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  • Governing European SubjectsTolerance and Guilt in the Discourse of “Muslim Women”
  • Yasemin Yıldız (bio)

In January 2007, the Frankfurt-based judge Christa Datz-Winter ruled against the petition of a woman who asked for accelerated divorce proceedings because her husband harassed her and threatened her life.1 The twenty-six-year-old woman had left her husband of five years because of the severe violence she was subjected to during the marriage. The judge, however, found that the violence the woman experienced did not constitute a special hardship, because, as she explained, the husband belonged to the “Moroccan cultural sphere” and as such could be reasonably expected to make use of his religiously sanctioned “right to physically discipline” his wife. Judge Datz-Winter underscored this argument by referring to a passage from the Koran. She asserted that this passage—Sura 4, verse 34—established male superiority over women and gave the man the right to punish a disobedient wife.2

The reasoning in the case was entirely the judge’s own and not based on any arguments put forth by the abusive husband or any external expert witness.3 It was the judge who decided that “culture” and “religion” should be the proper framework for evaluating this case of domestic violence, and it was she who decided which culture and which religion that meant. In this framing, “Moroccan culture” and “Islam” as religion were ascribed to the couple and particularly to the husband, as primary and determinate categories. As this line of argumentation indicates, these categories were presented as interchangeable and seamlessly continuous with each other—he belongs to the “Moroccan cultural sphere” and therefore the Koran is the proper reference point.4 The judge, however, did not merely designate these as the main categories, she also presented her own understanding [End Page 70] of what this “culture” and “religion” entailed, namely, a gendered hierarchy that legitimates male violence against women. The ruling thus was based primarily on operations that assign a specific religion-culture to individuals, declare these to be the proper, if not sole, determinants of the individuals’ behaviors and horizons, and presume to know what the behaviors associated with the culture and religion are, based on preconceived ideas about these entities.

This ruling led to a broad public outcry in Germany. Yet the massive response did not so much chastise the judge for her projections and her abandonment of the abused woman as it treated the case as an alarming sign of the “Islamization” of Germany and the endangerment of its European values and norms. The influential liberal weekly magazine Spiegel, for instance, discussed this case under the headline “Do we already have Sharia Law?” (“Haben wir schon die Scharia?”).5 The pivotal point in the responses was time and again the presumed presence of “misguided” or “false” tolerance on the part of the German court.6 The right-leaning Welt am Sonntag asked: “Do the courts handle Muslim perpetrators with archaic values too softly be cause of misguided tolerance?” (Peters and Vorwinkel). The center-right weekly magazine Focus likewise indicted a “misguided notion of tolerance that has been dressed up as happy multicultural liberalism” (Wisniewski and Zorn). The ruling led the Frankfurter Rundschau, a newspaper close to the Social Democrats, to state: “One cannot consider Islam a religion among others, a religion that might have a right to exist under the big roof of European tolerance” (Michalzik). What is remarkable in this discursive development is the rapid manner in which a single domestic abuse case involving a young woman coded as Muslim leads to charged debates about the political status of multiculturalism, the shape of contemporary liberalism, and the future contours of Europe.

Echoing similar rhetoric across the Continent, these responses begin to indicate the peculiar role that the figure of the abused Muslim woman has come to play in European discourses since the 1990s. Although quickly left behind, this figure is time and again the crucial catalyst in controversies about the ideological foundations and institutional contours of Europe. In an analysis of recent Scandinavian debates that highlight this victim figure, sociologist Sherene Razack argues that the Muslim woman’s “imperiled body has...


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pp. 70-101
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