Kübra Gümüşay: The Power of Small Stories
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this woman believes personal stories can stem the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Kübra Gümüşay was 21 when she got her first death threat. As a German Muslim journalist writing about Islamophobia and sexism, she has learned that harassment comes with the job.
A European firestorm has been brewing in recent years over Muslim immigration in countries like France and Germany, where some feel that Muslim immigrants refuse to integrate into their adopted nations’ societies. Some say they emphasize their differences in public too much — hijab-wearing women especially — and tax the social systems more than non-immigrants.
I suddenly was expected to defend my religion and the millions of people who practice it.
— Kübra Gümüşay
The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Kübra is Germany’s first hijab-wearing columnist, and she’s looking to stem the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment by challenging misconceptions. She writes for several publications like Die Zeit, Die Tageszeitung (Taz) and Der Freitag and has become a leading voice for a young generation of Turkish Germans determined to challenge social stereotypes.
This is no easy task in a country where racism is particularly strong against Turkish immigrants, who make up Germany’s largest ethnic minority — about 2.7 million strong. Just over a third of Germans reportedly support prohibiting the immigration of Muslims, and the rate of unemployment among Germans of immigrant descent is higher than those with non-immigrant backgrounds — 5.6 percent versus 3.1 percent.
Kübra also wants to help others express themselves and has launched a social media campaign on Twitter under the hashtag #SchauHin for Germans to discuss the racism they encounter on a daily basis.
I would read the newspaper or political magazines and think … Nobody is telling my story.
— Kübra Gümüşay
It’s been four years since Kübra received that first death threat — from a racist who wanted to explain why he was more German than she, along with details on how he would like to kill her. Sitting in a coffee shop in Oxford, England — where she currently lives — the 25-year-old reflects on how the experience highlights the power of storytelling.
“After I published a story about my wedding, he wrote again, saying he realized I was ‘just another human being,’” Kübra says. “The man ended up apologizing!” she adds with a satisfied smile.
This is exactly the message Kübra hopes to share with others. By telling stories about everyday life, she’s aiming to break down the stereotypes of migrants, women and Muslims. If others can relate to the stories, the walls of discrimination will fall, she believes.
Growing up in Hamburg, Kübra first encountered Islamophobia when she was 12, right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. “I suddenly was expected to defend my religion and the millions of people who practice it, which is crazy because I was just a kid.”
She began noticing how migrants and Muslims were featured in the media — often with images of angry faces splashed on magazine covers — without sharing their perspective. “I would read the newspaper or political magazines and think, this is not true! Nobody is telling my story.”
Refusing to stay silent, Kübra joined the board of Young Journalists Association in Hamburg at age 16 and soon became the editor of youth magazine Freihafen.
In 2008, she launched her blog, “A Dictionary of Foreign Words,” and started working for several newspapers and magazines. Three years later, she was offered her dream job: writing a biweekly column called “Das Tuch” (The Cloth) in the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung.
“I was terrified,” she admits. “My editor said, ‘Write about you,’ but I only heard, ‘Write for the entire Muslim community.’”
Kübra’s stories focus on her personal interactions with people, whether it’s a transvestite in Turkey or a friend in Germany. What she’s found is that stereotypes run rampant, and her perspectives are filling a void in German media.
Her message is also resonating with fellow Turkish immigrants, whether they’re Muslim, religious or not. ”What I really like about Kübra is her eloquent way of writing and talking about day-to-day discrimination of immigrants, women and Muslims,” says Shebnem Klink-Zeren, a second-generation German of Turkish descent.
From a journalistic point of view, Kübra’s articles are far from objective, but she believes remaining neutral is impossible. “The world you see is your world,” she argues. “A room changes the moment you walk into it.” Her biased but honest pieces have made her a popular media presence, and she’s become a familiar face on television shows including Maybritt Illner and Bauerfeind and conferences like Re:Publica and TED.
Last year, Kübra put her column on hold and began working as a social media adviser in Oxford for Saïd Business School, where her husband works as an academic. She also launched the #SchauHin campaign to showcase the extent of everyday racism experienced by others in Germany. Kübra continues to work as a contributing writer for Taz, Die Zeit and Der Freitag, but says she now feels the desire to create spaces for others to tell their stories because “it is a great relief to know your own experiences are shared by many.”
As a public voice, Kübra opens herself to plenty of criticism. Some have gone so far as to accuse her of playing the victim, like Thilo Sarrazin, a politician and author of Germany Is Doing Away With Itself. “If you wear a head scarf, you should not be surprised if you are regarded by your environment as something separate. It’s your choice,” he said to her during a BBC radio debate in 2011.
She has also taken heat from those who say wearing a headscarf and calling yourself a feminist is incongruous. Alice Schwarzer, a prominent German feminist, for instance, considers the hijab a “flag and symbol of Islamists.”
But beneath Kübra’s controversial attire, there’s a thick skin. “All these comments and friction happen because there is change. It’s like giving birth. You go through awful pain, but I think it will lead to a more tolerant society.”
In January, she was named Ambassador for Equality by Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Agency, and her next objective is to take the #SchauHin campaign to the masses by organizing “salons” where people can share their views. She then hopes to compile a book of people’s accounts.
Prejudices run deep, but Kübra’s refreshing tone and determination might be what it takes to cut through the noise and advance the discourse on race, religion and gender in Germany.
“Writing about this subject will be my job for as long as it’s needed,” she says. “So my dream is to become unemployed.”