Once a week, professor Nivedita Prasad and her students at the Alice Solomon University of Applied Sciences meet inside the refuge for the asylum seekers in Hellersdorf, so as to discourage racist attacks the kind of which have taken place in the area in the recent past. She has initiated and won difficult battles on the side of migrant women who have been victims of all sorts of exploitation. She has been giving trainings and tirelessly advocating against racism and gender discrimination. In 2012 she was awarded the first “Anne Klein” Prize for her exceptional work supporting the human rights of migrant women. Don’t picture Nivedita Prasad as your next door feminist; she’s far too sophisticated and unconventional a thinker to be pinned down in one comfortable category. And one with an interesting personal story, as I am bound to find out when I meet her at her Schöneberg apartment.
What do you like most about your Kiez?
The fact that it has a great mix of people. In Schöneberg we have migrants from all over the world, we have a lot of gay people, we have a lot of single mothers, we also have a lot of conservative people living here. So in many ways this is a very down to earth Berlin neighbourhood. And it has always been my favοurite neighbourhood, I always wanted to live here, ever since I was a student, only at the time I could not afford it. I had a place in Kreuzberg-Neukölln, which was not so hip at the time.
And it became über-hip a few years later. I don’t see you regretting leaving it, though.
Not at all. I had been considering moving for some time, but then the decision came when something very funny happened. My daughter was five and the time to go to school was nearing, so I went to the district school to take a look around and meet the people. One of them was the school’s secretary who told me that in her opinion the problem was that “too many of our students are foreigners. It lowers the bar”. These were her words, yes. “This is not so good for our reputation. Don’t you want to enroll your child in some other school?”
She meant that it was not good for the school’s reputation to have non-German students?
Exactly. To be honest I was really shocked by her words. At the time I was working at the university training teachers, so it all was rather ironic. I realised that simply because of the colour of my skin, my daughter would be considered not good enough for the school, she would be suspect of harming the school’s reputation. There was no way I was going to let her go to that school. That’s why I decided to move. And I never wanted to live in an all white German neighbourhood, so Schöneberg was a natural choice. And it worked. In my daughter’s school students have all sorts of different backgrounds. I like this place, I never want to move away.
How long ago did you come to live in Berlin?
I came at thirteen, I joined my family who were already living here. I had come to visit for longer periods, but in 1981 I came for good.
What were your first impressions upon your arrival?
Now this is really interesting. I come from an educated, rich Indian family and our picture of the Germans was one of highly educated, sophisticated people who love high culture. India being a colonized country, it was natural to have this picture. But what I encountered in the German school was not at all as I had expected. First of all, I did not know German so the question arose as to which school I should attend. According to the School Council, I should be sent to a school for children with learning disabilities.
Simply because you did not speak the language? Instead of, for example, suggesting that you spend some time learning it?
That’s right. I was thirteen and at the top of my class in India. My stepfather, who had been living in Germany since the 1950s, would not hear of it and he insisted that I attend a normal Gymnasium. The School Council was adamantly opposed, so they reached a compromise: I would go to a Realschule but, they said, if I did not manage to master the language, I would be downgraded to the Hauptschule – which would basically mean that I would not have the chance to apply to any university.
Judging from your earlier comment you must have not been very happy in your new school.
I was shocked; it was contrary to any of my expectations. I was shocked at the bad manners, I was shocked at the way the kids were dressed, but most of all I was shocked by the realization that most of my teachers did not speak a word of English. In India it was unheard of for an educated person not to speak English. And in my understanding Germans were very well educated. And yet there I was in a school were the only teachers who speak English are those teach it; and actually their English was in no way perfect. I was caught in a very peculiar situation, because I thought that I could speak a world language, but had turned up in a school where this obviously did not mean anything. My only refuge was the break, when I could meet up and talk with a girl from Israel and a boy from another country, both of whom were also recent migrants.
How long did it take you to learn German and start to be able to properly communicate with the rest of the students?
In six months I was able to speak fluently; as I speak now. You know, compared to Hindi, German is very easy. If you come from India, you have already learnt two or three languages. I had learnt English, Hindi, and Sanskrit at school and I could speak a little Punjabi. So learning a fourth or fifth language was not a problem. So I stayed at that school and the end of the story is that two years later, after completing the 10th class, only two students in my class made it to the Gymnasium: an Iranian guy and me.
I was going to ask if you faced discrimination as an immigrant and person of colour upon your arrival in Berlin but you partly already answered this. What about your classmates’ behaviour, though?
At the time I would not have named what I faced discrimination or racism; it was much later that I did. But racism it was, most definitely. Let me just say that one of the first words I learnt at school was Kanake, which is a very derogatory word used against someone who’s a migrant. And my classmates would spit on me, or throw me stuff. In class. Spitting at me. There’s no question, that was racism; but at the same time it could also have had to do with me being very arrogant. I came from a very affluent, upper class family and I was sitting there with kids from simple backgrounds. I was very conscious of my different class background and I behaved accordingly. So that may have played a role.
What was the picture your classmates had of the land you were coming from?
They would ask me things like “do you have electricity in India?” and “ do you eat with a fork and a knife?” So I was really thinking that they cannot be such idiots, there must be some other explanation – namely that somewhere in the world there is another poor, remote, backward country called India about which they were talking. That was indeed a very difficult time and to be honest, I am convinced that what saved me was my class arrogance. And the resources I had because of my class background; my self confidence and my conviction that as I was an educated person I could definitely make it.
A few years later your parents were planning to send you back to India but you resisted them. What happened?
Yes, in the meantime I was 16 years old. And getting bolder and bolder. I didn’t get along with my stepfather. So conflicts evolved at home and my parents tried to find peace by sending me away. They thought that if they got rid of me, they would get rid of the problems. So they were planning to send me back to India, before I found out about it, only by coincidence. In the meantime I had gone on to the Gymnasium, I had friends here, I wanted to finish school. So I ran away from home. It was three weeks before my 16th birthday.
Where did you run to? It can’t have been easy for an Indian teenager to live alone in Berlin.
I went to the Jugendamt [Youth Welfare Office]. Luckily I had a friend, an Iranian guy, who helped me. We would meet every morning in the bus on our way to school. At one point he realized that I was in a very bad mental state and I told him what was happening. “If you don’t want to go back to India you don’t have to”, he told me. He took me to the Jugendamt where I told my story. For the people at the Jugendamt it was all really exotic because it was the first time that they met a migrant girl that did not fullfill any stereotype: I came from a very affluent background, I was very well educated, I spoke fluent German, I wanted to stay in Germany to finish school. It was totally exotic for them. But they believed me, they thought I was trustworthy and they put me into a Heim – which is basically an orphanage but that’s where I wanted to go.
How did your parents react?
They obviously wanted me to come back, but there was a court case and I won it. I had already moved into the Heim and then I went to court and explained to the judge why I did not want to back to them. And I convinced him.
Did your parents want you to come back and live with them in Berlin?
That was not a real option. They wanted the custody back and I did not want them to have custody because once they had it they would be able to send me back to India anytime. As far as I was concerned, their secret plans to send me back constituted a real breach of trust. It was not as if they had asked me whether I would consider going back. So I did not want to be with them anymore and I prefered the Heim. I finally thought I was free. But then the real problems started. What I did not know at the time was that until the age of 16 you don’t need a visa, but after the age of 16 you needed one. And the reason I had come to Germany in the first place was to live with my family. And in order for me to be legible to get my own visa I should have lived with them for five years. But I had not. And my parents had my passport.
The court could not force them to hand over your passport to you?
No. And in the meantime they had returned my passport to the Indian Embassy. So I was in Germany without documentation. And the embassy is extraterritorial space. I was very scared of going to the embassy. Because the people in the diplomatic corps were friends of my parents.
Were you then scared they might try to keep you there?
I think they might have, yes. But the judge who had been given my custody after my parents lost it, managed to find a loop. And he took it upon himself to communicate with the embassy, who replied I could go and pick up my passport, but I would have to go alone. So I did. But I had to endure a lecture about decency and indecency and what an Indian should and should not do and what a girl should do and should not do. But at the end of it I got my passport. With that I went to the Immigration Office where I was told that, in the meantime, my parents had sent a letter to the Immigration Authorities informing them that I was not living with them anymore. Today this is something that would anyway happen automatically, but at the time it was not so.
Your parents had done that voluntarily? So as to make things harder for you and force you back?
Yes, they had done it voluntarily; for two reasons, I think: they wanted revenge for losing the court case and they wanted me back in India. They were always saying that we are going back to India. They are still here, by the way. But in those days they were still planning to go back. So they thought that by denouncing me to the Immigration Authorities I was going to end up in India. Luckily for me back then children under 18 were not being deported. So I was caught up in a most ridiculous situation: my parents were here and my biological father was not in India. You can’t just take a 16-year-old and ship her to India where there’s no legal guardian waiting to pick her up.
So here I was, at 16, with a passport but no visa. And the stamp on the passport was “ausländerrechtlich erfasst” which basically only means that you were registered at the Office for Foreigner Citizens. And at one point I got a time-limited residence permit. Once I finished school I immediately went to the university, then I got a visa as student and after I finished university I went straight into a job. And apparently you need eight years of legal stay in Germany in order to apply for an permanent residence permit. And so I got it, finally, eleven years after leaving home as a 16-year-old.
What about German citizenship? When did you apply for it?
Much later and only because the situtation got complicated after giving birth to my daughter. Let me explain: Her father is German so under German law she would be Indian. Under Indian law she would be German. You realise that this was a totally ridiculous situation. That was in 1996, later the relevant law changed in Germany.
The daughter of a German man and an Indian woman was not also considered German? She would not automatically have German citizenship?
Now yes, but in 1996 this was not yet the case. The law has changed in the intervening years. At the same time, for the Indian Embassy the problem was that I was not married. But I did not want to get married. I finally had my daughter entered into my Indian passport. And then I happened to travel to Greece for a week. My return flight was full of Germans coming back from holiday in Corfu, like I was. But the funny thing was that at the airport, I was the only person that was picked out by the border police who asked to see my papers. I showed them my visa. But what I did not know was that the baby also needed a visa – I had thought that it was enough to have here entered into my passport. I had no idea that I should have applied for a visa for her too. After all, she was only 1,5 years old. The border police said “we have to deport her. But we can’t deport the mother because she has a visa, so we will have to deport the child.”
They were seriously considering sending a 1,5-year-old girl to India, alone?
To India or to Corfu. The whole situation was absolutely ridiculous and yet it went on like that for half an hour. For the first time I understood why migrants destroy their passports. I got really scared that they might deport my daughter alone and send her back to Corfu. Who would ever pick her up in Corfu? “Then we’ll send her to India?” But she had never been to India, what would the child do there alone? That’s why I was trying to get hold of my passport and destroy it so that at least they would then deport me along with her. And then something really funny happened. I suddenly remembered that the chief of the police at Schönefeld Airport was someone I knew, through my work. It had taken me a half hour to regain my self confidence, but I did it. I said “Listen, this is very irritating. The reason why you only picked me up among all the passengers has to do with my skin colour. This is racial profiling, I want to speak to Mr so-and-so”. They said “Oh, you know Mr so-and-so?” So I repeated I knew him and I wanted to talk him there and then. “Oh, no problem, please, you can enter” – end of story. And I was allowed to enter the country.
So you decided to apply for the German citizenship so as to save your daughter from all that trouble? On the other hand, it seems that you would have been a victim of racial profiling even if you both had a German passport.
I decided I would apply for a German passport because it was getting pretty ridiculous. In the meantime my mother had become a German citizen, my father had become a US citizen, I was Indian and my daughter was a different citizen in different places. And every time I had to fill out an official form I had to explain all this. It was getting too complicated. But after that incident at the airport, what really put me off was racial profiling, naturally. So what I did was to call up Mr so-and-so, the chief of the police at Schönefeld Airport, and tell him “This is what happened and I want money to do police trainings with your people.”
I suppose most people would agree that racial profiling is a real problem which says a lot about the attitudes of policemen – not just in Germany. Admittedly there are more cases of racism inside the police force, in most countries. Why is one confronted with more cases of racism in the police force than in other professions?
There is a very interested concept, it is called “cop culture” and the guy who introduced it in Germany is called Rafael Behr and what he said is that it has to do with who goes into the police force – people who believe in law and order, in security and saving the nation etc. It has to do with who chooses to be a police person. It is a specific type of person who decided to become a police person.
Would you say that this is true for more or less every country in the world?
I would think so, yes. We have to believe in law and order to become a police person. More than that, to become a police person you have to believe that you have the right to define what is correct and what is not correct and that it falls upon you to protect your state. And I don’t know how it is in most countries, but we know that in the US, for example, people who sign up to become police persons usually come from very simple backgrounds and joining the police force gives them authority. If you want to have authority because you have not ever had it in your life so far, and you get it through a uniform and a weapon, then that is really dangerous. And some parts of the police clearly have this background. What’s more, police people have very little contact to migrants like you and me. The only migrants they are ever in contact with are those who have trouble with the law for one reason or the other; people who sometimes -but not always and not all of them- have problematic behaviours.
While doing the training courses with the police offices, what would be the first thing you would tell them?
It depended on the class. Sometimes I would start with the situation at Berlin Schönefeld. I would describe the case and ask them what they would do in order to resolve the issue at hand. And we would go on to discuss the situation. Now the right answer would be to say to the mother that “You are allowed to enter the country with your child, but within a week you have to go to the Office for Foreign Citizens.” What is amazing is that in the first year, out of 100 police people, only one guy came up with it.
And what were your impressions after each training course?
During the first year, each time after the class I fell ill. Because there was so much racism coming my way…One time a man came up to me and said “You know, whatever you teach doesn’t matter that much. For me the most important thing is that for the first time I have met a migrant who is not a suspect.” And he meant it as a compliment. I was shocked. Because these are the people we turn to if we need help. But if in his understanding all migrants are suspects, how is he ever going to help me? People were talking to me being racists and they didn’t even realise it. So I would end up feeling ill. A friend suggested that I write everything down, for two reasons: one, to get them out of my system. And second, every time someone would try to stop the money for the trainings, I would have these records to show them. That’s what I started doing and it worked. The other thing I did was that I would always go in very formal clothes, high heels, jewelry and always put distance between us. But everything got very easy the moment I got a PhD. Because then I was Dr to them. So it was again the class issue that made a difference.
Did police people come voluntarily to these training courses or were they expected to do so?
We insisted that they come voluntarily. I don’t believe you can force train people, it makes no sense. And here is the thing. The real racists would not come. But the real racists you anyway do not get. I think the people who came to the trainings came first because they thought this would be an interesting course on different cultures – but this was definitely not what they ended up sitting through. And second, they realised there was a problem in the police force only they could not name it – and they certainly would not call it racism.
Are you still teaching these classes?
Not. I did from 1998 until 2001. But after September 11 they stopped the training against racism because they said they needed the money for anti-terrorist activity. So I applied and got money to do police trainings on the issue of trafficking and did the trainings till 2013, after that my colleague at Ban Ying took over.
How grim is the picture of sex trafficking in Germany?
The problem is that we do not have a clear picture. We have a lot of feminist and church groups who are fighting prostitution and they are claiming that there are 200,000 cases of trafficked women a year. Which is totally ridiculous. According to the Police there are not even that many sex workers in the country. The Federal Police speak about 1,000 cases that become known to them a year. And from my experience working at Ban Ying I know that for every trafficked known to police there are three or four that fall under the radar. So it would be 3 – 4,000 cases of trafficked women a year in Germany.
You are saying that the fight against sex work is actually helping obscure the actual numbers of trafficked women?
Exactly. The moment women start fighting prostitution they instrumentalise the issue of trafficking to fight prostitution. We know that trafficking happens also in domestic work – so the logic, according to them, would be to ban domestic work. Nobody would think of such a stupid idea. Trafficking happens in marriage; are we going to forbid marriage? I find this campaign very troublesome.
So you obviously believe it is a woman’s choice to go into sex work.
Saying I know better what is good for all women, is in fact defying feminism. Who am I to tell an adult person, be it a woman or a man, what they are allowed or not allowed to do? If an adult person chooses to work in the prostitution business they should be allowed to do so and they should be protected by the state. In order for them to be protected, sex work has to be legal.
What got you interested in women’s rights in the first place?
I don’t know for sure, but I guess it has to do with my biography. Already as a student I was very interested in gender equality and feminism. In university I attended the first feminism courses. But I was shocked, because these courses were feminist but they were very racist.
You mean they were White Women Feminist Studies?
Exactly. For me it was clear that this was not my feminism. And luckily at the university I met the first other women of colour with the same experience and attitude. We all wanted to be feminists but not be part of white feminism.
What did you consider to be the problem of this “white feminism”? In fact how would you define “white feminism”?
Today it might be different but in those days, for white feminist ideology women of colour had only one role and that was the role of the victim. For instance I went to a seminar on domestic violence and migrants as women never came up. And yet every time the lecturer gave an example of a victim, she would use a Turkish name for her. I pointed it out and she said “well, these cultures are really more violent”. Then she asked me my name and wrote it on the blackboard saying “Such a beautiful exotic name. Let’s relish it”. Ridiculous situation…
And then I met other women of colour, migrant women and Jewish women and we realised we had a lot in common because what white feminism was doing was neglecting white women as culprits– for example during the Holocaust. White women had been perpetrators against Jewish women as well as against Jewish men. And yet for white feminism women were always victims. It was only men who were the perpetrators. This you could also see in the Colonialism debate. Young girls from simple backgrounds were taken to the colonies -for example to Namibia- to make sure that white men have white women, for whom this was upward social mobility. So white feminism had a very one-sided picture. Our histories, or herstories, were not seen. And also for many migrant women at the time what was an important issue was the immigration status, which was something that feminists did not care at all about.
Why was that?
For them immigration was not a women’s issue.
A single immigrant mother, for instance, was not an issue?
In those days, in their eyes, a single immigrant mother would not exist because all immigrants were so conservative they would be married. That’s what they thought. And they would be victims of forced marriage, obviously. They would not even differentiate between arranged marriage and forced marriage. But I was lucky to meet these other women of colour and the Jewish women and we formed our own conference. Today one would call us intersectional, but in those days the word did not exist. For us it was clear that we cannot have a feminist agenda that is neglecting ethnicity.
What are the important issues for non-white feminists?
Basically feminism of colour is intersectional feminsm that very clearly says that race, class and gender are analysed together – you cannot think of them separately, you cannot think of one without the other. Most women of colour who are poor are poor because of class and because of ethnicity and because of structural discrimination. For us gender is not the master category, whereas white feminists would say gender is the master category. The only master category that I could think of, would be that of the undocumented person. Because being undocumented means you don’t even have the right to have rights. In which case it doesn’t matter to what gender or ethinicity you belong.
What about violence against women in different ethnic groups. Many feminists claim that there is certain violence in ethnic groups – forced marriages, sending girls back to their country of origin, crimes of honour.
I would question that. For instance the forced marriage issue has been pushed a lot by white feminists and I will give you an example. There is an organisation, Terre des Femmes whose activity I find very problematic and let me explain why: they claimed that there are 30,000 forced marriages per year in Germany. Nobody knew where this number came from and then a professor found out that 30,000 is the number of all Turkish / Turkish marriages per year in Germany. What a coincidence, right? And then they took the number back and said that we need to do an official study. There was a study financed by the German Ministry for Women’s Affairs and I happened to be on the scientific advisory board. So we started collecting data and I said that as someone with many years of experience with Human Rights Organisations I know that women call 3 or 4 organisations before they decide which one to turn to. So we need to somehow establish if one person has placed more than one calls for help. The Terre des Femmes would not agree to do this.
Then we said OK, we still need to differentiate between arranged marriage and forced marriage. And we realised they had no idea how to do this. So it was very obvious that Terre des Femmes had a very strong interest in balooning the number; and so did the CDU. In the end we counted 3,000 forced marriages a year – I am sure it is not even that because there are many doubles and triples in it. And now the Terre des Femmes is using this number to say there are “a minimum of 3,000 forced marriages a year”. We had the same problem with the number of lethal domestic violence cases. The Terre des Femmes have put out a poster claiming that “Four women a day are victims of honour killings”
They don’t say whether it is in Germany, in Berlin, or on Earth. Nobody knows. But because it is written in German everyone supposes that this happens in Germany. And this despite the fact that there was a research conducted by the Federal Police which concluded that we can talk about two to three cases a year. Two or three murders that could be honour killings and all of which happen when a woman separates from her husband or a girl runs away from home. That happens among Germans too, but you don’t call them honour killings. If a German guy kills his wife it is a family tragedy, but if a Turkish guy kills his wife it is an honour killing. So I would not say that violence occurs here more and there less. But in some communities it is culutralised and given the label of ethnic violence, when in reality it is gender violence.
Isn’t it true, though, that there is more conservatism among immigrant communities? And conservatism tends to make women’s lives harder.
It is not conservatism, it is a class issue. Most of the migrants are labour migrants. If you compare labour migrants to other labourers in Germany you will find many similarities. We know that people who have a working class background often have an understanding of very rigid gender stereotypes and control over women and girls. And again, under the migrant population the majority maybe belongs to this background – but this has to do with the fact that these were the migrants brought here. Germany was not interested in bringing over the intellectuals from Turkey; it was the workers they wanted. Class is very neglected in the migration discourse. But the thing is that the moment you concentrate on class, it can turn into a very classist analysis which is also problematic.
Why is the class issue overlooked? Does it have to with political correctness or can it be a wish to avoid to rock the boat and keep things as they are?
I think it is a mixture of everything. First of all Germany has a self understanding of a modern state and it doesn’t fit a modern state to think about things like class, because it sounds like something coming from the Middle Ages. At the same time it also stabilizes the system. Migrants fullfill many scapegoat roles – and as long as they fullfill these as migrants you get to declare them the „other“. But as soon as you realise they are declared to be the „other“ when actually it is a class rather than an immigration issue, you’d have to rattle the whole system and ask „what about the Germans from other class backgrounds?“
Going back to your professional activity after university, you first started working with women who had suffered domestic violence and sexual violence. Were these mostly immigrant women?
No, it was a shelter for girls who had ran away from home. So basically it was my story, but now I was on the other side. I worked there for three years and stopped at 1996 when I got pregnant. In that shelter there were migrant and German girls who had all experienced extreme violence at home – also sexual violence. I was one of the first migrant woman to work there –later a second one joined us- among eight German colleagues and there were some things I observed that the German colleagues neglected.
I found out that some migrant girls would not talk about sexual violence to white colleagues, especially if the perpetrator was also of colour. At first I just observed it and then I found literature from the US and realised that these women felt that by talking about the perpetrators they would nourish racist stereotypes. I talked about this with my colleagues and they dismissed it, saying that it was merely my impression. But I was convinced, so I started publishing what I saw and the moment you publish something then people finally start discussing the issue. So I worked there for three years and then had my baby, as single mother…
Did having a baby as a single mother of colour bring about any changes in the way people reacted to you?
The most interesting thing was that for the first time I faced gender discrimination that had nothing to do with ethnicity. And that was something that I was totally unprepared for. Until today there are so many stereotypes about single mothers. It even happened that I would be having coffee with a good friend of mine and she would mention somebody who ended up a criminal and would say “well he grew up with a single mother”. And she did not even realise that she was saying that in front of a single mother. I was not prepared for all that. The other thing I realised was that the burden of having a child it is really only on my shoulders. It is possible that a father pays no money and does not support the mother in any way in everyday life; the system allows it to happen.
Structurally, in Germany, it is still the case that if you separate from the father of your child, he can sneak out of every responsibility and the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the woman. The father of my daughter has not paid a penny so far and my daughter is 17 years old. Luckily I was earning enough money. Luckily I am a very unconventional single mother, because emotionally I was never a single mother. There is a very close friend who is my daughter’s social father -I wanted her to have a reliable male person in her life- and a very good friend of mine who is her godmother; we are not Christians but this is what we call her. So I never had to take all decisions alone. And also to enjoy a child alone is lonely, so I was happy I could share this experience with two very close friends.
You have also worked with the Ban Ying center which offers help to immigrant women. What kind of problems did you try to solve?
Any woman who has faced violence during her migration process can seek the assistance and counseling of Ban Ying. Women from 64 countries have been turning to us; some of them have been victims of trafficking, others of sexual exploitation, some are domestic workers in the houses of diplomats. But most of these women have been Asians married to German husbands; and they have been exploited in every way imaginable. The immigration law says that you have to be married for at least three years in order to get a visa of your own and in these three years these husbands did whatever they wanted to do with their wives.
The women who turned to us had come to Germany voluntarily; they wanted to marry a German citizen in order to migrate. They usually did this because they wanted to come to Europe and work and send the money home. Marriage is one of the legal loops of immigration. The interesting thing is that while the husbands most of the time were not well educated, they still knew that these women have to stick with them for three years and that in case they would wish to leave them earlier than that, then they would have to go home – naturally this was something the women don’t want to do. Let alone that in some cases they have taken out a loan in order to migrate. These are very problematic situations and we have had women telling us very bad things they have been experiencing with their husbands. So we tell them that we can help them but they might have to go back to their countries. So quite often they have to go back and stay with their abusive husbands for the full three years. But at least we give them non-biased information so that they can make a choice. And in some cases we have fought court cases and won them. Such was the case of a woman who had repeatedly been raped by her husband.
And how about the cases of exploitation of domestic workers of diplomats?
Many domestic workers of diplomats were coming to us seeking help because they were being victims of exploitation. They were not being paid their salaries, they had no days off, they were being abused – there were all sorts of problems. And we realised that one key problem they all faced was that their visa was connected to that one diplomat who was employing them. And basically they had no rights whatsoever. So we sent a letter to the UN saying that this is structural discrimination against women and we want you to start an inquiry procedure against Germany. They didn’t do that but the government was so alarmed and worried that this could happen that actually two thirds of our demands were met.
Which were the demands that were satisfied?
A working contract in writing, a contract in a language the domestic worker understands, a salary according to minimum wages and standards that apply in Germany, a minimum wage, the employer pays for health insurance and the tickets to fly in and out. What we did not get is for the domestic worker to be allowed to live outside the residence of her employer and the provision that there is regular contact between the Foreign Ministry and the domestic worker.That is changing slowly.
Does it surprise you that there are so many cases of abuse of domestic workers by diplomats?
No, because this is a power issue. It is not that all diplomats are doing it, but because of diplomatic immunity they know that whatever they do, there is nothing you can do to them. So it is again a structural thing: if a state allows diplomatic immunity, then the state has to find a way to protect women who might become victims of this diplomatic immunity.
Do these women who are employed by diplomats as domestic workers tend to come from specific countries?
Most of them come from Philippines and from Indonesia, because there is this picture of the submissive woman who creates little trouble and works very hard.
You are a professor at the Alice Solomon University of applied sciences and cooperating with the refugee shelter in Hellersdorf – in what way?
This is a neighbourhood that’s very hostile to immigrants and people of colour. It has always been a big issue. Last summer something happened that shocked all of us at university – as this refugee shelter opened there were protests and threats from nazis. That all happened almost next door to our university, since the asylum is located one stop away from us. The demonstrations on the nazis against the asylum seekers took place while I was on holiday, but I was watching the events on TV and I suddenly saw our dean being interviewed. She was talking about the school’s social responsibility and I really liked what she was saying so I called her up and said that if she needs support I am here to offer it in any way possible. For me it was credibility issue. I teach Social Work as a Human Rights profession and Migrants Rights so how can I say that I am on holiday?
In what way did the university help the asylum seekers?
We decided we did not want to do paternalistic work, we don’t want to decide what is good for the immigrants and what is not; we wanted to find out what the refugees want. In order to establish that, we needed to be in contact with them. But they would not come out, because they were scared of the nazis, and we could not go in since a refugee shelter is off limits. At one point our dean had a brilliant idea: she called the Ministry and asked for the university to be granted access to one space inside the shelter where we could do classes. We got the space and now a part of our normal lectures take place in the shelter. The thinking was that there are around 200 refugees, in a very hostile area, and we wanted to make sure that they are not alone. Because 20 years ago, when that house in Hoyerswerda was put on fire, one of the problems was that there were only refugees inside.
What are the reactions of the community?
It depends on who’s reacting. What still happens is that we come into the shelter and there is racist propaganda scattered all over. Leafleat that say “Nein zum Heim” [No to the shelter]. These are intentionaly very small pieces of paper, so as to make it harder to pick them all up. The refugees see Germans distributing them, but then, half an hour later, they see other Germans come and pick them up. So it really makes a difference that there are racists here but there are also people opposed to them. And what we do has made a difference in general in the area, because earlier it would be unthinkable for someone like me to walk alone from the U-Bahn to the shelter, even though it doesn’t take more than three to four minutes. I would never dare to do it because I feel very visible. But now with 200 refugees and 300 students I feel very safe.
Do you think that people of colour would need “a room of their own” in a cosmopolitan city like Berlin?
Cosmopolitan can be also very racist. There is an understanding that if you are not white, you cannot be part of the German society, you have to be an “Other”. It is very troublesome that for people in this country being German means being white. It happens all the time that people will ask me where I come from and compliment on my German. And in my case I can even say I come from India, but we have Afro-Germans, we have Roman and Sinti, we have many people of colour who have always been nothing but Germans – and yet in every encounter they have to explain themselves. Can you imagine every Afro-American having to explain where their parents came from?
Growing up, as a teenager, did you have role models or mentors? Do you think that it is important?
I had many role models but not one specific role model with whom I could identify, because I was thinking that a white woman could not be a role model for me.
For me, it was about very small things. As a young girl, beauty is a big issue. And I always felt that I knew nobody who looked like me. All the women were blond. That sort of thing. There were many women who inspired me. Most of all May Ayim, a friend and political “Mitkämpferin”; together we organised the two first women of color conferences together. May was an afro-german
writer. And there was also Audre Lorde, who served as an inspiration for many women of colour in Germany to start our own movement. And I had wonderful professional mentors, Prof. Dr. Birgit Rommelspacher and Prof. Dr. Silvia Staub-Bernasconi. I have been supported by women all my life. Many white women among them of course.
Do you think that affirmative action still makes sense?
Yes, sure. And not only in terms of gender but one also needs to take colour into account. We need more women of colour.
So what would you answer to those who claim that affirmative action is unnecessary by now; that it has fulfilled its mission and belongs to another age.
If that were so, I’d be a post-feminist in post patriarchy. We know that equality seems to exist somewhere, but definitely not in the real world. Look at who has which jobs – looking at gender is one thing, but if you look at gender and colour it is totally devastating. You don’t find women of colour in high positions in Germany, at all.
If a friend who was travelling to Berlin asked you to recommend one film that would give them a feeling of the city, which would that be?
I enjoy any film that takes place in Berlin. I would say “Sommer vorm Balkon”, probably. It is about two women that spend summer on a balcony. You don’t see much of the city but you get a feeling for it. And Til Schweiger’s film “Keinohrhasen”. What I really like about it is that the milieu is a Kinderladen, which is very characteristic of Berlin.
And when you want to look at something comforting in Berlin, where do you turn to?
Do you know the Café am Neuen See, at the Tiergarten? In the evening you sit at rocking chairs next to the water and see the ducks. I also love the Gärten der Welt, in Marzahn. And the Vietnamese Market in Lichtenberg, which is not at all soothing and calming but I simply love that place. One of the places that I go to if I am really sad and in need of comfort is the Buddhist temple in Frohnau, which dates to the 1920s. They have a meditation hall and a beautiful garden.