My Germany: The Turkish bath manageress

Ms Fischer has been managing the hammam since 2006

Ahead of Germany's federal elections, the BBC talks to people from different backgrounds about their lives in modern Germany. In the fifth and final part of our series, we look at a unique project to help integrate Turkish women into German society.

If there is a genie for Dorothea Fischer to summon up, it may be the spirit of women's emancipation, emerging from the steam of the Turkish bath she manages in Berlin.

This, she says, is the world's only hammam for women, located in the heart of Kreuzberg, a multi-ethnic district with a large Turkish community.

While hammams in Turkey and elsewhere have separate hours or sections for men and women, any woman or girl coming to Ms Fischer's establishment knows there will never be any men. No males to check whether they are dressed appropriately or, conversely, to eye them up inappropriately.

In a place where it is normal to be naked, bathers can let fall the headscarves and other trappings that might otherwise set them apart in the street.

Over three hours, they have the opportunity to make friends of other women from all walks of life and every part of the globe, belonging to any creed or none.

It is a concept rooted in a certain idea of Berlin as a haven of tolerance.

Women's project

The difficulty of life for Germany's Turks was brought home last month when it was revealed that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl had once advocated halving their number through repatriation because they "did not integrate well".

About three million people with Turkish roots are now believed to be living in Germany, or about 3.7% of the population.

Chocolate factory women's centre

A stencil on a wall at the chocolate factory
  • Founded in 1981 when women occupied the disused building in Kreuzberg to stop its demolition
  • Envisaged as a "centre for communication, creativity and political discussion"
  • Designed as a "space that specifically addressed the interests of the women living in Kreuzberg"
  • Hammam established in 1988 as a women-only bath
  • Run as a non-profit organisation

For women from conservative Muslim families, it is difficult to meet Germans in any public space where men and women mix.

In 1981, the former chocolate factory where the hammam is located was a women's squat - apparently the first of its kind in West Berlin.

Women had occupied the factory with the dual aim of preventing its demolition and creating a refuge for those suffering discrimination such as lesbians or victims of domestic abuse.

Seven years later they opened the hammam, which claims to be not just Germany's first women-only Turkish bath but the country's first hammam per se.

It met a very practical need, Ms Fischer explains. Many Turkish women in Berlin at the time lived in flats with no proper washing facilities and appreciated the bath at what is still known as the chocolate factory.

Since then, many have found new homes with bathrooms of their own but Turkish women and girls still make up between 20% and 30% of the hammam's customers.

"We have found a lot of Turkish friends here," says Ms Fischer, who came to Berlin from Bavaria in 1981.

But how does the hammam reconcile with those Turkish fathers and husbands who might fear for their womenfolk's ideas and identity among German feminists?

Every 1 May, the bath throws open its doors to the public, men and women alike. This public relations exercise appears to work, with men even going on to buy gift vouchers.

In demand

In the internet-connected age, however, between 40% and 50% of the hammam's customers are international, many of them visitors from Nordic countries passing through Berlin.

Up to 120 women may use the hammam on a busy winter's day, according to Helga Roehle, who has been co-managing the bath with Ms Fischer since 2006.

Women without a booking have been known to queue for hours outside, pleading for admission. "Sometimes they start to cry if we don't let them in," says Ms Roehle, laughing.

Seduced by the photo gallery on the hammam's website, one might assume that this is just one more stop on the international spa and pampering trail, and perhaps for some women it is.

Yet the hammam is only the most visible part of a broader project - a non-profit women's centre which offers everything from German lessons to fitness classes, while providing all the basic information a woman new to Berlin might need.

On my first visit to the hammam (strictly outside opening hours, of course), I asked street directions of one Turkish woman, who must have been in her late 50s and spoke fluent German.

The way that her eyes lit up at the mention of the chocolate factory spoke volumes for its importance.

Additional filming by Samuel Girona

In this series, we have also looked at the student fencing fraternities out of which many of Germany's business elite emerge; the new generation of Spaniards heading to Germany for work; the desperate Libyan war refugees who end up in Berlin; and the life of an east German pensioner who has lived through four fatherlands.

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