Not without my daughter
Rania Gaafar sees the legal outcome of a divorce in exile as a lifelong tragedy
The recent population pyramid debate in Germany highlights the plight not only of German fathers but of Egyptians legally resident in Germany. Divorce laws are such that it is often enough for a woman to accuse her husband of posing a threat to their children for said husband to be deprived of contact with them -- a distressing story that finds an exemplar in Seif (name changed here), 27, who has not seen his daughter Minna for many months -- a fate he shares with 80-90 per cent of divorced German fathers. On separating from his wife, who claimed he entertained plans of kidnapping and taking the little girl to Egypt, the court banned Seif from seeing Minna without any corpus delicti...
Seif had left the small Nile Delta town of Tanta 10 years ago to seek his fortunes in Germany, where he studied science as well as Islamic and Oriental Studies: "I wanted to be a successful journalist, get out and escape the narrowness of my life back home." Young as he is, Seif's life has been extremely hard since: he married the mother in question -- a Catholic German nurse five years his senior -- at age 19, and they lived in her parents house in a small town in western (industrial) Germany, where, exotic though he was for her tastes, he could easily feel alienated. According to Seif the decision was rushed both because she was scared of being abandoned by yet another lover and due to his own sense of religiosity and tradition, which made him uncomfortable living with her outside wedlock: "The residence permit was never my prime aim; I wanted to marry her because I thought I loved her, and divorce was the furthest thing from my mind." The wife's own response to Egypt was mixed: at times she felt extremely alienated; once she decided to wear hijab "to impress me", while back in Germany she only ever left the house to do shopping; it wasn't until eight years into their marriage that Seif discovered a history of depression -- all the more reason for him to resent the Germany family law, which is exposing his own daughter to the same psychological risks. "No matter how sick or uneducated the woman," he says, "in German family law she gets to decide when and if the father can see his children." Even when a husband has been able to provide medical evidence of his wife posing a threat to the children -- as in a recent, widely- publicised case of a woman who murdered her daughter out of fear of her husband taking her way, after the court neglected indubitable evidence of her psychological illness provided by said husband, thereby making the appalling mistake of denying him custody -- legal and social institutions have continued to favour the mother wholly irrespective of circumstances.
Family disputes occurred frequently, mostly due to the intervention of xenophobic in-laws who saw Seif as a foreigner and were opposed to the marriage from the start. Rows, reconciliations, moving out, moving back in: Seif left for good only last year, when Minna was aged three. "I could no longer take it. I cannot be blamed for being unable to go on living with a troubled person. I tried for seven years, and after finally enrolling in university I had already found my way." Though the mother has since desperately sought to have him back, converting to Islam in the process, everything has stood in the way of Seif seeing his daughter. "I couldn't believe the lies she told about me at court -- the exact opposite of everything I was, everything I believed in; anyone who knows me will tell you as much. I had felt just like a German until the day people started treating me as a criminal, simply because I wanted to see my daughter."
Such infamous revenge is all too well known to Vöteraufbruch, the German answer to the British "fathers 4 justice", of which Irish film star Pierce Brosnan is a member. A community in which fathers express anger and frustration with the financial and psychological consequences of divorce, Vöteraufbruch strives for publicity; they say the financial consequences alone can be ludicrously ruinous under German law. Nor is Seif unaware of what is yet to come: "In these small villages people stick together to isolate the stranger. I was even searched out on the Internet, and it wasn't her who did it -- she can't use a computer -- but friends of hers. What were they looking for there? My articles?" Indeed in a recent issue of Der Spiegel, xenophobia was listed together with "poverty and dementia" as among the most widespread conditions of German provincial life. In 10 months Seif has lost 10 kilogrammes; he has been living in transit, forced to see a psychiatrist who has yet to determine whether Seif might really kidnap his daughter. Thinking that anyone with qualifications would be able to identify his wife's illness, Seif was initially optimistic; the experience itself was far from promising. "The psychiatrist would ask me about the Danish cartoons and political events connected with the Middle East. Well, when I expressed my own difficulties in only being allowed to see my daughter in the house of my in-laws, who have publically denounced me, and that despite the fact that I was providing for both daughter and ex-wife, she said I was old enough to deal with the situation -- and that I didn't have enough insight to empathise with my wife's fears. I couldn't believe my ears." Though he was ready to hand over the right do determine where Minna should live till age 18 as well as the money in return for the simple pleasure of being able to see Minna alone, Seif will not be spared the horrors of the family courts, which will take years to resolve the issue and are unlikely to do so with any degree of fairness.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a public prosecutor said she was daily confronted with such cases, with one of the most common charges being paedophilia -- an accusation of which many German divorcees-to-be successfully convince the courts, with the help of wily lawyers who tend, as a result, to be routinely charged for impeachment. A small comfort though it may be, the German media is slowly becoming aware of the fathers' dilemma, reversing the traditional image of the unfaithful husband who abandons his wife and children for the sake of his own desires and career -- thanks in part to the famous German actor Mathieu Carrière, a Vöteraufbruch member who served two weeks in jail for protesting against the law that denied him custody of his daughter. Carrière sees the mother-biased family and divorce laws as ideologically rooted in National Socialism, and in the hyperbolic image of the mother that disastrous brand of politicising sustained. In a recent interview Carrière announced his intention to take his case to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg, where German fathers have already won similar cases, reporting that, on meeting former Minister of the Interior Otto Schily on his way into prison, he was told that it would be easier to bring peace to the Middle East than reform child custody laws in Germany. The situation is significantly worse for Muslim immigrants, since the institutions in question seem to remain under the influence of the "Betty Mahmoody" hysteria of the 1990s and contemporaneous clichés about evil, women-hating Muslim men. In fact Dr Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody -- the demonised Iranian at the centre of this scandal --has neither seen nor spoken to his daughter Mahtab for 16 years, simply because his wife chose to prevent any such contact from happening. Certainly the account of events he reveals in the 2003 Finish-German-Franco documentary, Without my Daughter -- supported by eyewitnesses, friends and family associates -- is a sobering antidote to the novel. All of which seems to support the view that it was feminism in the 1970s, combined with racial prejudice, that eventually resulted in such flawed female empowerment, disadvantaging Arab-Muslim who were to become fathers in the West. Such, at least, is the sociologists' point of view.
Professor Gerhard Amendt, director of the Institute for Gender and Generation Research at the University of Bremen, has conducted one of the largest surveys with 3,600 divorced fathers and men, and he believes that it was radical feminism that worked to divide men into good or bad alimony payers; the evil-father image was perpetuated along parallel lines, he maintains; and it is time the acute financial and psychological troubles divorce causes men are properly considered, highlighting the enormous injustice of having to provide for an imagined family in which, as "male breadwinners", they are deprived of even the most familiar functions -- including the right to see their children at will. In 80 per cent of divorce cases, the children still live with their mothers. Amendt calls for a restructuring of the family institution and an ideological rethinking through gender mainstreaming, supporting fathers' rights and demanding that lobbies like Vöteraufbruch should be state-funded. He argues against demonising the husbands and making the children victims of emotional blackmail and fear of maternal rejection if they try to maintain a healthy relationship with the father. All of which sheds poignant light on the weakening of Seif's resolve. His defiance has certainly subsided: "I feel even my own lawyers have left me down since I was stigmatised as a Middle Eastern criminal. I've lost my money, and my daughter is being indoctrinated by her mother every day." Even the hope for a new life is destroyed: when his ex-wife found out he was now engaged, she threatened to sue him for more money; and his lawyer confirmed that life would indeed be financially more difficult once he had a new partner. Seif has come to the conclusion that there is no life after divorce. What can he do but sue for character assassination, and parental deprivation? That much, at least, Seif is determined to follow through.