Women’s centers in Germany that cater to Muslims provide counseling for domestic and religious issues that providers say sidestep thorny issues of identity that rise with secular services. Fifth in a series on women and Islam.

Rabeya Mueller at Cologne's town hall.

COLOGNE, Germany (WOMENSENEWS)–Most of Louise Becker’s 12-hour workdays are hidden behind a bright orange door in suburban Cologne.

There she counsels Muslim women through family and marriage problems. The meetings are secret to prevent harassment from the women’s husbands, fathers and brothers.

Becker, 67, a German who converted to Islam 45 years ago, has helped women with crises of sexuality, faith and abusive relationships. In March she offered to officiate at a client’s divorce, a shocking step for a woman.

The client’s husband balked at Becker’s involvement, but for his wife it was a breakthrough to realize she could end her marriage.

"So they went to a mosque around the corner, and the woman cited the Quran and said she didn’t want the marriage," Becker said. "The imam said, ‘Yes, the female theologian was right, and I’ll give you a divorce.’"

Becker’s center, ZIF–Zentrum fur Islamische Frauenforschung, or the Islamic Women’s Center for Research and Encouragement–combines religious theory with a help hotline and counseling center. It is the only Muslim theology center run by women in Germany.

Organizers say the Cologne center is part of a trend in Germany of Muslim women, often immigrants, forming aid organizations to support each other rather than relying on the country’s secular network.

"I think the women feel a bit more understood," said Heba Elias, a social worker for the Meeting and Education Center of Muslim Women, which also provides family and women’s counseling in Cologne. "Many Muslim women feel when they go to other types of counseling that they have to explain their own identity before they can start explaining their problems."

Influential Women’s Groups

A 2007 European Union report listed the two Cologne centers among the four most important Muslim women’s organizations in Germany. The others were the Network for Islamic Women and the Berlin-based Working Group for Muslim Women Within Society.

On March 8, the city of Cologne invited the two Cologne organizations and other women’s groups to write local policy recommendations in honor of International Women’s Day in an event in the city’s historic town hall. Immigrant women discussed directives on women’s health and immigrants’ political participation. They also called on city leaders to simplify and translate some paperwork needed to set up businesses and to promote all-day child care for working women.

Among immigrant women’s groups, ZIF stands out for its focus on religion, traditionally dominated by men with paid teaching and study positions in Germany’s mosques, said Rabeya Mueller, one of the group’s founders.

The group began as a women’s theology study circle in 1994, then slowly began offering counseling before incorporating as a nonprofit in 1998.

"We sat down together and said, ‘We don’t understand some of these verses. How can it be, if God is just, that some things are so unjust for women?’" Mueller said.

Volunteer Counselors, Anonymous Calls

Now two women work for ZIF full time and 11 others volunteer.

Because of security concerns, the group does not publish its address.

Instead it operates an anonymous telephone help hotline on Wednesday nights. Five volunteers–two educators, a doctor, a sociologist and a theologian–offer face-to-face counseling by appointment.

Muslim women know they can ask questions they can’t ask elsewhere, such as doubts they have about their faith or sexual orientation, Mueller said. Domestic violence is another common problem.

"We try to explain what possibilities the Quran offers," Mueller said, but counselors let clients come to their own conclusions about what to do.

Often clients decide to return to abusive relationships, she said.

Nonetheless, ZIF counselors say Muslim women who are victims of abuse are more likely to respond to counseling grounded in their faith.

Translation Error Draws Outcry

The center drew attention last year when a high-profile German divorce case drew ZIF’s theological work into the limelight.

A German judge in Frankfurt refused to allow a Moroccan Muslim to end her abusive marriage without the one-year waiting period usually required by German law. Citing the Quran, the judge said she would reject the woman’s application for quicker divorce because under Islamic law, men are allowed to strike their wives.

ZIF’s theologians had published a book in 2005 arguing that verses of the Quran sometimes used to justify striking women had been incorrectly translated. And, before the Frankfurt case, some male-led Muslim groups in Germany tried to deny that spousal abuse was a problem, Mueller said.

Suddenly, amid widespread outrage–the judge was later removed from the case–ZIF saw male Muslim thinkers in Germany agreeing with them about mistranslation. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany posted ZIF’s book on its home page.

"Women from ZIF do the difficult theological work, and then the other Muslim organizations look to see how people react," Mueller said.

Though the women who head the group’s religious studies workshops hold theology degrees, anyone is welcome to join.

ZIF counselors’ advice is often grounded in the theology circle’s work, said Becker.

Most of ZIF’s clients are children of immigrants, Becker said. She said they’re more likely to seek out counseling than their mothers and more likely than their daughters to seek it from a culturally sensitive source.

"To put yourself forward, demand your rights, is still a little strange for some Muslim women here," Becker said. "They’re afraid of looking radical or inadequate."

Naomi Kresge is a reporter and Fulbright Journalism Fellow based in Berlin.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

For more information:

ZIF, the Islamic Women’s Center for Research and Encouragement (in German):

Meeting and Education Center of Muslim Women (in German):

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