Goethe-Institut Aims for Intercultural Discussion

Posted December 17, 2007 at 6:09pm

With Berlin in the background, five Barbie dolls stare smiling out of a photograph. All are in traditional Muslim dress. One, right in the middle, has a fair complexion and wisps of blond hair poking out from beneath her white head scarf; the other four, also in head scarves, have darker complexions.

The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Goethe-Institut, an institution devoted to German language and cultural education located near the Verizon Center in Chinatown. The images in the exhibit, taken by photographers with the German photo agency Ostkreuz, focus on Muslim women living in Berlin.

The exhibit contributes to Goethe-Institut’s mission of promoting intercultural dialogue and is one of a number of recent exhibits and events focusing on the Muslim world, said Norma Broadwater, head of public relations at the institute. The purpose of the exhibits is not to “provide answers,” she said, but rather to contribute to the ongoing debate over the place of Islam in German society and, more broadly, Western society.

“It’s an issue that’s current in Europe and in Germany,” Broadwater said, adding that she felt the exhibit was “a fairly diverse portrayal … of people leading everyday lives.”

The photos capture the diverging clothing trends for Muslim women in Germany. In one shot, young women in long coats and head scarves carry a megaphone and a protest sign reading “Keine Ausgrenzung von Muslimen” (No exclusion of Muslims). In another, a 20-something in jeans and a tank top lies on a bed, a boyfriend or husband sitting beside her. In a third, two 8- or 9-year old girls stand side by side, one with her head wrapped in a white head scarf, the other with two ponytails tied with red ribbons.

Underlying the exhibit are the enduring tensions in Germany surrounding the integration of mostly Muslim migrants from Turkey, said Adrienne Woltersdorf. Woltersdorf, the U.S. correspondent for the German daily Taz (Die Tageszeitung), moderated a panel discussion at the opening of the exhibit. She was picked as moderator, she said, because her newspaper “was avant-garde in approaching the migrant topic.” [IMGCAP(1)]

The feelings in Germany about the migrant situation are “very tense,” Woltersdorf said, and many Germans view Muslim women “either as a victim of a patriarchal society or as a disappointment, because they demonstrated for the right to wear head scarves. Europeans couldn’t understand [why they would want that].”

Much of the debate until now has centered on Muslim men, who are seen as frustrated and vulnerable to recruitment to “sleeper cells,” a feeling prompted in large part by the revelation that one of the airline hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, was from Hamburg, Germany, Woltersdorf said. Women are seen as appendages to the story, either as victims or disappointments, and are often written off as having “nothing to say,” she said. She said she hopes this exhibit will broaden the view of Muslim women.

Migrants from Turkey were first invited to Germany as guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s, and both migrants and the German government assumed they would work awhile and then return to Turkey. The first generation of migrants, Woltersdorf said, “wasn’t particularly Muslim” in its dress. But succeeding generations, realizing that they were in Germany to stay, are “more visibly Muslim than the older generation,” partly in an attempt to cling to their Turkish and Muslim heritage, she said. They are in cultural limbo, she added, noting that the “German Turks,” as they are known in Turkey, are not viewed as fully German in Germany or as fully Turkish in Turkey, where they are seen mainly as a source of money, gifts and help in assisting other Turks to emigrate.

Woltersdorf, who has worked in Washington for two years now, said there are parallels between Germany’s immigration debate and the one here in the United States.

“It’s interesting to see that right-wing politicians here are doing the same thing as right-wing politicians in Germany, in drawing on the immigration debate and on fear,” she said.

Goethe-Institut has branches in major cities throughout the world; U.S. branches are located in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There also are small “centers,” including one in Atlanta. While a big component of its mission is German language instruction — the institute offers semester-long German classes in the evenings and on weekends, as well as private instruction — the institute also focuses on promoting cross- cultural communication between Germany and host countries.

Goethe-Institut was established after World War II to “give a picture of Germany independent of government,” Broadwater said. However, the German government, while not exerting control over content, does provide over 90 percent of Goethe-Institut’s funding, she said. “Muslim Women in Germany,” located on the second floor of the Goethe-Institut at 812 Seventh St. NW, will run until Feb. 29, 2008.