider me crazy. The police? They are all men. And on whose side would they be? It’s useless.... It’s like I’m locked in a prison. My crime? I am 17 and I am unmarried.”

Accounts such as Kalkan’s have led to calls for stricter laws to protect women from exploitation and even death. They also have complicated cultural arguments over religion and immigration. For example, although arranged marriages are sanctioned by Islam, the unions are often exploited by village clans for secular and financial reasons: to keep relatives working in Europe so money can flow back to their native countries.

Written with German author Renate Eder, Ayse’s book recounts her plight as a 14-year-old in rural northeastern Turkey near the Black Sea. Her parents arranged her marriage to a man from their village who had moved to Germany years earlier.

Ayse arrived in Munich in 1978. She enrolled in school, but her new husband had other intentions. He put her to work in a plastics factory. When her shift was over, she returned home and spent 10 more hours at a black-market job assembling electrical receptacles.

Ayse estimated that she earned about $1,500 a month, money her mother-in-law confiscated and wired to Turkey. She never learned to read or write German. Her first son, born when she was 15, was eventually sent to her village in Turkey so Ayse could spend more time working. Her husband beat and raped her often. Life, she wrote, had become a whirl of brutality and endless work.

“My husband did not kiss me and he did not caress me,” she wrote. During her second pregnancy, “it became more and more clear to me that it couldn’t go on like this. Always work, eat, sleep and work again. And then I carried my children to full term, giving birth to them, only to have them sent to relatives in Turkey. No, I didn’t want to live like this. Something had to happen.”

Ayse rarely experienced European life; she pressed against it like one presses upon a window. Her existence was marked by contradiction. Shortly after she moved to Germany, her husband told her to remove her head scarf. “You are in Europe now,” he said.

But once indoors, he applied the ancient clan codes that kept her destitute and subjugated.

The Turks who immigrated to Berlin and Frankfurt are in many ways more bound to tribal traditions and religion than their counterparts who migrated to Istanbul and Ankara. Immigrant families who arrived here decades ago looking for work felt adrift, and few thought they would stay for good. With Germans seldom welcoming them, Turks built insular communities fortified by patriarchal customs from the Old World.

Some of the women writing these memoirs risk the most violent of these customs: honor killing, the slaying of a woman accused of bringing shame to her family. Berlin has had at least seven honor killings since October 2004.

One of the victims was Hatun Surucu, a single mother shot in the head after escaping an arranged marriage and living a Western lifestyle. Her brother, Ayhan, 19, is on trial for the slaying. A young Muslim woman testifying against him attends court in a bulletproof vest, accompanied by three bodyguards.

Ayse thought she would die at the hands of her husband more than once. She escaped him in 1997, after she was hospitalized with injuries from one of his beatings. She still works in the plastics factory. Her eldest son, the one she was forced to send to Turkey, is confused and angry about his childhood but wants to reconcile with her. Her two other sons, one unemployed and one a student, live in Germany.

Life is hard, she said. No single direction seems right. In her town, the name of which she wants to keep secret, she watches East and West pull at each other. Tribal customs enslaved and bloodied her, but a liberal Europe frightens her too. This strange amalgam of allegiances sometimes forces her to choose, as she did when she yielded to cultural pressure and allowed her daughter, then 16, to enter an arranged marriage in Turkey.

The marriage didn’t last. The husband failed to get residency in Germany, and her daughter, now 18, filed for divorce and lives with Ayse. “It was a great mistake,” Ayse said.

These days, her daughter wants a German boyfriend and freedom, things that Ayse worries will obscure her heritage. But she acknowledges that young women who don’t move beyond their neighborhoods often wind up trapped.

Ayse is somewhere in the middle, a place she says she’ll always be, with a book and a photograph of a long-ago bride.