Talk Therapy for Wife Beaters in Germany's Turkish Community

A growing support group challenges cultural assumptions about domestic violence.
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Paul Zinken/AP

BERLIN -- Not far from the Reichstag, 40 Turkish men sit in a storefront office in one of the German capital's immigrant neighborhoods. They sip tea and peel tangerines. One of the men, who looks like Frank Sinatra in his twilight years, stands to address the group.

"I heard that a 13-year-old Turkish girl had been kidnapped by her father so that she could be married off to an older cousin," the man asks. "Can we do anything to help?"

The group's leader, Kazim Erdogan, listens intently.

Erdogan, 60, slightly hunched and with a slow gait, may seem like an unlikely champion for the rights of Turkish women and for reducing violence in families. But, with a combination of genuine concern and village-elder wisdom, he has made inroads in combating domestic abuse and arranged marriages, both of which still persist in Germany's three-million-strong Turkish community.

Erdogan has been in Germany for most of his life, arriving in 1974 to study at Berlin's Free University. Seven years ago, he founded Aufbruch Neukölln, which means "let's change things in Neukölln," the neighborhood where many of these men live.

Like so many other Turks in Germany, Erdogan never returned to his native country. The former high school teacher and psychologist now works for the city's child welfare bureau.

Government and foundation awards line the walls of his office. Pedagogical books lie in a stack next to a silver Turkish tea samovar. A portable pedal exerciser sits underneath his desk on the floor.

Most of the men in his group sessions are not as worldly or as educated as he is. The younger ones work in menial jobs. Their fathers once toiled in factories. Few of them graduated from high school. Only a handful of them speak German fluently.

"Yes, I think the Turkish consul can help - we will ask him," Erdogan tells the man who seeks to halt the marrying off of the 13-year-old girl.

Statistics about Turkish domestic abuse are alarming. Earlier this year, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News published a survey that found 34 percent of men in Turkey find violence "occasionally necessary," while 28 percent said violence could be used to discipline women. After the Turkish government reported in 2009 that 42 percent of women surveyed said they had been victims of sexual or physical abuse by their husbands or partners, many said the true figure was much higher. The Istanbul Chief Prosecutor's Office last year established a special unit to fight violence against women. According to the Cihan News Agency, a total of 4,739 complaints were filed in its first seven months of operation.

These numbers factor in more liberal parts of Turkey, like Istanbul. But Erdogan and others fear the problem is even worse among more conservative-leaning members of Germany's Turkish diaspora.

While these statistics and attitudes may shock outsiders, Turkish immigrants in Germany -- such as Murat Tas -- understand the mentality that spawns abusers.

"We grew up in Eastern Anatolia hearing that when a woman makes a mistake, she is always wrong. That it's even okay to kill her," says Tas, 40, who was attending Erdogan's self-help group with his German girlfriend. "And some people in our community still believe this."

That this very group is considered a model -- one Erdogan hopes to replicate nationwide -- speaks to the difficulties some Turks face in assimilating into German society. Some of the men who attend regularly say they have always eschewed violence. Others admit they needed help to stop physically abusing their loved ones. Still others appear by order of the city's courts, which send Turkish and Arab men to the program as part of their probation sentences.

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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