The “Heroes” project in Berlin is designed to help boys from Muslims families to break with traditional patriarchal behavior patterns and stand up against honor being used as a means of suppression. Regina Friedrich reports

“Heroes” meeting in Berlin, Germany (photo: © Verein Strohhalm e.V.) “Imagine my sister goes out one night and something happens to her. The neighbors would find out about it and then, no matter where I go, I can kiss my honor goodbye,” says a young guy indignantly at one of the “Heroes” workshops. “You have to decide whether you are going to keep an eye on her or lock her up – she needs a life, too, you know,” counters Deniz, one of the Berlin “Heroes”. It requires a certain amount of courage to challenge the traditional concept of honor prevailing in the Turkish community.

“Being a “Hero” means you have to take risks and that in itself is quite a risky business where we live,” explains Deniz self-confidently. The 20-year-old high-school student is one of five young men working on the “Heroes” project in the Berlin district of Neukölln.

Talking about taboos

The district is a melting pot, with people coming from over 160 countries. 40 per cent of the residents are immigrant, and in the north of Neukölln as many as 80 per cent of all people under 18 are from an immigrant background. Most of them have Turkish or Arab roots and brought their traditions and values with them from their home countries. These values and traditions very often differ from those of the Germans, especially when it comes to the roles men and women should play. This is where the “Heroes” feel they have a job to do.

Members of the “Heroes” group (photo: © Verein Strohhalm e.V.) “We talk about topics that are not so pleasant, because we want to change things,” emphasizes Ahmad Mansour. He is a student of psychology and has lived in Germany for five years. He is the group leader and has been supervising Deniz, Gökay, Onur, Okcan and Turabi, along with the actor Yilmaz Atmaca, for six months.

The boys went to lectures and exhibitions and took part in discussions on such topics as codes of honour, self-determination and equality. The aim was to help them break with old ways of thinking and gather convincing arguments to be used when standing up for their sisters and girlfriends – so that they can ultimately serve as role models for their peers.

To do this they worked out a few small role plays to be used in schools or youth clubs that also get the participants involved. For example, the father is furious because the son has not been keeping an eye on the daughter; the brother hits his sister because she came home late … In this way Aki and Abdul find out what it is like to be in Asiye’s or Alima’s shoes.

A full-time job for the “Heroes”

Avni and Ufuk also took part in a workshop at their school. “A girl was beaten up because she was wearing a mini-skirt and had been out with her boyfriend late at night,” as 17-year-old Avni recalls the role play. Many of the participants were laughing and found it quite normal – probably because they had been through the same thing, 16-year-old Ufuk assumed.

Both of them agreed that boys and girls were treated differently, and Ufuk went on to say that parents trusted their sons more than they trusted their daughters. “After the role plays we had a discussion,” he continued. “There were various opinions, a lot of questions were asked and the “Heroes” answered them.”

“Heroes” awarded with diploma (photo: Strohalm e.V.) If they are prepared to listen to each other and try to understand, then that is a start at least, said Ufuk, who is quite sure he would never resort to violence. One of the teachers involved, Marianne Johannsen, would like to see more projects like this, in particular ones that would span a longer period of time.

Her students have such a weird concept of honor, she says, that it often affects their learning abilities – even the slightest form of criticism insults their honor. “The ‘Heroes’ would have a full-time job at our school,” she says. Unfortunately there is no way they could do that – they are still at school or college themselves.

Getting them to think about the problem

The idea behind “Heroes” comes from Sweden. Dagmar Riedel-Breidenstein, sociologist and head of the registered society called ‘Strohhalm’, introduced the idea to Neukölln and coordinates the project. Another sociologist, Anna Rinder von Beckerath, brought the experience she gained from a similar project in Sweden and manages the project in collaboration with the gender researcher Jenny Breidenstein. Since 2007 “Heroes” has been funded by the World Childhood Foundation.

Soon the second group of “Heroes” will have finished their training and will be ceremoniously awarded their certificates; then there will be twelve young “Heroes” between 17 and 21 in the team.

Deniz recalls the way he started. His mother told him about the project. He had a few long chats with Ahmad and Yilmaz and then slowly started to take a few other guys along. “My family and my friends are behind me on this,” he says, “and if I get the odd strange reaction, I am not bothered at all.”

He is fully aware that he cannot change the way these young guys think in a matter of a few hours, but it gives him a sense of achievement if he can at least get them thinking about the problem – even if sometimes it is only for an afternoon. This is also the reason why he is still part of the project.

Regina Friedrich

© Goethe Institute 2010

Translation: Paul McCarthy

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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