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Berlin’s top chicks: Movers and shakers

Whether they promote good food, gender equality or a surveillance-free state, these six women know how to cause a stir.

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Clockwise from top left: Cindy aus Marzahn,Bascha Mika, Anne Roth, Sineb El Masrar, Mona Rübsamen, Sarah Wiener

Whether they promote good food, gender equality or a surveillance-free state, these six women know how to cause a stir.


Overweight, Ossi, jobless: Ilka Bessin’s chances of making it big were pretty much nil. Yet her alter ego ‘Cindy aus Marzahn’ played this losing hand for laughs and made her into one of Germany’s biggest comedians. The 39-year-old has hosted her own TV show, recorded CDs and toured the entire country, assuring that she’ll probably never have to go on Hartz IV again. But she’ll keep on giving a voice to those left out of the reunified Berlin upturn: this city’s welfare white trash, those who were born on the wrong side of the Wall and never made it past the Arbeitsamt.

There’s a lot of Cindy in Ilka Bessin – and there’s a lot of Ilka Bessin in Cindy. Ilka was born and raised in GDR-era Luckenwalde, a small Brandenburg town. Upon leaving school, she trained to become a cook. The fall of the Wall led to her losing her job. In 1999 she embarked on a new career – as a cruise ship hostess. The new career didn’t last long though, and four years of unemployment followed.

You could see Cindy aus Marzahn as Ilka’s revenge for the harsh humiliations life thrust upon her. Like the best comedians the world over, her inspiration is born in pain. She wasn’t just unemployed; she was unemployable. She wasn’t just single; she was unlovable. Ilka has taken all the insults anyone could ever hurl at her, spun them into comedy gold and squeezed them into ghastly pink leggings. One week before her first appearance on German television, she visited the Jobcenter to get them to finance her budding comedy career. The job counselor scoffed at her. A typical Cindy joke would run like this: “I don’t get Hartz IV – I get Hartz VI. That’s Hartz IV plus two times child benefit.”

The joke is always on Cindy. It’s not subtle humour. But you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a certain respect for Germany’s most famous welfare recipient. -Jacinta Nandi

BASCHA MIKA, journalist and polemecist

If one person can be said to have reignited the current German debate about women and work, it’s Polish-born journalist Bascha Mika. Mika spent ten years as the first women at the helm of a German national newspaper, the influential alternative leftist daily, taz. Now her book Die Feigheit der Frauen (The Cowardice of Women) blames women as accomplices for losing the gender equity battle.

The 57-year-old argues that by choosing traditional ‘female’ professions early on or leaving their well-paid jobs to raise families, German women are deceiving themselves and voluntarily submitting to traditional roles. Losing their edge and becoming socially invisible or of irrelevant influence, these women tend to compromise, leaving their rebellious youth and high qualifications behind to sip latte macchiato and rock their colorful bugaboos, accepting occasional jobs of low responsibility and high creativity.

Mika’s supporters agree that woman should shirk victimhood and stand up for themselves with competence and vigor. Critics emphasize that the book deals exclusively with privileged woman who do not have to work, so they choose not to. Low-income families, where both parents are fully employed, are not accounted for. Neither are Germany’s famously male-dominated career ladder, family-hostile working hours and Kita resources.

Ironically, the woman who champions women’s right to have both a job and a family has been tagged “misogynous” and discarded as “consciously childless”. Yet again, in a country that coined pejoratives like Rabenmutter and Latte-Macchiato-Mama, this could be seen as a moderate put-down! -Dana Kikic

ANNE ROTH, political blogger

In Germany’s male-dominated blogosphere, Anne Roth is virtually the only female voice amongst the likes of netzpolitik.org, Stefan Niggemeier and Spreeblick. Her site Annalist (annalist.noblogs.org) is frequently found in the top ten of Wikio’s ranking of Germany’s most influential political blogs.

She began blogging after her boyfriend, sociologist Andrej Holm, was arrested and held in custody in July 2007. He was accused of being part of a terrorist organisation and had been under surveillance for months when the police stormed their apartment in the middle of the night. Roth felt the urge to keep track of all the curiosities of her family’s daily life, suddenly trapped in a terror dragnet, little incidents that kept her wondering: “am I off my head or is this real?” Passersby standing under the streetlight in front of their house for hours, cell phones that took on a life of their own, computers that crashed for no apparent reason: all par for the course.

“I never wanted to become a public figure,” she says today. Yet she felt compelled to share with the public the details of being subject to the full force of state surveillance. The initial supportive comments on her blog gave Roth reassurance during the ordeal. Holm was released after a couple of weeks, and the warrant was declared unlawful.

Today, Roth blogs about topics widely related to data privacy and pretty much every political issue that makes her think, be it the debate on the Frauenquote or racist incidents at the recent Dakar Rally. Short on time, the mother of two tries to bring stories to light that you wouldn’t necessarily find in mainstream media. -Anne Lena Mösken

SARAH WIENER, catering queen

Not too long ago Sarah Wiener was waiting tables in Kreuzberg. Today the 48-year-old is the most successful woman in Germany’s catering business, with her own empire of restaurants, museum cafes, and catering firms. She’s on television every other day, running a business with over 100 employees and she’s married to a film star.

Wiener’s rise in the world of business started in an apron. This Powerfrau is still very much at home getting her hands dirty in the kitchen and is often dubbed “Diva mit Kochlöffel” (diva with a wooden spoon). As the daughter of Austrian writer Oswald Wiener and visual artist Lore Heuermann, Wiener had somewhat of an artistic, nomadic youth. So, it is little wonder that she made her way to Berlin at the age of 17, initially finding odd work in cafes and eateries around town. Her first breaks came as a caterer for film stars like Tilda Swinton, who would often recommend Wiener’s cooking to be used for film crews. Then it was restaurants, cooking schools, books, television and now, philanthropy.

Her entrepreneurial zest could see her neatly described as the Jamie Oliver of Germany and, like her British counterpart, she is now ubiquitous as a nutrition spokesperson, after creating the Sarah Wiener Foundation in 2007 to help educate children about healthy eating.

Recently, she was also prominent at the “Wir haben es satt!” demonstration in Berlin that attracted 22,000 people in January and called for a shift toward more environmentally friendly and organic farming. But the fact that the 47-year-old has hit the big time was officially confirmed either when she married actor Peter Lohmeyer after a brief courtship in 2008, or when a videogame was named after her: Das große Sarah Wiener Kochspiel (The great Sarah Wiener Cooking Game). -Nic Stone

MONA RÜBSAMEN, radio boss

No one has shaken up the Berlin radio scene – dominated by public and top-40 stations for years – more than Mona Rübsamen and Motor FM, which she founded with her business partner Markus Kühn in 2004 as Berlin’s first proper ‘indie’ station, inspired by US college radio. Having grown up in the Bavarian mountains, Mona moved to Berlin after the fall of the Wall to study and work as radio reporter. She later joined MTV and become one of its a top European managers. After seven years on the air, Motor FM is steadily expanding, first with a frequency in Stuttgart, and, since February 28, Bremen. The 39-year-old Rübsamen is developing an Independent Radio Network that reaches across the globe from China to California. -SG

SINEB EL MASRAR, magazine publisher and author

Dissatisfied with women’s magazines’ scant treatment of topics relevant to girls like her, Sineb El Masrar, the now-29-year-old daughter of Moroccans, decided to “take things into her own hands”. She cashed her savings, landed some extra dough from her parents, found several female journalists who had a history of immigration (even a German who emigrated to Gambia) and published the 10,000 copies of the first issue of Gazelle in 2006. She was 24! Published in German, it promotes integration, and shatters clichés on both sides: immigrants’ inability to cope with divorce and single motherhood and Germans’ misconstrued ideas about killings and sexual slavery among Muslims. In 2010, El Masrar’s first book Muslim Girls was published by Eichborn Verlag. -Dana Kikic