Hidden Lives:Afghan Girls in Germany
When I was growing up as a teenager in Hamburg's Afghan diaspora, my father received a phone call out of the blue one day. It was from a friend, an urbane and educated man well-respected in the community. "It's an urgent matter," he pleaded. "Can you come over immediately?"
As it turned out, the matter was of an awkward nature. Surrounded by his peers in the comfort of his sitting room in the north of Europe, the despairing Afghan man blurted out, "My daughter wants to marry a Muslim man who is not Afghan. What shall I do? Shall I kill her?" He was asking his friends for permission to murder his own flesh and blood. "Why don't you just let her marry the man? After all, he is a Muslim," said my father to his astonished friend. This alternative took the distraught father by surprise: "And you wouldn't mind if l let her marry him?"
Back home, my father shook his head in despair as he recounted the surreal incident. Listening to the story, I wondered why the man had made the life or death of his own daughter my father's business. After all, they were not even family. My father was just a friend, a fellow member of the local diaspora community. Why had the man turned him and his other friends into judges, deciding the fate of his child? The whole thing smacked of some bizarre mafia-style mentality, under which the legal code of Germany, the country that had given the family refuge, was replaced by unwritten mob rule. I felt sorry for the girl. It appeared to me that the German neighbors' pets who lived in her building had more rights, were granted more respect and dignity. Her father had delivered her to the whims of a bunch of men who were not even her blood relatives. Authority over her very life was denied her, and the community had been called upon to play god.
Despite its bizarre and unsettling nature, the curious episode was soon forgotten. The father followed his peers' advice and allowed the girl to marry the non-Afghan Muslim man. The rest of her story was a happy one.
My father's story alerted me to a curious fact. It seemed to me that honor killings were a method of male-on-male peer pressure -- women served as tools by which to control a man's standing and reputation. My father used to tell me the sad tale of another Afghan man, a business owner whose daughter was perceived by the community as dressing inappropriately. It was decided that he would be punished by boycott, and soon few people dared to shop in his store. It collapsed as a result, pushing the family toward bankruptcy.
"That's how the community treats men who appear not to have control over their daughters," my father used to observe, pleading with me to behave myself in public for the sake of his reputation. "You know my views about women's rights, and I know that you are a decent girl. But outside, just make sure you don't give them reason to talk," he told me again and again. He had to live in fear of family and community gossip about me until his death. When I started to write articles in 2008, I paid extra attention to my publicly distributed photographs, making sure that I was dressed modestly and did not give ammunition to an unforgiving and judgmental community. After all, its more conservative members would have liked nothing better than using someone like me, an Afghan woman who had left the traditional path, as a warning example, a reason to stop their own daughters from pursuing careers that involved a public presence. This responsibility was a burden, frequently leading me to self-censorship -- I often denied myself the right to write openly and freely, particularly about issues pertaining to women.
When my family arrived in Hamburg, the Afghan society that I knew back home was replaced by a much smaller, more intimate enclave, making privacy impossible for any family that was a part of it. An internal campaign of vigilantism was launched, focusing on young females in particular. "Let's keep an eye on our virgins," was its motto. The girls were placed under a microscope, with every movement, outfit, and life decision the subject of public scrutiny and comment, tabsera, a dreaded term that could destroy a girl's reputation and future for good.
Walking the streets of Afghan-majority immigrant neighborhoods, one could feel the eyes of the older women, watching from behind the curtains, peering down the blocks. The police state mentality was also present at my school, where the Afghan boys and some of the girls took it upon themselves to act as informants, watching every step, observing every action, and reporting to their parents back home that such and such was wearing a short skirt and was seen talking to a boy. Bored out of their minds on seemingly endless afternoons, the older women seemed to take great pleasure in such gossip. It gave them something to talk about, living as they were in a society with which they had nothing culturally in common.
As such, privacy, respect, and dignity were nonexistent for young girls, who found themselves in the middle of a cultural clash waged between their community and the wider German society. If at home, Afghan girls were encouraged to be submissive, dress modestly, and replace their posters of Western pop stars with images of Muslim holy sites, at school their teachers demanded that they should be confident and outspoken, thereby providing evidence of their integration and acceptance of German values. The manifestation of those values included mixed-gender classes and school trips that could mean a week or two away from familial control and the full freedom to attend parties and dress the Western way. The school trips were a contentious business and many girls were simply banned from taking them, which ensured that they never fully bonded with their German classmates. They were left behind with the sick and girls from fundamentalist Christian families, attending instead the cooking classes that the school provided for such outcasts.
The representatives of both Afghan and German cultures, embodied by community elders and teachers respectively, were equally self-confident in their belief that their model of education was the best, the most morally sound, and the healthiest. If the former relied on faith and centuries of tradition, the latter based its belief on pedagogic, psychology, and science. One incident in particular revealed to me the breadth of the gap that divided the two sets of values. Prior to a school trip, an instructor from the Health Ministry arrived to teach our class all about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Donning gloves and confidently placing a condom over a plastic model of a male sex organ, she told the class, "We know that you will have sex soon, probably during the trip, so you might as well learn how to do it in a safe way." I remember blushing deeply and averting my gaze from the health official and her hands. I didn't know where to look and whether it was OK for me to even be there. I felt guilty, as if I had crossed a forbidden boundary.
Our philosophy teacher later underlined the validity of the school's method. "My toddler is intrigued every time I light a candle. I know that she's tempted to try it out herself, so I taught her how to use a match and light a candle in a safe way," he beamed. The Germans' approach was "Let's talk about it." The Afghans' approach was to shelter and protect their girls from anything remotely sexual until their wedding night. When the two methods collided in German classrooms, it created a conflict of values that was often fought internally, alone.
It took me a number of years to realize that neither society actually cared for my well-being as an individual and that the battle that they made me fight had nothing to do with me but was all about a cultural clash intertwined with and impelled by East versus West snobbery. I decided to opt out of the battle and choose my own path, combining what I saw as the best features of each civilization.
My fellow Afghan German schoolgirls were equally creative, each developing her own unique strategy to cope with the conflicting requirements of her native Afghan and adopted German cultural values. Some girls went down the path of psychological compartmentalization, leading double lives: a secret life complete with boyfriend and the latest trends in Western youth culture, and a public life as a traditional Afghan girl, played out only for the sake of the family and, by extension, the community. Keeping the two very different lifestyles separate put the girls under enormous stress; many succumbed to anorexia and depression, which in turn affected their academic performance.
Other girls decided to surrender to community pressure, while they plotted revenge for after the mandated wedding. "I will make him pay. I will tell him that he can have my body but my heart will never belong to him," said one girl whose true love was a Turkish boy she knew she would never be allowed to marry. This brand of melodramatic statement was a recurrent feature in the Bollywood films that such girls adored. The announcement would be made on the first night of marriage, setting the tone for the years to come. An ever-growing rate of divorce within the community was the consequence.
Another girl used to turn up at school half an hour earlier than everybody else, wearing hejab. She would use the time to change in the restroom, reemerging with full makeup, dressed in the latest Western fashion. Her transformation was worthy of Madonna and ensured her popularity among her German peers, one of whom, particularly popular, became her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, the girls who had decided to act as informants kept an eye on their classmates. Upon spotting them in a compromising situation, the blackmail would begin. The unhealthy relationships that resulted were fairly widespread at my school. "Why are you friends with so and so if you dislike her so much?" I asked a girl, noticing her contradictory behavior. Behind her best friend's back, she was full of venom, but as soon as the other girl neared, she would smile, hug and kiss her and plot their next secret outing together. So...why? "She saw me talking to a boy. She can ruin my life any time by phoning my family and grassing on me. I have no choice but to placate her," was the girl's reasonable answer. They were all intelligent, but much of their energy and brainpower were wasted on keeping contradictory worlds apart. The price they paid for this struggle was often their own well-being.
In my recent trip to Hamburg this summer, I met a girl from my school who remembered our journey toward self-reliance in the midst of a full-blown German-Afghan cultural war. "You know what Nushin?" she said, confidently driving her BMW around our old haunts. "We were both wasted on that society. We had so much talent and yet we had to waste so much time on stupid values." I looked at this once awkward, frightened teenager who had transformed herself into a bright-eyed, cheerful, and successful doctor happily married to a husband of her own choice, who was, incidentally, not Afghan, though Muslim. "You look great and I am proud of you," I told her the truth. "And I am proud of you," she smiled.
There we were, two survivors of an international cultural clash played out on the grounds of a school in a city in the north of Germany, involving traditions that had traveled across 4,000 miles and countless generations. It was true that we were lucky, but we also knew that our success was our own doing, for we had decided to opt out of the negative cycle of fighting for other people's values. We had lost nothing in the process. On the contrary, we had gained something altogether more precious: our own individuality.