Demographic characteristics of the respondents coupled with stressors, coping challenges and opportunities they encountered are presented. IPV perceptions and experiences are outlined and factors that might enhance or inhibit IPV are discussed. Reactions to IPV, its’ justifications and consequences are described.
Demographics and the life of refugees in Germany
A. Demographics. Respondents were aged 21–54 years. The median stay duration was 30 months. Most women were married, had children, and lived in the city. All had some form of formal education, with half of the women having a university education. Table 1 represents the demographic characteristics of the respondents. All women were Muslim of the Sunni group.
Demographic characteristics of respondents
n/N of participants
Stay duration (in months)
Number of children
Area of residence in Syria
B. The life of refugees (stressors, coping challenges & opportunities)
For the respondents, life in Germany bore many challenges, which might have led to tension and possibly violence between couples and family members. Yet not all factors demonstrated negativity; some were seen as opportunities.
The language barrier was seen as the major obstacle. But also the different cultures, customs, and traditions were mentioned as challenging. Religion, a central aspect for the women, was seen to be a big obstacle in terms of coping and adjusting in Germany, which was completely different in terms of the social and cultural context. Some respondents (4 of 10) explained that the Muslim veil, known as the “Hijab”, stood in their way of coping and adjusting, particularly because of the German community and its (perceived) intolerance to the hijab.
I wish I can go back to Syria, to go back to my customs and my traditions and the people I know, also to go back to the way I put my hijab on. (Respondent 3, 25 years, rural).
From the side of culture and religion, really “religion” for me is the most important part. For example, in the university, I would love to have a close German friend, a girl of course. But I can’t, I feel I sense that the religion precisely, of course, because I am a wearing a Muslim head cover they are somehow repulsed. (Respondent 8, 26 years, urban).
Fear of discrimination was also mentioned.
We were also afraid of any kind of discrimination against our children and us. This has been translated into fear, stress and tension between me and my husband (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural).
Although the differences between the Syrian and German cultures are emphasised by the majority of the participants, positive experiences were also highlighted, such as the importance of human values in Germany, being equally recognised and acknowledged as individuals having emotions and opinions. Having contact with the host population and making friends helped with coping. In addition to the interaction, learning the language was reported to help create a feeling of social inclusion.
Now I feel like I am a human here in Germany, I feel I exist, that I am someone. In my school, I am treated as a human, not according to my age that I am an old woman, I am not young. I am treated like any other person in the class. Like any other young person learning in school. This gave me motivation. Made me feel like I am worth it, that I can still give and do something in my life. (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban).
Economic hardship was mentioned by few participants (2 of 10) as a stressor. Life in Germany also brought about a role shift within the family and between partners. This shift has been seen to be positive, instilling the feeling of “enhanced freedom” compared to their previous life in Syria. Having the confidence to discuss, and to have a central role in the family is considered a positive concept by the respondents.
Now … everything changed, it’s like my life flipped. I was a flower in a vase in Syria, I used to go and come from the university. But now I am the head of the house, (she laughs) no one speaks the language except for me, so everything that comes as letters I read them. My parents speak but very little…. I do everything; I am now responsible for everything (she laughs). (Respondent 9, 21 years, urban).
IPV perceptions and experiences
Emotional abuse is manifesting as shouting, yelling, shushing, hurtful words; it also includes betrayal which is considered as unspoken violence by those women. Yet, according to one respondent, emotional abuse is a “normal act” in the Syrian society.
But the emotional abuse calling her names and cursing her is so normal in our societies. For example: I have seen many of my extended family, exerting emotional abuse on their partners, ….” (Respondent 8, 26 years, urban).
Violence, my daughter, is not physical only. A human being can inflict violence on your mind and heart and soul and children, this is all abuse and violence. And for me it comes from a single source that is the father (the man) (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban).
The majority of the respondents (7 of 10) expressed seeing or experiencing abuse as physical violence through “hitting”. It can take a different degree of intensity such as hitting, kicking, brutally bruising and throwing objects.
My daughter, she is married to a man that cannot have children. He cannot have children, but she is blamed for that and he hits her… And if she dares to make one mistake, she gets hit and not any kind of hitting severe hitting… (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban).
My auntie…he used to hold her head to the sink and hit it so hard that blood goes out everywhere (Respondent 2, 35 years, urban)
Respondents mentioned the possibility that a man might ultimately kill his wife.
Almost half of the participants (4 of 10) considered physical and emotional abuse as overlapping acts.
Sexual violence represents a cultural taboo. Women felt discomfort in speaking about it. They did not admit personal experiences but rather referred to people close to them or to what they have heard.
Well my mother was sexually abused, forced to sex by my father; I used to know because I was married. I understand these things (Respondent 2, 35 years, urban)
One participant expressed that sexual violence is a man’s normal biological need, which a woman (his partner) should provide like other chores in the house.
Now if a woman knows that a man has a biological need that is persistent, I cannot really be annoyed from him and I know that Allah have created him this way, I cannot be annoyed by this. If I also know that, a man gets married only for this reason “sexual intercourse.” If I know that this is a priority in his life and I am his woman, I should obey this and should do it as I am doing cooking, eating, drinking, raising kids…if she gives him what he wants, there is no longer sexual violence (Respondent 10, 48 years, urban).
For one participant, violence emerged due to a shift in gender role and her financial independence. Economic abuse arose as she became the financial provider and her partner perceived it as a threat.
My husband was shot in Syria and he got injured […] this affected his relationship with me and with his family in general, he felt incapable of providing for me anymore and that he is not a complete man. I started working, paying for the household and this has affected him a lot and my relationship with him. He became always violent, always high tone and he was always stressed very easily. He tried to be more dominant than what he really should be. In Syria, a woman has to shut up, as you know... (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural)
Reasons: What drives and inhibits IPV?
The majority (9 of 10) expressed that women themselves are the reason for IPV. Some believed due to their “irritating” personality. Others believed due to failing to set limits from the beginning; as she keeps silent, thus she is the reason it persists.
Of course I should be fair, in reality she was also not an easy woman, she used to irritate him, and she had a strong personality. If you know that your husband is irritated and that he is tense, and you keep on … I told you, a woman forces the man to hit her either emotionally or physically. Or sometimes she used to make some mistakes and she used to get hit because of that.” (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural).
Now if he hits her, means that this is her problem. Because when a man reaches this level, he has crossed so many other lines and she allowed him to do so. Meaning that, he will do it as long as the other person is ok with him doing this… (Respondent 10, 48 years, urban).
Half of the participants believed that children were a reason behind IPV. Violence can be triggered by way of a child’s conduct or the emotional attachment she has for her children.
Or because of the children [he wanted to sleep and the children used to make noise] when he wakes up, he gets angry of the noises and hits his wife. (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural)
Almost half of the participants (4 of 10) mentioned economic hardship as a reason for IPV. Because of the financial conditions, a man may become violent. Thus, economic liability becomes a reason for accepting abuse.
…, some [men], because of the conditions they have gone through, because of the economic hardship, they have manifested violence on their families. (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban)
If my auntie thinks of divorce, she has no revenue to live from, and no one from her family can afford it. Having her and having her children with her, she is living in economic hardship. (Respondent 9, 21 years, urban)
Some participants cited “male dominance” as a reason behind IPV. Feeling the need to prove their existing as “male figures” in their households, gave men the right to exert violence on their partners.
It was as if he was trying to control his own lack of manliness, through dominating her as if he was a man, and proving so was through hitting her. (Respondent 9, 39 years, urban)
Religion was a factor to why some women (4 of 10) accepted acts of forced violent sex; religious beliefs and obedience to the male spouse emerged as a motive.
She wouldn’t understand that for example his needs for sex and him forcing her to have sex with her is just a biological need is not violence against her. And our religion forces the woman to obey her husband in this manner and she has to have sex with him as you know. (Respondent 10, 48 years, urban).
However, few participants expressed that religion could play a protective role against IPV, “teaching forgiveness” was an example.
In God’s (Allah’s) will, the relationship is really good… forgiveness has been mentioned in the Quran ... If you say I will forgive him for God, and then you will feel like its snow in your heart, your heart becomes bigger and this is a beautiful feeling. If I leave it for God things will move normally and nothing will be any more of a problem.” (Respondent 10, 48 years, urban).
If a man has a good relationship with his God he will not commit any act of abuse against his wife, but if he has no good relationship he can do whatever he wants to. (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban).
A “normal act,” four participants agreed that IPV is tolerated and acceptable by some women in their everyday life.
Some women feel that this is normal, and this is OK, this also comes from how she was raised, her culture and environment. (Respondent 8, 26 years, urban).
Lack of societal support. The Syrian society is patriarchal in nature, women have no agency and this societal concept persists, even across continents.
No one would give her the right to defend herself in her society.
Interviewer: Even in Germany?
In Germany no, but still, in her society and her actual real environment her seeking help from Germans, no one would look at her in a good way. People would say she was kind of a rebellion. (Respondent 8, 26 years, urban).
Life in Germany might bring a shift in gender role, sometimes resulting in a negative consequence on the relationship with the partner. Women might behave more freely and this was viewed negatively amongst four respondents. Freedom manifested through openness, financial and religious liberation, makes the man no longer the authority the woman looks up to.
… some women became too free, they want to remove their “hijab”. They want to control their own husband, and he should be silent, this irritated the man and he hits her, but because she is in Germany she could easily get divorced. (Respondent 3, 25 years, rural).
But despite a difficult relationship with their partner, divorce is degrading and is not accepted by the society (Syrian), hence it is feared and avoided.
The hitting, can be forgotten and it will be ok for her, it is much better than having people talking about her and saying that she is divorced.” (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural).
Betrayal in the relationship caused anger and sadness when a man desired other (German) women or chose a new life with another woman.
He got married during these same days last Ramadan and this Ramadan he got a baby… what to explain he is living his own life, regardless of my feelings, there is no more relationship to describe with him. Everything is over…. [Pause, crying] … (Respondent 1, 54 years, urban).
… These men really were not satisfied with what they had as a woman, and they have seen German women, so they slept with as many as possible and they left their own woman behind. Isn’t she a human, a person or is she just an object you leave at home and you go please yourself outside?” (Respondent 7, 39 years, urban)
Various respondents (6 of 10) expressed that the relationship became better and more positive in Germany, in terms of partner’s personality, freedom, patience, compassion, and religion.
Yes a lot (about relationships), for example like me my husband has changed, but for the best, he is now much better with me than before. (Respondent 4, 32 years, rural)
Responses to IPV: reactions, justifications, and consequences
The majority of the women communicated their reaction to IPV as negative feelings through feeling “weak/bad” and “crying/tears”.
Personally, I feel weak. I feel as a weak person, he abused me and I could not respond. It is not fear, but it is a weakness. You just give up. (Respondent 5, 24 years, urban).
Possible reactions include physical distance, either through leaving the room or house. A few respondents mentioned divorce in case violence persists. Speaking up about IPV, was mentioned by a majority of respondents as a possible reaction; demonstrated through seeking help or by self-defence.
I knew a woman, that if her husband hits her, she hits him back. (Respondent 2, 35 years, urban).
She should defend herself, she shouldn’t keep silent. She has to speak up, not physically defend herself but to seek help from anyone. (Respondent 5, 24 years, urban).
Women’s perception and tolerance of what is acceptable from a partner and can be justified varied from nothing at all to anything.
Nothing is OK, not really, it is all an abuse. Not even when it is her fault (Respondent 2, 35 years, urban).
Everything that is less than physical abuse … is ok for me and it happens with everyone and across all families. (Respondent 9, 21 years, urban)
I don’t think it is violence, my husband can beat me if I did a mistake or I irritated him. My husband has the right to hit me and to talk to me. (Respondent 3, 25 years, rural)
Respondents are well aware that IPV has major consequences on physical and mental well-being - if long lasting, leading to “degenerative well-being”.
This is also very frustrating and can destroy his wife’s personality. She might reach high level of depression and lose her confidence in this society. (Respondent 6, 23 years, urban).
Respondents emphasized that IPV has consequences on their children, it does not only affect couples. In the presence of children, the cycle of violence can become continuous, and children that have seen violence will grow to inflict and/or receive it.
She has three boys and a girl and the biggest boy is in grade seven … they saw their father hitting their mother and now they became like him, they hit their little sister as well, she is only three years old… the violence grew from them to the children. (Respondent 9, 21 years, urban).