Female Sexuality in Hasidic Judaism – Through the example of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox

By Leonie Lamm

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of female sexuality. Especially in Western culture, it is now more widely accepted that female pleasure is just as important as male pleasure. However, there are still communities in which female sexuality is completely disregarded. This is especially common in highly religious communities, such as Hasidic Judaism. Deborah Feldman is one of many Hasidic women whose sexuality was completely suppressed during her upbringing in the Hasidic sect Satmar. In her memoir Unorthodox, she illustrates her life in that sect and gives an insight into the laws that the community lives by and the beliefs that its members share. Amongst these, the most striking are the ones concerning women. Feldman’s memoir makes it clear that none of these laws and beliefs focus on women’s needs or wishes, but rather on their purpose within the community, which is to produce and take care of children. Sexual intercourse is presented to Hasidic women merely as a means of procreation, thus disregarding every other aspect of female sexuality. The Hasidic view of the female body, the sexual education that women receive, and the rules and laws on sex that they have to live by, militate against a normal expression of sexuality.

Hasidic women are taught from a very young age that their life’s purpose is to bear children and rear them. Over and over, Deborah Feldman was told as a child: “[T]here is no greater curse than the curse of childlessness” (Feldman, Unorthodox 50). By teaching young girls that a woman without children must be cursed, women’s freedom of choice is completely taken away from them. This firm belief shows them that it is not even an option to live their lives without bringing children into the world, that there is no decision to be made. Furthermore, it implies that if a woman does not have children it must be because she is unable to procreate due to a higher power, and not because she chose not to. Presenting childlessness as a curse to young girls can be seen as a scare tactic, used to ensure that they would never dare to disobey this rule by deciding not to have children. Hasidic women go through their lives being reminded of the importance of procreation at every possible moment, for instance at their weddings: “[My grandfather] pronounces the blessing for me to be fruitful and multiply” (ibid. 165). This proves that the most important purpose of a married couple is procreation (cf. Feldman, Exodus 3).

  What is more, the act of creating children entirely depends on the woman: “Childlessness is never blamed on the man” (De Balie, 00:26:06 ‑ 00:26:12). Deborah Feldman states that this is the case because Hasidic Jews believe that “only a woman can be infertile” (ibid.). This mindset puts the entire responsibility of procreation onto the woman, making it all that she is supposed to concentrate on. Deborah Feldman also mentions that the inability to procreate is “seen as a punishment” (ibid., 00:26:29 ‑ 00:26:40), and that, if a woman is unable to produce children, it is assumed that she has some sort of spiritual flaw (cf. ibid.). This belief corroborates that a woman’s worth is entirely defined through her ability of bearing children.

The information that women are able to produce children concludes everything positive that they are taught about their bodies and sexualities. Women’s bodies are only considered to be something holy when they are bearing children; in every other aspect they are seen as evil and sinful. In order to make sure that this perspective on the female body does not change, young girls are raised to be scared of their own bodies. This becomes obvious when Deborah Feldman describes one of the daily modesty lectures she received in elementary school. In this specific lecture, the teacher educates the girls on ervah, which “refers to any part of a woman’s body that must be covered” (Feldman, Unorthodox 36), specifically, she says, when men are present. The teacher warns the girls of breaking the rules of ervah, saying that to do so would make them “the worst sinner of all” (ibid.). Her choice of words underlines the danger that the female body allegedly entails. She is not just teaching these little girls a new rule, but she is teaching them to be fearful of their own bodies. 

The teacher takes the indoctrination even further when she starts praising a woman called Rachel, whom she describes to have been “a truly righteous woman” (ibid.) and “an exceptionally modest person” (ibid.), emphasizing all the virtues that have already been ingrained into these young girls’ minds to be of utmost importance. The teacher explains that this woman “stuck pins into her calves to keep her skirt lifting in the breeze and exposing her kneecaps” (ibid.). Praising a person who would go to these extremes, and describing her as someone whom these little girls should admire, emphasizes that hiding a woman’s body and controlling her sexuality is regarded as more important than her well-being, as young girls are being taught that even hurting themselves would be better than accidentally showing any forbidden part of their bodies. 

These types of stories, in which a woman who went to extremes to keep her modesty is praised, seem to be very common in Hasidic girls’ upbringing. In Exodus, Deborah Feldman thinks back to another story she was told again and again as a child, in which a woman is described as so modest that she “never allowed the beams of her own house to see her nakedness” (175). This story adds another layer to the way the female body is seen in the Hasidic culture. The Hasidic idea of modesty not only requires that a woman may not show certain parts of her body in public, but also that she may not even be naked alone in her own house. Thus, Hasidic women are robbed of any agency over their bodies even when there is no actual other person present in order to ensure that women do not get to know their own bodies and sexuality. 

Another piece of information which Feldman was given several times during her childhood is that if her skirt was too short, someone, somewhere in the world would suffer (cf. Koerber‑Stiftung, 00:37:56 – 00:38:10). She sums up these stories by saying that her whole life in the Hasidic community, “nakedness, in all its forms, had always been made to seem offensive and shameful to [her].” (Exodus175). The teachers and adults who are telling these stories to young girls are making sure that they are so scared of their own bodies that breaking the rules of modesty does not even become an option. Moreover, this code ensures that any curiosity that young girls might have about their own bodies is completely shut down, making sure that their knowledge about their bodies is completely limited to what they are told, rather than what they could find out themselves. 

However, the alleged evilness that a woman entails does not end with her body. She also has to cover up her hair, because “uncovered hair is considered too provocative for everyday interactions” (Olitzky and Judson 46). Even a woman’s voice can lead to sinning, which is why women and men are often separated at religious events, as “a woman’s voice is a (sexual) distraction for men during prayer.” (ibid. 72). Due to this, women are also not allowed to sing in the presence of men (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox 140). Starting at age three, a girl’s body is deemed potentially sinful and thus in need of modest covering (cf. Auslander 22). Although girls might not explicitly grasp this sense of sin at a young age, they will pick up on these facts sooner or later, feeling more and more ashamed of what their mere presence can cause.

Not only do women get nothing but negative information about their own bodies, they also receive no form of sexual education that would ever lead them to believe that sex can be more than just procreation. There is not just a lack of sexual education; any possible curiosity is also highly discouraged. Deborah Feldman states that the Yiddish that was spoken within her community was highly censored and did not contain words like love,much less any words that have anything to do with sex (cf. De Balie, 00:17:20 ‑ 00:17:40), making it impossible to ever talk about either of these feelings. She also mentions that, since there was never any talk about sexual feelings, girls remained completely unaware of their existence altogether (cf. Stewart). As a result, she says that “[she] can look back at [her] 17-year-old self and [she] can say with absolute clarity that [she] had absolutely no sexuality. That it’s completely stamped out of you.” (De Balie, 00:34:50 ‑ 00:35:01). Another former Hasidic Jew agrees, saying that they were never curious about anything concerning sex because of the complete lack of sexual education and biology classes (cf. Rock Center, 00:06:35 ‑ 00:17:01). 

If any curiosity on the topic does somehow ever come up, it is completely shut down right away. Deborah Feldman makes this obvious when she describes a moment in her childhood in which she reads the word virgin on a bottle of olive oil and asks her grandmother what it means, having no clue that the word is related to something concerning sex. Her grandmother reacts with shock, and immediately tells Deborah that “it’s not a word for little girls to know” (Feldman, Unorthodox24). Her grandmother’s reaction makes Deborah feel anxious and ashamed, knowing that she said something bad but not knowing why (cf. ibid.). Moments like this completely discourage young girls from acting out their natural curiosity, which, again, ensures that they will not gain more information about their bodies and sexualities than what is allowed and wanted.

The complete ignorance about the existence of sexuality suddenly changes right before a woman gets married. This is when women go to marriage classes and are taught about sexual intercourse by their kallahteacher. However, the knowledge that they receive there is entirely limited to the part of sex that leads to procreation; topics that regard female pleasure, like foreplay, are completely disregarded. This becomes obvious when looking at the marriage class in which Deborah Feldman gets educated on sexual intercourse. Her kallah teacher never directly mentions any of the female’s private parts; instead, she talks about them using euphemisms and metaphors (“I hear her describe a hallway with walls, leading to a little door, which opens to a womb” Feldman, Unorthodox152). Through this kind of partial and misinformation, women’s bodies and the act of sex are turned into something completely abstract, making it hard for the woman to connect to them. The teacher describes the uterus as “a holy place inside each woman” (ibid.), turning it into something that is related to god rather than to the woman herself. The way in which she describes the reproductive tract and sexual organs, making it sound like a house rather than something inside of a woman, is so entirely vague and abstract that it does not tell the woman anything about her actual body. Furthermore, all that this description entails are the few details that actually lead to making a baby, but not once does the teacher mention how a woman might feel during this process, or what she can do to make it comfortable for her. On top of this, she never teaches the woman that sexual intercourse could be something enjoyable for her, something that could lead to more than just babies. Deborah underlines this when she states that sexual intercourse is merely seen as “a holy act that you do with the goal of producing children” (De Balie, 00:46:14 ‑ 00:46:20.). Hence, this lesson on sexual education just turns sexual intercourse into yet another rule that women have to obey, yet another thing that they have to do, and they get taught just enough to make sure that it stays that way. 

The lack of sexual education is also seen inorganizations like Footsteps, which aim to help acclimate former members of ultraorthodox communities to the secular world. This organization has several programs designed to help its members with different aspects of every-day life, one of which is called “Dating, Relationship and Sexuality Group” (cf. Footsteps). The fact that there is a need for programs like that shows just how little Hasidic Jews get taught about this topic, and how important it is that they can extend their knowledge.

At this point, one might wonder how keeping women from knowing anything about their sexualities contributes to their producing more children. At first glance, it might make more sense to teach women to enjoy sex, as this would ensure frequent sexual intercourse with their partners, which would then result in more pregnancies. However, this is not the case, as more sexual education could actually lead to the exact opposite. Sex therapist Ann-Marlen Henning claims that, if women would be raised knowing more about their own sexualities, it would be easier and much more likely for them to actually break out of these structures and start disobeying the rules that are imposed on them (cf. X Verleih AG, 00:42:55  – 00:43:40). Hence, it is safer to ensure that couples are having enough sex to produce babies by making sure that women know little enough so that they will follow all the rules that they are taught, than by teaching them to enjoy the act of sex itself. 

In Hasidic communities, there are many laws and rules concerning sex, all of which seem to be in place only to ensure that married couples are having enough sex, and at the right time, in order to make babies. One of these is the concept of niddah which refers to the time in which women are menstruating, and are thus “considered impure according to Judaic law” (Feldman, Unorthodox139). During the time of menstruation, and for seven days afterwards, in which women have to assure that they are, in fact, clean and not bleeding anymore, a woman and a husband are not allowed any physical contact (cf. ibid.140). This process usually lasts about 14 days and is completed by the immersion in the mikvah. Deborah Feldman’s marriage teacher claims that this whole process is important for the bond between the married couple, as it serves as “a renewal of the bond between a husband and a wife” (ibid.). She also suggests that it is something that serves the woman, as every immersion in the mikvahwould make her feel “like a bride all over again” (ibid.). Nowadays, many mikvahsalso resemble spas, making the ritual something very appealing for the woman (cf. Klein). However, the entire purpose of the mikvah as a ritual cleansing just seems to be something to make sure that women do not break these rules. Instead, the laws of niddahare yet another way to guarantee that a woman will get pregnant: “Since it islinked to a woman’s monthly cycle, mikvahis strongly tied to fertility and sexuality.” (Olitzky and Judson 98). This is because, right when this whole process is over and the couple is expected to have sex again, is the time when the woman starts ovulating. The abstinence in the two weeks before this serves to ensure that the couple will definitely have sex at that specific time. The sexual intercourse is only allowed when there is a chance that it might lead to pregnancy. Furthermore, the process of going to the mikvahevery month seems to serve another purpose: Deborah Feldman describes it as a way to “keep tabs on every woman’s reproductive life” (De Balie, 00:37:51 – 00:38:03), making sure that they are getting pregnant often enough. It is clear that the mikvahonly masquerades as a pleasant religious experience while actually establishing tight control over women and their bodies.

The rules that are in place for the time in which the couple is allowed physical intimacy only focus on procreation as well. Deborah Feldman states that there are laws in the Talmud which say when exactly each person has to have sex: “In the Talmud it says a traveling merchant must have intercourse with his wife once every six months, a laborer three times a week, but a Torah scholar has intercourse on Friday nights” (Feldman, Unorthodox 226). According to these laws, the frequency of sexual intercourse is established by the male exclusively, depending on his occupation. Deborah Feldman explains that these rules are in place to assure that everyone fulfills their duty of having children. The reason why Torah scholars have to have sex on Friday nights is because those are the holiest nights, which would thus produce holy children (cf. De Balie, 00:46:14 – 00:46:55). 

Another rule that indirectly tells women when to have sex is the one that forbids Hasidic men from masturbating (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox194). Male desires and sexual needs, unlike those of women, seem to be accepted. Thus, whenever a man wants to have sex, it is the woman’s responsibility to satisfy him, since, otherwise, she would be “forcing him to sin” (ibid.), i.e. to masturbate. This makes women obligated to have sex with their husbands whether they want to or not, because otherwise, they would have to “carry the burden of [their] wrongdoing” (ibid.). Even this rule leads back to the producing of children. Since Hasidic Jews believe that the sins of the father are transmitted to his son (cf. Feldman, Exodus 231), they want to keep the father from sinning in order to have holy babies. Again, the responsibility for producing said holy babies rests almost entirely with the woman. Having all these rules in place keep women from thinking about sex as something enjoyable; on the contrary, it turns sexual intercourse into a duty, rather than a pleasure. Deborah Feldman underlines said state of affairs when she states that she herself never thought of sex as anything other than an obligation (cf. De Balie, 00:46:49 – 00:46:52). 

The concept of arranged marriages is yet another rule that takes women’s freedom of choice away from them. Because of these marriages, women are not only unable to choose when to have sex, but they are also unable to choose with whom to have it. It appears to be a matter of luck whether or not the woman is actually attracted to the person with whom she is forced into marriage. The partner is picked out by the family, and they do not choose according to the daughter’s personal preferences but according to the social and financial needs of the entire family (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox120). When Deborah Feldman’s family starts talking to a matchmaker in order to find a husband for her, she already knows that she has no say in the process: “I understand that knowledge cannot possibly matter (…). What is meant to happen will happen regardless; what my family wants will come to pass” (ibid. 120). This set of customs demonstrates how powerless a woman is in this situation and how little she can influence it. When Deborah Feldman meets her husband for the first time, her family gives her a moment in which she has to give her confirmation. However, it is obvious that the only choice a woman has in this situation is to say yes: “It is a nod and a smile that I must give, and I do it” (ibid. 132). 

In her memoir Exodus, Deborah Feldman describes the repercussions of the suppression of her sexuality through all these rules and laws. After leaving the Hasidic community, she has to deal with physical and psychological health issues concerning her vagina, and seeks out several gynecologists in hope that they can help her. None of them can pinpoint where those issues came from, nor do they know how to help her (cf. 210). Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that the reason might be rooted in her upbringing, and that she has to “establish friendlier communications with [her] nether regions” (ibid. 211). Even after having left the community and after having learned more about sex and her body, even after she had “really enjoyed sex for its own sake” (ibid. 198) for the first time, over a year after having left the community, she still has to deal with the consequences of the way she was raised concerning her sexuality. Her experience of almost total lack of erotic feelings typifies that of many if not most Hasidic women and shows the extent of the suppression of female sexuality in Hasidic Judaism.

Deborah Feldman is one in many, and her experience may differ entirely from that of other Hasidic women. Of course, there are also many women that live with the same laws and rules and claim to be completely happy with them (cf. OWN).  What is noticeable about these women’s claims is that their wording sounds exactly like the things that Deborah Feldman has been taught her entire life. That is, they appear not to select their own words to describe feelings and opinions, but to parrot back what they have been told all their lives. This makes it questionable if these women actually believe what they say or if they have been brainwashed into thinking that way. For example, one Hasidic woman uses a vague phrase to describes the time of niddah as “just coming together through our minds and our souls” (OWN, 00:01:34 – 00:01:36), and yet another one illustrates it as “two halves of the soul (…) coming together in an absolute godly union” (ibid. 00:00:43 ‑ 00:00:50). This type of wording strongly resembles what Deborah Feldman has been told by her teachers and other adults throughout her whole life. Hence, the Hasidic women who like living by the laws mentioned above seem to have completely internalized what they were told when getting to know about these laws, rather than developed an own opinion on them.  

To conclude, all laws concerning sex in Hasidic communities only serve to guarantee procreation, without paying any attention to women’s needs. Therefore, it can be said that female sexual feelings do not have any importance in Hasidic Judaism. By looking at Deborah Feldman’s experience, it becomes obvious how little women actually get to know about their own bodies and sexualities, and how difficult it would be for them to change their perception of themselves. However, since all these rules are presented either in an appealing way, or in a way that makes the women afraid to break them, it is more than likely that they obey them without questioning any of it. On top of that, it seems that the complete disregard of female sexuality is not only a consequence that comes from the women’s responsibility to produce children, but is also used as a way to ensure that women will do just that. Keeping women from finding out more about their sexualities assures that they stay completely unaware of its existence, thus ensuring that women will stay part of their communities and fulfill their purpose of producing many children.  

Works Cited

Auslander, Shalom. Foreskin’s Lament. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

De Balie. “Arnon Grunberg meets Deborah Feldman.” Youtube, uploaded on 21 May 2017,       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbKvcTZqNA0.

Feldman, Deborah. Exodus.New York: Plume, 2014. Print.

—. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. New York: Simon et    Schuster          Paperbacks, 2012. Print.

Klein, Amy. “The Secret Mikvah Society.” Narratively, 29 October 2012,https://narratively.com/the-secret-mikvah-society/. Accessed 16 March 2019.

Körber-Stiftung. “Unorthodox.” Youtube,uploaded on 6 December 2017,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGFtBF0FxuM&t=4534s.

Footsteps. “Member Programs.” Footstepsorg, 2018.         https://www.footstepsorg.org/member-programs/. Accessed on 29 March 2019

Olitzky, Kerry M., and Daniel Judson. Jewish Ritual: A Brief Introduction for Christians.          Vermont: Jewish Lights Pub, 2005. Print.

Oprah Winfrey Network. “Hasidic Women Open Up About Their Sex Lives | Oprah’s Next       Chapter | Oprah Winfrey Network”. Youtube, uploaded 13 February 2012,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vh3S88ksnJ8.

Rock Center with Brian Williams. “Former Hasidic Jew reveal hidden world.” Youtube,  uploaded by Duudeabides2, 22 June 2013,            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQWLJhsl-t4

Stewart, Sarah. “I was a Hasidic Jew – but I broke free.” New York Post, 7 February 2012,        https://nypost.com/2012/02/07/i-was-a-hasidic-jew-but-i-broke-free/. Accessed 15          March2019.

X Verleih AG. “Podiumsgespräch #FEMALE PLEASURE | Thema: Wer hat Angst vorweiblicher Lust?“ Youtube, uploaded on 8 November 2018,            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GaBao2ns08.

The Reformation of Islam: A Response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Ceylan Gül

I remember when I was a kid all my cousins envied me and my sister. As children of a formerly Christian mother from Poland and a Muslim father from Turkey, living and growing up in Germany, we enjoyed more holidays and advantages than they did. We celebrated Easter and Christmas but also all Muslim holidays. We went on vacation in Poland and Turkey. We always had three countries to call home and three cultures to which we felt connected. We experienced and still experience the best of both worlds. Nevertheless, my nuclear family and I consider ourselves Muslims and believers in Islam. Not because we are forced to believe in something our paternal grandparents believe in or because we were not allowed to believe in something else, but because we ourselves believe in it. This is how religion works: it is something you believe in, a superpower, a magical, unexplainable force of strength that makes you do and go through everything, something you cannot see, feel, touch, hear and certainly cannot describe, but most important it is a personally very intimate thing. And the first rule that defines every religion, every faith, every belief is that you actually need to believe. There is no religion without believing, there is no God without believing, there is no hell or heaven without believing. There is no compulsion to have faith because faith remains a personal matter between you and your God.

So, I was very disturbed to read the description of Islam in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad. I had difficulties understanding how someone who believes that Islam is passed down through fear and anxiety, that Muslims only go through life with reverence and most Muslims are forced to believe in Islam anyway, so someone who does not even understand how religion “works” and what it actually means, claims that this religion needs a reformation. How can someone plead for a reinterpretation of the Quran without knowing the actual interpretation, only referring to the mere reading of the book? How can an atheist – which Ayaan Hirsi Aliclaims to be – speak of an image of God and condemn it if he himself does not believe in any God? And how can someone who claims to be without any religion make a judgment about which religion you should best identify with? From my point of view not at all, but this is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali mainly – maybe unconsciously at some points, but very deliberately at other points – does in Nomad.

Ayaan Hirsi Aliis a formerly Muslim woman, who grew up in Somalia and is now known for her criticism of Islam and her activism in relation to women’s rights along with her fight against genital mutilation. She is also a Dutch-American politician and political scientist. Nomad is a sequel to her book Infidel and describes her ‘personal journey through the clash of civilizations‘.

In Nomad she describes Mohammed as an ‘infallible Prophet’ and of the ‘oppressive dictates of the Quran‘ (Hirsi Ali 2010, xxi). She also claims that ‘Islam is built on sexual inequality and on the surrender of individual responsibility and choice’, and all of this is in her opinion ‘not just ugly, [but] monstrous’. She asserts that ‘many Muslims are instinctively appalled by the violence committed in the name of their faith’ and that their ‘concept of God’ – a peaceful and compassionate God – only exists because they do not know any other concepts of God or do not know that their concept is ‘wrong’. She criticizes the Muslim attitude towards credit and debt, the ‘denial’ of access to education and the notion that public education and public institutions present Islam as a ‘peaceful religion’ whereas the Muslim belief should be ‘challenged’ to indicate critical thinking, especially towards Islam. Several times she indicates a connection between honor killing, genital mutilation and child marriage with Islam. Several times she compares Islam to ‘modern’ Christianity and the Christian churches and calls the Christian community to action for ‘the battle against Islamic fanaticism’. The Christian concept of God according to Ayaan Hirsi Ali is of a being who is ‘synonymous’ with love, who does not ‘preach hatred, intolerance, and discord’, who is ‘merciful’, who is uninterested in ‘state power’ and who ‘sees no competition with science’. The Bible does not include direct commands that ‘need to be obeyed’, it is only ‘a book full of parables’. Last but not least she calls Mohammed ‘the founder of Islam’ numerous times. 

Throughout Nomad Ayaan Hirsi Ali openly propagandizes against Islam hidden behind personal experiences. She talks about her childhood and early adult life, about her parents and siblings, her grandmother and other situations that changed her life and her way of thinking. In the final chapters then she draws the conclusion that modern Christianity in comparison to Islam offers a ‘better’ alternative for everyone who needs faith or religion in their life. And in the very same breath, she says she is an atheist. I am not sure, how someone, who does not believe in any religion or any God at all, can make an assumption about which religion may be the best for me or anyone else. I think she is not aware of the fact that religion is much more than just a shadow that follows you around. For religious people, their faith is a very big part of their life and also of their identity – you do not change your identity that easy, from one day to the next. 

Her choice of words and her tone are inappropriate to the topic for religious readers, words like ‘monstrous’ and ‘merciless’ are disrespectful. She limits herself by examining only Somali Muslims in her own family – by referring only to her own reading and interpretation of the Quran and her own observations in the Netherlands and America. How much has she really talked to Imams and to people who could show her another version of Islam? Her only clues are two controversial Quran verses and Mohammed, who had more than one wife and presumably married a nine-year-old girl. How can I not feel offended, when she in reverse says that I believe in a God who preaches hatred, intolerance and discord? Because according to her this is exactly the Muslim concept of God. That I fear the God in whom I believe and for whom I must go to holy war. That this God is not gracious and does not forgive. That I cannot and have not adapted to Western life because of my faith. And that I cannot be a feminist either, because I am a Muslim and Islam and the Quran oppresses women. She definitely generalizes too much and does not state that her version of Islam is a cultic version, a version which is influenced by obsolete cultural value concepts. Therefore, her pleading for a reformation within Islam and that the West ‘urgently needs to compete with the jihads’ is misplaced on this foundation. Not only because of her flawed and stereotypical explanations – Mohammed is not the founder of Islam, he is a prophet, the prophet who was chosen by God to transmit God’s words to us and why was Amina, in the imagined conversation in Nomad, a Muslim girl who clearly could not explain her own faith and Jane someone who is highly educated and interested in other religions confronting Amina with the stereotypical, controversial verses of the Quran? – but also because of her blurred lines between radical Islamists who kill paradoxically in the name of God and those who practice religion as a faith and value it rather than abuse it for power. This essay’s aim is to show that Islam does not need a reformation or reinterpretation, that from a theological point of view Islam is the reformation of Christianity and that from a religious point of view a reinterpretation would be contradictory. 

Islam does not need enlightenment and reformation in the western sense. It had these western achievements from the very beginning. Developments in the Islamic world cannot be equated with those in Central Europe. The Enlightenment did not arise out of Christianity, but in a hard struggle with this religion. In Islam this confrontation was not so necessary. Statements according to which Islam did not have a phase of Enlightenment like Europe and therefore did not develop to the same extent can therefore only be made if one looks through very gloomy Christian occidental glasses without any background knowledge of Islamic studies.  According to Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment is ‘man’s exit from his self-inflicted immaturity’. In this sense Enlightenment is already contained in the Quran or at least does not contradict it. The Quran is always about people learning to be mature and to behave rationally, even if someone does them wrong: ‘… And let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is forgiving and merciful.‘ [Quran 24:22]. So, if God can forgive you, how could you not forgive someone else? The emancipation of mankind from the Church was a central event of the European Enlightenment. Martin Luther laid the foundation with his Bible translation. Meanwhile nobody had to translate the Quran, it was already written in the language of the people. The church positioned itself between God and man. In Islam there is no such mediator level. Every human being stands directly in front of God. 

From a historical and theological perspective all three great world religions have the same origin and Islam came as the third and last of them. Islam and the Quran should be treated as the reformation of Christianity, just as Christianity was seen as the reformation of Judaism, but as already known, not everyone was willing to adapt another religion and so we have three – meanwhile many more – different religions and believers. From a religious perspective it would create conflict to say that the word of God, which the Quran is to Muslims, needs a reinterpretation and to believe that a human being could presumably ‘translate’ or reinterpret the word of God.

Such a ‘translation’ would rather result in something like taking out all ‘misleading’ verses and concentrating on personal preferences. If you believe in a religion, you believe in a certain God, you believe in a certain way of living and you adapt to certain ‘rules’. Normally you neither pick between all the ‘rules’ and ‘laws’, nor choose which appeal to you the most and which you think are odd. There are things that are unchangeable, and for Muslims it is the word of God. Also, from a linguistic point of view a properly translation is nearly impossible. Even with a simple translation from German into English and vice versa, the linguistic and contextual semantic content gets often lost. Then how should the translation of a highly complex language like High Arabic – which is hardly spoken anymore – be correct and correspond to the actual meaning? Even with existing translations there are mistakes that lead to misunderstandings. For example, in sura 4 verse 34, to which Ayaan Hirsi Alialso refers: ‘…As to those women on whose part ye fear ‘Nushooz’ disloyalty and ill-conduct , admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) ‘Idribuhun’ beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all)‘. This verse’s translation indicates that Muslim men are allowed to beat their unfaithful and misbehaving wives. But the truth is that the word ‘nushuz‘ means ‘get up’ or ‘rise up’, something which is clarified in other verses [Quran 58:11], but in the verse above it is translated as ‘disloyalty’ and ‘ill-conduct’. So, the case regarding sura 4 verse 34 has nothing to do with adultery or any other immoral behavior, but rather with a woman rebelling against her husband. In another verse where the man is rebelling against his wife, so in the case of the man’s ‘nushuz‘, the couple should settle the dispute or separate if the man has really shown himself to be rebellious towards the woman. The verse does not state that the woman should beat the man. Instead, they should talk and settle the argument, because this is one thing that requires the two to get along in respect and love [Quran 4:128]. If one then looks at the actual situation [4:34], we see that it concerns a woman who no longer tolerates her husband and therefore rebels against him. As in the example of the man who rebels, the sura is also about calming the situation and restoring a harmonious relationship. Beating the woman rebelling against the husband is not a measure that would serve the cause. The woman would only hate her husband even more. In addition, the word ‘Idribuhun‘ which is translated as ‘beat them’ has a different meaning it is word stem, ‘Idribuhun‘ means ‘to put forth’ and in every other verse it is translated as ‘put forth’ – [24:31], [2:273], [14:24] – and if one now looks at [4:34] again, then by means of the context (rejection of the woman in relation to her husband) we see that only the original meaning of the word ‘to bring forth’, makes sense: ‘… As for those women from whom you fear a desertion, then you shall 1) advise them, and 2) abandon them in the bedchamber, and 3) ‘Idribuhun’ let them go forth; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High, Great‘ [4:34]. As a result, sura 4 verse 34 is nothing but a comprehensive list of measures the husband may take if his wife wants to leave him because she can no longer stand living with him, but an incorrect translation like the one used by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, transforms this verse into one of the most controversial verses in the Quran. 

Furthermore, Islam says for example: ‘He who kills one man kills all mankind, he who saves one man saves all mankind‘ [5:32]. This is meant to prevent the human nature from indiscriminate killing like back in time where women were accused of being witches and got killed even though there had already been the reformation of Christianity. But nevertheless, Islam does not say that you have to believe in everything blindly and without questioning. On the contrary the Quran is not ultimate and undoubtable, and Muslims are allowed to question, allowed to think, allowed to doubt. Islam says that you should question everything and Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s belief that education is not compatible with Islam and not granted for Muslims, especially not for girls is a wrong assumption, an incorrect interpretation of Islam. A belief and misinterpretation that has been adapted to a whole culture in this way – a version of Islam accepted in Somalia, Kenya and maybe other countries but not in the actual Islam. In Islam it is said that you should seek for education everywhere and every time, you should travel to the end of the world just to find education. There is a little story my father always told me when I talked to him about cultures failing to understand that women should get access to education: The story begins with two men who are having a conversation. At some point one of the two man claims that he does not see the necessity to grant his daughter or any women access to education, for him, her only aim is to marry and bear children. The other man was clearly irritated by the statement of him and asked him a question: ‘So then tell me, if your wife or daughter gets sick, would you bring her to a male or female doctor?’ The other man confidently answered: ‘Of course female. No other man can examine my wife or daughter.’ Thereupon the man asked a second question: ‘So, if you say that women should not have any access to education – how on earth would there be any female doctors that could examine your wife or daughter?’

There you can see the paradoxical manner of these kinds of cultures, of these kinds of men. These mistaken ideas have nothing to do with religion. You cannot compare a Muslim from Somalia with a Muslim from Turkey. You cannot compare a Muslim from Iraq with a Muslim from Kazakhstan. In the same way you cannot compare a Christian from Germany with a Christian from Poland or Russia. It may seem like all believe in the same God, but culture, education and tolerance have a core role in how we live that certain religion out. 

According to a Hadith, Mohammed sharpens Muslims, both men and women, to acquire knowledge and he attached so much importance to it that he, according to another Hadith, said: ‘Strive for knowledge, even if you would have to go as far as China for this purpose‘ – regarding to former circumstances China was considered as the farthest country from Arabia. In another transmission from Mohammed it is said: ‘According to the teachings of Islam, it is the duty of every Muslim to strive for knowledge‘, a statement which includes men and women. And there is a further transmission which explicitly prescribes the education of women: ‘The one who raises a daughter well and gives her a good education acquires paradise‘ (Tirmidhi). You are promised to get a reward for every step and work you invest in your education, for every gain on an intellectual level and for being inquisitive. Islam is not like in all the ‘horror stories’ of Muslim families where the daughters have to marry at sixteen and need to become a birthing machine. 

Ever since the beginning of Islam there have been many misunderstandings and misleading statements or misinterpretations, Islam has always been seen as threat and as something dangerous, as the ‘Other’ compared to the Occident as amongst others Edward Said explains in his studies of Orientalism. Only a few really dare to openly get information and engage with the scriptures, as mass media creates only fear and superficial knowledge with its reports on the IS – reports which misrepresent the religion and where the IS adherents clearly dissociate themselves from – while there are only two aspects which need to be known about Islam. 

First, the Quran is written in a metaphoric way; it should not be read literally. It tells stories and creates references. Every verse should be put in its historical context. There is a certain interpretation to every verse and unfortunately not everyone is able to interpret them correctly, but everyone could learn to. This is important regarding verses like ‘kill all infidels‘ which Ayaan Hirsi Ali also uses in her imagined conversation between the two teenage girls. This verse in particular is telling a story, a story from thousands of years in the past. In the early years of Islam, the religion was always in battles because it was not accepted as a religion by everyone right away. And although there was this fight against Islam Mohammed did not defend himself or was counterattacking until God allowed him to defend himself and resist against the given circumstances in order to save his religion. And it is precisely this situation that the verse is related to. A story where Mohammed did nothing against other human beings who tried to harm him and his adherents until God gave him permission. No Muslim is walking around and killing humans of other cultures or religions because Islam says you cannot take a life God gave, including your own. Therefore, murder and suicide are deadly sins. There are even more verses in the Quran which say that you should respect other religions and the ‘people of the book‘ who include Christians and Jews: ‘God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just‘ [Quran 60:8]. The Quran explicitly states that the existence of people from different faiths and opinions is something that should be acknowledged and welcomed, for this is how God created and predestined humankind in this world: ‘We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So, compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed‘ [Quran 5:48]. Violence in general is against Islam; any harm against a living creature is a sin, that is why in Islam there are also certain rituals on how to slaughter an animal and which animal are allowed to be eaten and which are not. 

Second, neither Islam nor the Quran oppress women or children. Any physical or psychological harm gets penalized in the hereafter. In Islam children are entrusted to your care by God, the commission of parents is to care for their children, to protect them, to grant them access to education, to love and respect them. They are not the property of their parents or anyone else. There is also no ‘sexual inequality’ in Islam or the Quran, everything that is considered to be fulfilled is regarded to men and women equally. Women even have a higher importance in Islam, it says among other things ‘paradise lies underneath the feet of your mother‘. Most of the Islamic critics are claiming that children and women do not have any rights in Islam and this because they have this superficial knowledge of Mohammed marrying more than one woman and also marrying a nine-year old. 

But marriages at that time had a different purpose. You did not marry someone because you fell in love, not even because your parents wanted you to, they married because of societal reasons, a practice which was strengthened by the fact that all of Mohammed’s wives were divorcees or widows except his first wife. Back then in Mohammed’s time women had no rights, were treated as inferiors and were only socially accepted when they were married. It took a measure where unmarried women were murdered and punished, Mohammed took care of those women who were left alone without any man who could take care of them, one Hadith even says: ‘The best of you in character is he who is best to this wife‘. He did not marry more than once to be able to fully live out sexual needs since these multiple marriages were also bound to many rules which you could never observe in today’s life – you had to love every woman equally, you were not allowed to prefer someone over another, you could only spend the day with one women, you could not kiss wife A in the morning and sleep with wife B at night. But multiple marriages are not an ‘invention’ of Islam, if one has a look at the bible, Abraham, who is a prophet of Islam too, had also two wives [Genesis 16:6]. Still, regarding this subject one needs to take into consideration the fact that it was a different time and place, women were considered to be mature much earlier than it is usual nowadays. So, naturally the age of being able to marry or the socially accepted age for getting married varies from time to time. Even in the United States the age for getting married legally still varies from state to state. Nevertheless, Islam is the only religion that prohibits consummation of marriage with prepubescent persons [Quran 24:59; 4:6]. 

I just want to make clear that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s points about why Islam in her opinion needs a reformation have another origin – they are of cultural nature and not of a religious one. When you understand what the verses really mean, when the translation is accurate and the historic context clear, Islam does not oppress anyone, it does not force women to submit, it is against abuse of any kind and there is not such a thing like a holy war or a war in the name of God. There was not only one war that was proactively led by Islam. And the Quran does not dictate anything. At the end religion is a choice. You decide what and in whom you believe. No one can force you to believe anything. Belief happens in your heart, and if you only believe because of fear, you are lying to yourself. And I think it is disrespectful to give someone the feeling that the religion one is believing in is ‘monstrous’. There is no need for a reformation, there is a need for tolerance, a need for enlightenment, but not the way Ayaan Hirsi Ali tried to do it, in a way of showing how cultural and personal attributes influence the practice of a religion and differ around the world and how superficial knowledge, the spread of lies, hatred and intolerance leads to incomprehension and human failure. 

Bird Box – Does The Movie Deserve The Criticism?

By Jule Windeler

When I visit social networks at the moment – as for example Instagram – I cannot help but come across posts concerning the movie “Bird Box” that was released at the end of last year. “Bird Box,” a dystopian thriller set in the United States, depicts monsters that take over the planet and drive people to suicide. There is a huge hype about the movie. My friends recommended it to me and many people are posting pictures and scenes from the movie online. Whereas the thriller appears to be very successful based on viewer numbers and the attention it gets, there are just as many viewers that criticize it. While this is probably the case with every movie, simply because different people have different preferences and opinions, there is a strikingly high number of negative reviews on “Bird Box”. That is actually surprising, when considering the movie’s popularity. Personally, I really liked the movie and I believe that the negative reviews mainly result from people’s unrealistic expectations because the movie is so popular. It is pretty much advertised as the best movie of the year which is a statement that is bound to cause disappointment.
            “Bird Box” is about a young woman named Malory, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, who tries to save herself and her children from the monsters that have caused death to most of the population. Looking at the monsters makes people kill themselves, which is why the family has to travel with blindfolds on while they try to get to a safe place. Many people criticize the fact that the movie has some plot holes, such as the ongoing access to electricity despite of the apocalypse, or the fact that the monsters seem to be unable to enter any kind of building. Since these circumstances are never explained during the movie, it is a little confusing to the viewer. I agree with this argument, even though I think that these are minor discrepancies. As soon as a movie or TV-show deals with anything supernatural, there will always be small inconsistencies.
            Another aspect of the movie that is ridiculed is the names of the two children. They are both born when the monsters have already destroyed much of civilization and instead of giving them real names, Malory simply calls them “Boy” and “Girl”. It is only at the very end of the movie that she gives her children proper names. While many people seem to find the names rather ridiculous, I think that it is in fact a good way emphasize the seriousness and the dangers of the whole situation. Almost during the whole movie it is obvious that Malory does not want to get attached to her children and that her only priority is for all of them to survive. In that context the names are quite fitting because they show this lack of emotional attachment. Only when the family has reached the safe place in the end, Malory actually names her children and refers to herself as their mother. 
            I understand people’s criticism concerning these aspects of the movie. However, I do not think that they justify the amount of bad ratings “Bird Box” is getting. While reading through viewer’s comments on YouTube, I found another point that several people criticize, namely the similarities of “Bird Box” with other movies. Two examples that are mentioned repeatedly are “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “The Happening” (2008). “A Quiet Place” is about a family that has to live in absolute silence in order to avoid being killed by monsters that are attracted by noise and I can definitely see why people complain about the similarity between these two movies. On the other hand, “Bird Box” is based on a novel that already came out in 2014 – four years before “A Quiet Place” was released. “Bird Box” did not steal its plot from “A Quiet Place”. Concerning “The Happening”, the only parallel between the two movies is the occurrence of some spirit or higher power that leads people to commit suicide. Apart from that the two stories are very different. And to be fair: how many horror movies start out with a family moving into a new house? Nobody seems to have a problem with that. 
            One last thing I came across while going through reviews was a person criticizing the movie’s characters. Their complaint was that “Bird Box” has a female main character, a person of color, a homosexual man and an interracial couple who all appeared in the movie for the sole sake of minority representation. That comment left me annoyed. My point is not that every good movie needs a gay character but I still think that this kind of diverse representation in movies is important and I do not see the point in complaining about that. We have come a long way to actually have this kind of representation in recent movies and if all characters where straight, white men, people would complain just as much.
            My conclusion, then, is that “Bird Box” does not deserve the hatred and mockery it is receiving at the moment. In my opinion it is an average movie that I would recommend to people who like watching thrillers. The aspects that are criticized by viewers are all minor issues and I believe that the high expectations people had in the movie are the main reason for its negative reviews. “Bird Box” may not be the best movie ever made and I do not think that it deserves the hype it gets – but all in all it is a good movie with just as many flaws as many others. 

Easy-Peasy Recipes from the Knox-Raab Kitchen

By Melissa Knox-Raab

  • Baked Chicken #1: Buy a whole chicken. Remove packaging, cover with salt and pepper, and leave on a plate in the refrigerator for one day. When you are ready to bake it, insert one whole lemon you’ve punctured several times into the cavity. Bake at 200º in a pre-heated oven for about one hour, or until it looks crispy. A very large chicken will need more time, but if you can easily shake its leg, the bird’s done. 
  • Baked Chicken #2: Same procedure as last recipe, up to the point where you’ve left the chicken in the fridge for one day. Pour over it one small container of cream and one can of mushroom soup. Also a few mushrooms if you’re feeling ambitious. Bake same way.
  • Two-minute polenta: Put a cup of polenta in a pot. In the same cup, add the juice of one fresh lemon and a tablespoon of dried vegetable broth. Add boiling water to cup, stir, and pour over polenta. Add two more cups of boiling water. Stir with fork or whisk on low heat until the water is absorbed. Add half a cup of grated parmesan, stir, and add pepper. Enjoy! Without the parmesan, the dish is vegan. But the parmesan tastes so good. 


By Tana-Julie Drewitz

One punch 
Two shots 
Three hits 

Bone chill 
Spine tingle 
Neon lights inside. 
Emerald Streams 
Down the mountain of Virtues 

Crimson Lake 
So deep you could drown 
Life into air 
Atoms become one 
Peace at last. 


By David Kretschmann

It had been weeks since Papa told us to gather our things. Weeks since I last saw my friends back home. It had been weeks since I last saw Mama smile. She woke me up that morning as the others were getting ready to march again. Mama was growing leaner with every day but she refused to eat before Papa and I had our fill. Papa told her every night to eat some more, but she is worried that our supplies will run low before we reach the end of our journey. He said that we were close to the end, he had been saying it for weeks now, despite all our setbacks he still put on an optimistic facade but I knew how to tell when he was lying.

            The police only let some of us proceed, far more had to wait for them the bureaucrats to clear them, bureaucrats are villains, Papa told us, but we could not stop and wait for them. I wondered why the police made the others wait, even though we all came from the same place. Why were we allowed to proceed and the others not? A lot of the children had to stay behind with their parents. I was the youngest of our group now.

            Walking had become more and more strenuous with every day and our rests had become shorter as well. Papa was walking far ahead of us with the other men, who were deciding where to go next. We were walking through an arid desert, whose oldest cacti did not even remember the sound of rain. The group did not stop that day even though one of the women fainted, her family stayed with her while Mama urged me to keep up with the others.

            The sun was at its highest when we came to a stop because of barbed wire. Papa and the other men began to clear the barbed wire while we rested. We put up a few of the tents to escape the sun although the men were far worse off because they had to work hard to cut through the wire in the scorching sun. One of the wires had snapped when Papa cut it and ripped a large piece of skin off his chest. He continued to push the barbed wire out of the way after Mama stopped his bleeding.

            The sun was setting when we all made our way through the barbed wire. The path which the men had cleared was wide enough for me to walk by Mama’s side through most of the rows of the razor wire but at towards the end we had to move through it in single file.

            What happened next was too quick and confusing for me to understand. Papa and the men were kneeling on the ground while police in bulletproof vests pointed their rifles at them. These were not the dirty used rifles we had seen at home, these rifles looked scarier, all black and clean, pointing at Papa who kneeled on the ground motionless. The women behind me began to mumble and some even cried while another policeman in a bulletproof vest with a shiny rifle pointed right at Mama ordered us to move to the side with the others. We knelt there until the sun had set and the desert grew cold. We would have set our tents up long ago, if the ICE agents had not held us at gunpoint all night. I could not even see Papa any more now that the only light was coming from the flashlights that were attached to automatic rifles.

            It was probably two hours past midnight when the policemen started to move us into their trucks. One of the bulletproof ICE men had started to push me to a different truck than the one my mother was being led to. It was then when she started to yell at the policemen, she yelled “Don’t separate me from my daughter!” in her perfect English, which was better than mine and Papa’s by far. When the policemen ordered her to enter the truck she started to push against them, in order to get to me. She did not push for long. As the policemen she pushed tried to hold his ground another moved in and swung the butt of his rifle in her face. The policeman that was pushing me now picked me up without any effort and placed me in the truck. I was alone.

            I can not remember how long I sat in the truck in silence, how long I cried for before I finally fell asleep. I was too exhausted to stay awake all the way to the camp. When they woke me up it was already morning. The fences surrounding the camp welcomed me into my new home with their familiar topping of barbed wire which made me wonder about its true purpose in this place. The same policeman that had lifted me into the truck now lifted me out of the truck before pushing me through the gates of the camp. Once inside the armed guards asked me for my name for the first time. They asked how old I was and took my ID card which proved that I was 12. Then they made me change my clothes for one of their jumpsuits and led me to a giant tent. The children in the tents were as meagre as my mother towards the end of our march, the youngest of the children got up to take a good look at me but some of them just laid on their beds and did not acknowledge the new-comer in any way.

            The guards left the tent after they assigned me my bed. A girl about my age approached me from the next bed over and introduced herself: “Hey, I’m Maria. What’s your name?” her voice was so soft that it was struggling to break the oppressing silence that held the tent in its grip. Maria had crossed the border two weeks ago with her parents, she told me. Maria had a look on her face that I had seen often enough back home: The look of despair, the face that my parents had had at the start of our journey. Maria did her best to get me to talk but I did not feel like talking. We sat on my bed and I could not help but cry. I had no idea what had happened to my mother or my father after we were separated. Papa had said we were close but did he have any idea that this would happen? Maria tried to comfort me while I was weeping but her voice became more faint with each word and even her occasional coughing was barely audible. I lost track of time but some time after my tears ran dry Maria turned to me and told me that she was in a lot of pain.            The guard that I convinced to follow me to Maria looked annoyed to see her on her bed crying. I had to translate what Maria said because her English was not as good as mine, not that it mattered much what I told the guard who just pulled a radio from his belt and asked for a paramedic to get some Aspirin. A paramedic who leisurely walked over to Maria’s bed gave her a handful of pills and began to calmly inject something into her arm. It must have been easy to find a vein in Maria’s arm since you could already see them clearly through her sickly pale skin. Both men left me alone with Maria whose whimpering had now become much quieter. Her breathing, though still faint, slowly became more regular. I sat with her for the rest of the day. Until her breathing stopped entirely. I ran. I ran to the guard that had ordered the paramedic to her before and I yelled. I was missing the words in my panic and yelled in Spanish and English for help and soon 4 of the armed guards came with me. They took Maria with them to another tent. They did not bring her back.

Watching Over You

By Jule Windeler

Melinda is in a hurry. She walks down the street without stopping to look into shop windows or at the people handing out flyers. She is on the way to pick up her son and she is late. Not because she forgot – Melinda would never forget about her son. Daniel. But until ten minutes ago, Melinda was on the phone with her best friend and she was too polite to hang up. But now she is late. While turning a corner, Melinda looks at her watch nervously. It isn’t the first time that she is late and she is probably gonna get into an argument with Daniel’s Kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Johnson can’t stand it if parents are late to pick up their children. 

Melinda is almost there now and she can already see Mrs. Johnson standing in the door frame with a stern look on her face. “I am so sorry!” Melinda says before she has even reached the door, “it won’t happen again.” Mrs. Johnson just shakes her head. “Yes, it will”, she says grumpily before she turns around and yells: “Daniel, your mom is here!” A few moments later a little boy with light brown hair comes through the door. With his one hand he is carrying a bag that looks way too big for him, while his other hand is struggling with the zipper of his jacket. Melinda rushes toward him and kisses him before pulling up the zipper and reaching for the bag. Mrs. Johnson shakes her head once more and mumbles something before walking back into the house.

On their way home Daniel tells his mother about his day. He has drawn a farm with five chickens and a leopard. He has also built a castle with Legos and has beaten his friend at chess. Melinda listens carefully to his every word and smiles at the sound of his excited voice. The look on her face says it all: She loves her son more than anything in the world. Daniel is lucky to have a mom like Melinda. As they get home Melinda starts preparing lunch while Daniel is drawing in the living room. He has the picture of his farm in front of him and adds a second leopard to it. 

The living room is kept very simple; there is a small table with three chairs. On one wall are several cupboards and beneath the window that goes down on the street is a couch. A few of Daniel’s drawings are hanging on the walls but apart from that there is almost no decoration. Only one photograph is standing on one of the cupboards and it is placed in a way that it can be seen from pretty much every point in the room. The photograph shows three people: a man and a woman who smile radiantly at the baby in the woman’s arms. 

As Melinda is done with her cooking she sits down with Daniel and they start eating in silence until Daniel’s gaze wanders to his drawing. “What do you think of the farm?” he asks his mother. Melinda smiles. “It is very beautiful. But why are there leopards on your farm, Daniel?” The child looks at his mother as if this was the simplest thing in the world. “Leopards are strong”, he says, “they protect the other animals – so nobody can hurt them.” Suddenly there are tears sparkling in Melinda’s eyes but she wipes them away quickly and Daniel doesn’t seem to notice anything. “Can we visit Daddy and show him the farm?” he asks and after a short moment of hesitation, Melinda nods. “Sure, why not.” She forces a smile and Daniel beams at her, not noticing his mother’s discomfort.

And I can’t help but feel incredibly proud. Proud of the way she is handling everything. I am proud of how hard she tries to put her own needs aside to be there for her son. Our son. And I smile as I look at Daniel who has started eating faster for he can’t wait to go to his dad to show him the drawing of the strong leopards. 

Taking in every detail of the so familiar room, my eyes find the photograph on the cupboard. Almost five years have passed since it was taken and I still remember it as if it was yesterday: Melinda and I and our newborn son; proud parents who were so excited about the change in their lives, oblivious to what the future would hold.

As soon as he has swallowed his last bite, Daniel gets up and runs to get his jacket. Melinda smiles as she pulls up the zipper and then fetches the drawing from the table. As they leave the apartment, she takes her son’s small hand in hers and together they walk down the street like every week. I know where they are going. It has been the same destination for the past three years and I know that it is never going to change. Just like the fact that I am watching over them, every minute of every day, making sure that they are okay – like the leopards in Daniel’s drawing. I watch over them as they visit my grave and I listen to their words, unseen by them – but never forgotten. 

Processing Trauma Through Art

By Julia Machtenberg 

Elaine Risley, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye(1988), is a professional painter whose childhood and young adult life the novel intermittently portrays. Through the description of past events we learn that when Elaine was nine, a group of girls bullied her, at one point almost letting her freeze to death. The traumatic impact of these events is hinted at when the maturing Elaine claims to not recall just how damaging her relationship to the other girls was; yet, at the same time she alludes to them in her paintings. By analyzing Elaine’s approach to art, the objects she chooses to draw, as well as her interpretations of her own artworks, I will argue that painting is Elaine’s method of processing the mental pain that her childhood associates have caused her.         
            As a painter, Elaine has a curious view of the reception and function of art. For example, when visiting a gallery in preparation for an exhibition of her own paintings, she comments on galleries in general, saying that she does not “like it that this is where paintings end up, on these neutral-toned walls with the track lighting, sterilized, rendered safe and acceptable. It’s as if somebody’s been around spraying the paintings with air freshener, to kill the smell. The smell of blood on the wall” (Atwood, 100). Evidently, Elaine views paintings as expressions of strong emotions that result in the metaphorical shedding of blood. Arguably, the blood might be of the painter, i.e. a reference to the hard work it took him or her to paint the picture. But then again, the allusion to blood on the wall might also be a reference to the subjects portrayed. For example, Elaine uses her paintings of Mrs. Smeath as a means to get even with the strongly disliked mother of her childhood friend. Therefore, the metaphorical blood she alludes to might be Mrs. Smeath’s who Elaine repeatedly portrays in an unfavorable manner, one example being an image of Mrs. Smeath as “sit[ting] in front of the mirror with half her face peeling off, like the villain in a horror comic” (412). Paintings like these serve to demean Mrs. Smeath and to express Elaine’s self-proclaimed hatred of the woman in question (cf. 412). By repeatedly debasing Mrs. Smeath in this manner, Elaine metaphorically sheds the former’s blood. Thus, it is evident that for Elaine, paintings are not mere decorations, but bear a strong emotional component.     
            Another interesting comment of Elaine regarding the reception of art is voiced during her Life Drawing class. When reflecting on the development of art, she concludes that “[a]ll that remains to be done with it [i.e. art] is the memory-work” (325). On first sight, this comment seems to reflect the idea that all that art could possibly achieve has already been achieved, hence there is nothing new she or her fellow students could create. Consequently, they can only go back in time and copy what other artists have done before. However, considering Elaine’s personal history, it is possible to argue that the sole function of art for her is the subconscious expression and processing of her childhood. The fact that Elaine’s professional career as an artist only begins when she paints images from her childhood seems to validate the point that she was not able to effectively create original paintings devoid of her past life. In other words, all that remains for her to express artistically are her memories. Thus, Elaine’s attitude to art is characterized by her personal involvement with her artwork’s subject and the accompanying emotional connection.       
            The subjects she chooses to paint most directly express the personal and emotional components in Elaine’s art. For instance, she “paint[s] a wringer machine […] The wringer itself is a disturbing fleshtone pink” (394). This painting clearly recalls the thoughts of nine year-old Elaine for when she was wringing the wash, she imagines     

what would happen to her hand if it did get caught: the blood and flesh squeezing up [her] arm like a travelling bulge, the hand coming out the other side flat as a glove, white as paper. This would hurt a lot at first […] But there’s something compelling about it (145).         

Bearing this incident in mind, it seems likely that the fleshy color of the wringer that Elaine painted later was inspired by her nine year-old self’s imaginings on what a wringer would do to human flesh. Additionally, the fact that the adult Elaine describes the painted wringer’s color as “disturbing” further reflects the distressing thoughts of her nine year-old self. By depicting her childhood fears on her own terms, Elaine is able to gain control over these fears. Elaine herself comments on this process when she explains that the objects she paints           

 must be memories, but they do not have the quality of memories. They are not hazy around the edges, but sharp and clear. They arrive detached from any context; they are simply there, in isolation, […] I have no image of myself in relation to them. They are suffused with anxiety, but it’s not my own anxiety. The anxiety is the things themselves (394f.).   

In other words, Elaine knows that her paintings are inspired by her childhood, but she does not recall the distressing circumstances that surrounded the objects. She does, however, remember the distress she felt. This distress is ascribed to the objects in questions and thus externalized. As a result, Elaine is able to express the troubling emotions she had felt as a child, but the process of coping with the distressing context surrounding these images remains suppressed. Accordingly, Elaine’s subconscious works through her traumatic past by protecting Elaine’s consciousness from remembering the psychological terror her childhood friends have caused her while at the same time allowing her to express and thus cope with the disturbing emotions she felt during that time. Hence, her paintings allow Elaine to work through disquieting emotions while protecting her from contextualized memories that might be too disturbing for her to handle at the present time. In this manner, Elaine produces paintings that might appear simplistic on the surface, but are characterized by their emotional link to Elaine’s past.           
            Lastly, as Elaine grows older, her understanding of her own paintings evolves. This development serves to illustrate Elaine’s ongoing process of coming to terms with her painful childhood experiences. This process is most clearly illustrated when she reexamines her paintings of Mrs. Smeath for Elaine realizes that           

these pictures are not only mockery, not only desecration. I put light into them too. Each pallid leg, each steel-rimmed eye, is there as it was, as plain as bread. I have said, Look. I have said, I see. It’s the eyes I look at now, I used to think they were self-righteous eyes, piggy and smug inside their wire-frames: and they are. But they are also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty. The eyes of someone for whom God was a sadistic old man; the eyes of a small-town threadbare decency. Mrs. Smeath was a transplant to the city, from somewhere a lot smaller. A displaced person; as I was (477).

This quotation demonstrates that the older Elaine remains repelled by Mrs. Smeath’s appearance and character. Nevertheless, she is finally able to see beyond the hated surface and in this manner recognizes Mrs. Smeath’s own suffering and humanity. Even more, by likening Mrs. Smeath’s position to her own, Elaine is able to regard Mrs. Smeath as an equal human being, and thus needs not be haunted by Mrs. Smeath’s judgment of her childhood self anymore (cf. 359). Consequently, Elaine’s paintings serve not only as a coping method for her traumatic childhood experiences, but eventually enable her to overcome them, too.     
            In conclusion it can be said that Elaine’s understanding of art as closely linked to human emotions and memory foregrounds her choices of her subjects. In turn, by actually drawing the thus selected subjects Elaine is able to face traumatic memories that her consciousness suppresses. In this manner, she is able to cope with the troubling memories in a way that does not further upset her but that enables her to revise and work through said memories in a bearable way. Therefore, instead of letting her oppressed memories overshadow her life, Elaine is able to process and even come to terms with them by means of her art.          

Work Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Virago Press, 2009.  

“Gangsta” Rap: Songs about Quintessential American Values

By Fabian Großeloser

The persistence of mythical staples in defining the character of a people, the related narratological tropes, seem ever present in the cultural output of American civilization. Hollywood movies, folk songs and works of visual art making use of these elements are known the world over and are still being produced to this day. Contemporary story-telling basics like the underdog story and the rags-to-riches narrative have their roots in the harsh living conditions of the early days of colonialization and the consequent focus on self-reliance and hard work that so heavily defined the day to day existence of early American settlers. 

            One often thinks of movies and literature when considering such cultural reflection. However, another medium in which it is just as easy to find cultural and societal markers is music. While the field of music is highly diverse, it can serve as a strong indicator of its creator’s values and sensibilities as well. This goes beyond the aforementioned long-lasting mythological influences and often extends to at the time current phenomena as well, be it the change of popular sensibilities in the era of romanticism, the escapism of early 20thcentury American melodrama or the culture of rebellion and resistance of the 60’s and 70’s. One particularly recent genre that serves as a good example of both types of cultural influence and reflectivity is that of “Gangsta rap”.

            Gaining mainstream attention in the 1980’s due to the success of artists like Ice-T and the group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitude), Gangsta rap is a highly controversial music genre. Its songs usually feature lyrics endorsing violence against law enforcement, substance abuse and sexism. While such abrasiveness might seem shocking at first, when one considers the cultural circumstances surrounding the genre’s origin, its emergence becomes much more understandable. Furthermore, when more closely examining some of genre’s more prominent works and artists, it becomes clear that Gangsta rap is a genre of music that is heavily influenced by and permeated with core American cultural ideals and values, some of which date back to the colonial period. Gangsta rap songs employ standard American themes such as the importance of self-reliance, a flagrantly exaggerated boasting, like that employed by folk heroes, distrust of authority, vigilante or frontier justice, and the concept first articulated by Robert Warshow of the gangster as a tragic hero.

            The idea of achieving success through one’s own hard work is a core aspect of the American Dream. This is a common theme of many Gangsta rap songs, in which the singer usually refers to the humble circumstances of their origin (usually the “hood”) and then boasts about his self-achieved success. In his song X Gon’ Give It to Ya (2003), rapper Earl “DMX” Simmons emphasizes the struggle associated with his success. Referring to the rap business, he claims “It’s not a fucking game” near the beginning of the song, immediately implying the hard work necessary to become successful as a rapper. Later in the song he goes on to claim “Ain’t never gave nothing to me / But every time I turn around / Cats got they hands out wanting / something from me”, which refers to his self-made nature, claiming that nobody helped him get where he is today. Another good example of this element in a Gangsta rap song can be found in Curtis James “50 Cent” Jackson III’s song In Da Club(2003). The song’s bridge consists of the following: “My flow, my show brought me the dough / That bought me all my fancy things / My crib, my cars, my pools, my jewels / Look, nigga, I done came up and I ain’t changed”. This passage also encapsulates multiple facets of the idea of the self-made man. In the first three of these lines, Jackson states that he gained considerable material success due to his skill as a rapper and then continues to claim that this has not changed him, implying that he is still loyal to his roots. This is then later compounded in verse two, where he goes on to call out his detractors as merely jealous of his success: “I’m that cat by the bar toastin’ to the good life / You that faggot-ass nigga tryin’ to pull me back, right?”. This focus on personal success achieved on one’s own is typical of the from-dishwasher-to-millionaire mentality of the American dream. Through their own talents and prowess have these two artists, according to these songs, made it in the rap business, the struggle of which is emphasized by Simmon’s song, the success by Jackson’s. 

            The use of boasting about one’s ability to emphasize and rationalize success is a narratological device that has been used since early colonial times. Tall Tales, such as the stories of Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and other similar characters frequently feature their protagonists boasting about their skills and deeds. While these Tall Tales are usually exaggerated to fantastical and often comical degrees, their use of boating is comparable to that of Gangsta rappers like Jackson. Both use it to emphasize that the only thing that helped them overcome their adversity is their own skill and wit, not any higher power. This is an essential part of the American frontier mindset, which saw unlikely heroes rising to the occasion without outside help. And while such exuberant ambition and drive are certainly prominent traits of the frontier which can be found in Gangsta rap, it is not the only one. 

One of the main reasons for the considerable amount of controversy that the genre of Gangsta rap attracted in the 1980’s and 1990’s was its often very aggressive lyrics, endorsing violence, especially against law enforcement. Not only is law-enforcement generally mistrusted in Gangsta rap songs, it is often treated with malice and cast in the role of an antagonist. One very explicit example of this theme is the rap group N.W.A.’s appropriately titled protest song Fuck Tha Police (1988). Before even looking at the song’s lyrics in detail, one should consider its narrative framing. 

            Before the song proper begins, the intro emulates the beginning of a court case, specifically “the case of N.W.A. versus the Police Department”. In it, Andre Romelle “Dr. Dre” Young plays a judge who, using copious amounts of slang and cuss words, introduces all the group’s rappers and orders them to speak as though they are witnesses in court. This at first humorous seeming framing device carries much symbolic significance. By staging their own musical mock trial, N.W.A. clearly states that they see conventional judicial procedures as inadequate to enforce justice. They also make a mockery out of the very law enforcement they oppose so much.

            Almost every verse of the song is filled with references to violence against police officers. While shocking on the surface, the rappers do justify their actions by painting police officers to be violent, corrupt and bloodthirsty criminals themselves, serving as the justification for their described acts of frontier justice. This aspect of the song has gained new relevance in recent years with the multiple cases, especially in regards to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is succinctly summarized in the following series of verses, sung by Lorenzo Jerald “MC Ren” Patterson: “Reading my rights and shit, it’s all junk / Pulling out a silly club, so you stand / With a fake-ass badge and a gun in your hand”. These lines show that the members of N.W.A. do not respect the laws that are being enforced and consider them unfair and that they do not respect the police’s conventional symbols of authority. The law as it is being enforced is inadequate to protect the group against the real criminals, who are police officers. 

            While this hatred of police officers is obviously a reaction to the, to this day, persisting problem of racism by white police officers in the US, distrusting authority and needing to take justice into one’s own hands is a very typical trait of American heroes. The very attainment of independence from England, which was considered an unjust higher power that did not deserve its status and was fond of abusing it, was accomplished through war, an act of violence. This helped the idea of justice through violence and rebellion enter the country’s consciousness and cultural output, which is evident even in the US’s national anthem, which is a war song that mentions the aftermath of battle and rockets as weapons of war. Frontier heroes usually solved their problems using violence and without being able to enlist the help of any form of law enforcement because doing it this way was reflective of the harsh and often unregulated frontier lifestyle. Later, heroic Wild-West outlaws gained mainstream attention to a point where their impact is still perceivable in popular culture to this day. Mainstream Hollywood is filled with action heroes who must take matters into their own hands, usually by killing their enemies themselves. Considering that the majority of Gangsta rappers are African American, an ethnic group that has experienced heavy discrimination by law enforcement, the reason for this trope’s predominance becomes clear. Because the very people who are supposed to protect their livelihood and wellbeing are those who endanger it, Gangsta rappers see themselves forced to do it themselves, using the same means their perceived oppressors do. This idea of opposition to cultural norms and standards through elicit means is another staple of the American character, which is exemplified by the character type that served as the namesake for Gangsta rappers: The gangster.

            The gangster is a contemporary form of the classic outlaw, a tragic anti-hero who makes a living through illicit means, solves his problems without the help of authorities in violent ways and, while essentially a self-made man in terms of his criminal career, is tied to others by family or ethnicity. Originally, this character was stereotypically associated with the Italian Mafia, but since the 1970’s, a new, modern form of usually African American Gangsta character has emerged, most notably in rap music. Although the Gangsta is a re-contextualization of the classic gangster as described by Robert Warshow, there are similarities to be found between the two, which tie them together as an essential part of the American psyche. While some of the traits of Warshow’s gangster were already discussed in this essay, namely his self-reliance in his quest for success and outlaw-approach to problem solving, he is a much more complex character than a mere criminal.

            Warshaw describes the gangster as a “man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge” (583). This sentiment is very applicable to the Gangsta rapper. Many of them often mention cities or city-associated locations such as the proverbial “hood” in their songs. The “City’s language” in the Gangsta rapper’s case could refer to the specific type of slang that is used within their usually city-based scene and finds its way into their songs. All three of the previously mentioned songs contain numerous examples of this, such as gatfor gun, bubfor champagne, Xfor ecstasy, cribfor house or apartment and the almost universal use of the derogatory term nigga when referring not just to others but to oneself. The latter can also be considered a form of continued African American emancipation, as it represents a minority group claiming a term as their own which was originally intended as a tool of abuse against them, showing an implicit sense of racial community and unity against a common enemy: The white man.

            Another quintessential aspect of the gangster according to Warshow is the idea that “one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing” (585) because otherwise all that is left for one is death. The path of every gangster is one of trying to assert oneself in the struggle for success, which “automatically arouses hatred” (Warshow 585). In the context of the Gangsta rapper, this concept is very much relevant as murders within the scene are still tragically common, with cases occurring as recently as June 2018, when rappers Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart and Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo “XXXTenacion” Onfroy were shot and killed. The dangerous and violent nature of this lifestyle is often referenced in Gangsta rap songs, one notable example being Jackson’s “Many Men (Wish Death)” (2003). The song is based on a real-life incident in which Jackson was shot nine times at close range. In this song, Jackson refers to many Gangsta rap tropes, some of which were already discussed in this essay, like distrusting authorities (“Crooked-ass crackers will give my black-ass a hundred years”), boasting about one’s achievements (“I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned”) and taking justice into one’s own hands (“’Til I bust a clip in your face, pussy, this beef ain’t over”). However, one of the most interesting lines of this song is the following: “I’m like Paulie in Goodfellas, you can call me the Don”. This line, a reference to the 1990 gangster film Goodfellas, shows that there is a clear awareness of the link between the classic gangster and the Gangsta rapper, and consequently between the Gangsta rapper and the American character. 

            There are many more instances of American values and ideals that can be found within Gangsta rap, including religion, equality and the embracing of innovation and technology, which will have to be excluded from this essay for the sake of brevity. However, despite having to be restricted to a relatively narrow focus, this essay provided an overview of how contemporary genres of music reference and are influenced by sometimes centuries-old tropes and conventions. In this example, ideas from a nation’s mythology and values find their way into modern music in a re-contextualize form and the persona of the Gangsta rapper as it is described in the genre’s music serves as an intentional evolution of a classic American character type.

Works Cited:

Primary sources

Jackson III, Curtis James “50 Cent”. “In Da Club.” Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Shady Records, 2003

Jackson III, Curtis James “50 Cent”. “Many Men (Wish Death).” Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Shady Records, 2003

N.W.A.. “Fuck Tha Police.” Straight Outta Compton, Ruthless Records, 1988

Simmons, Earl “DMX”. “X Gon Give It to Ya.” Cradle 2 the Grave, Def Jam Records, 2002

 Secondary Sources

Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, 1948

The Sad Truth – Sometimes Fish Need Bicycles

By Oliver Otte

It was the American lawyer, feminist and civil rights advocate Florynce Kennedy who said,“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. In other words, women do not depend on men. Anything but! What this funny quotation conveys is that women are independent and that they should feel this independence in their hearts.

            I was amused when I quite accidentally saw this quotation, as I am just working on a presentation about the role of female authors in German literature during the last centuries. The focus of this presentation is on the value of literature written by female authors, which was often treated as inferior to literature written by male authors. Therefore, it is not surprising that my first thought regarding this quotation was: in the former centuries, even open-minded people might have called this a desirable but utopian remark. For instance, even during the enlightenment, a time in which the idea of self-responsibility, thinking for oneself as well as the autonomy of the individual was advanced, women were not allowed to publish literature on their own. Not to mention that there was no way for them to do so. Hence, the first German female author of a novel, Sophie von La Roche, gave her enormous successful novel “Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim” (1771) to the well-known author Christoph Martin Wieland who published it for her but initially without revealing her name.

            Although La Roche’s novel was so successful that society was no longer able to ignore German women’s literary ambitions, literature written by women was for a long time judged as deficient and dilettantish and became characterized as “women’s writing” or “women’s literature”. The dependence of educated women on the good will of men during the 18thand even 19thcentury was so extensive that in literary lounges, places in which people met to read and talk about literature, women were often not allowed. Instead women were told to stay home, maintain the household, look after the children and meet with as well as cater to their men’s wishes. This at that time common point of view regarding the gender relation becomes extremely obvious when the famous German classical author Johann Gottfried Herder cites the Arabian saying, “Eine Henne, die krähet, und eine Frau, die gelehrt ist, sind böse Omen. Man schneide beiden den Hals ab.” (A crowing hen and an educated women are bad omens. One should cut their throats.). By using this saying in a letter to his fiancee, he claims that educated women are as unnatural as a crowing hen. Obviously, Herder is afraid that something bad will occur if women’s education progresses. For sure, he does not want to threaten his fiancee with violence when using this quotation. This would be overstated. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that he is not joking when using this words. Instead, he employs this saying in order to deduce that women should avoid (high) literature.

            To end the trip to the past for now, I would like to focus on the role of female authors nowadays. The necessary question at this place seems to be: Has the approach to writings of German female authors changed during the last centuries? The simple answer is that an imbalance between male and female authors remains. However, especially German pupils might at this point object that this cannot be true, as they have to read poems of German poetesses like Annette von Droste-Hülshoff or Ulla Hahn during their way to pass the A level. That cannot be denied. Nonetheless, there is a difference between contents simply discussed in school and those which are obligatory to pass the A level. In other words, neither writings of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff nor of Ulla Hahn are treated as mandatory writings to pass the A level. Instead one still has to read the male authors Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Fontane, Hoffmann and so on. 

            Here is just a simple impression for everyone who is willing to get an idea of the subject: the list of obligatory literature needed to pass the A level in 2019/2020 in the German federal state Hessen for the languages German, English, French and Spain this year consists of a total of 21 books (provided by the ministry of education); only three of them are written by female authors. Moreover, all but one of the mandatory German books, ten in number, are written by male authors. For NRW, the ministry of education reveals a similar picture. In this federal state only male authors are obligatory for the teaching subject German. I suppose that these figures speak for themselves.   Nonetheless, I want to use this numbers to finally take a stand. So, what can be deduced from this numbers? The answer to this question is as simple as it could be: an imbalance between male and female authors remains. Accordingly, although times change, specific atavistic mental heritages seem to be resistant and withstand the ravages of time. Now, what does this mean for us as recipients of literature? Should we aim at establishing something similar to the female quota as it is employed in the economic sector? In my assessment, this would be no solution, as this way to handle the lack of balance would inevitably go hand in hand with other negative aspects, which could be approached elsewhere. Instead, we have to be conscious of the fact that a process that endures for centuries cannot be stopped or changed in the blink of an eye.

            To conclude, I am convinced that the solution could simply be to reflect about what you are confronted with, to remain open and first and foremost never dread to ask questions that might bring the norm into question. If we keep this in mind, I am sure that this will not only affect our life but also our surrounding. And in the end there might come a time when fish no longer need bicycles.