Dozens of women were sexually harassed on New Year’s Eve in Germany. But rather than connecting the events to everyday sexist violence in Germany, the political and media establishments have focused on the nationalities of the alleged perpetrators argue Silke Stöckle and Marion Wegscheider. Originally published in German by marx21, translated into English by Kate Davison.
The NYE festivities in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities witnessed a high number of sexual attacks on women, and in at least one case, a rape. It is disturbing that this could happen, and outrageous that the authorities in the first instance failed to take victims’ reports seriously.
Sexual violence against women in Germany is in general a large and indeed a long-existing problem: women are commonly and frequently sexually harassed at large festivals, at the Oktoberfest in Munich or during the Carnival in Cologne and other cities. According to a new study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, one in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence. One in four women – irrespective of education level or socio-economic status – is exposed to domestic violence. The perpetrators are almost always men, among whom no significant distinction according to religion, background, educational level or social status exists.
In other words, every day there are more than enough reasons for a society-wide outcry over sexism and sexualised violence in Germany. Both phenomena are closely connected to the dominant image of women. Accordingly, sexual assaults on women are all too often not taken seriously, and are at first marginalised – as in Cologne, where victims have had the pleasure of being schooled by local politicians about “rules of behaviour for mass gatherings”, as though the victims, in the face of their determined assaulters, had the possibility to negotiate their way out of harm.
Women are continually portrayed as sexual objects in films, advertising and mass media. But more than this, women’s oppression is structurally anchored in our society, evidenced by differences in pay, employment opportunities or dominant role models. There is no equality here, despite frequent public proclamations to the contrary.
Politicians and media stoke anti-Muslim racism
Rather than connecting the events in Cologne and Hamburg to the everyday sexist violence faced by women in Germany, politicians and the media establishment have, from the moment the events occurred, focused above all on the background of the alleged perpetrators, and on questions of public security. Where sexual molestation is acknowledged as a structural manifestation at all, it is only ever in relation to the “culture” in the supposed countries of origin of the perpetrators. In this way, the debate about the attacks has been instrumentalised from the get-go and, in line with a classic racist line of argument, Muslims or refugees have been stereotyped en masse.
Mainstream media and politicians are in any case stoking pre-existing anti-Muslim racism and further strengthening the smear campaign against refugees: the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, has stated that criminal, foreign offenders must be deported. And on the broadcasting network Sat1’s breakfast show, we hear the demand to “defend our values, way of life and beliefs” against “Muslim men”. Meanwhile, the relative silence about the vastly numerous male bystanders in the crowd speaks volumes, as does thatas well as over a hundred police officers present at the scene who did nothing to intervene in order to protect the women victims, despite the fact that there was even an undercover policewoman among them, is speaking volumes.
A field day for the right
The feminist Alice Schwarzer, who has long sympathised with the conservative milieu and has even expressed “understanding” for the core ideas of the racist PEGIDA movement, is singing the same tune when she speaks of a misguided tolerance towards Muslim men, connecting the issue to terror and demanding compulsory integration for migrants.
For the right, the public debate is ripe for the pickings: the argumentative groundwork has already been laid. Neo-Nazis, ProNRW and the AfD have unanimously demanded that Germany stop all refugee intake in order to protect “our women”. On social networks, street actions including those aimed at inflicting bodily harm against “foreign” men have been advertised.
And yet, women must protect themselves from exactly these parties and groups, who for their part propagate or explicitly demand deeply misogynist social roles and structures for women. The AfD, increasingly a collecting ground for Nazis, fights to defend the heterosexual family as the only norm, rejects same-sex marriage, and positions women in the classic motherhood role. Additionally, the group wants to see further restrictions on paragraph 218 (making access to pregnancy terminations even harder), organises campaigns against feminism and minimum quotas of women in public life – yet in the same hypocritical breath, claims that equality has already been reached. Even the more moderate conservative party, the CSU, which has this week postulated that “Whoever cannot accept respect for women [as a social norm], cannot have a place here in Germany among our society”, has wrapped itself in lies – see for example the way the CSU voted on the issue of rape in marriage in the not-too-distant past.
Fight against racism and sexism
The fact that the recent attacks occurred specifically in Cologne makes instantly clear the advanced polarisation of German society: the cathedral city is widely regarded as a liberal metropole. Yet just one year ago, that city witnessed a march of 4,000 HOGESA supporters.
Not least for this reason: the sexual attacks of NYE in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities must be taken seriously and the perpetrators punished. We must all – as was done on 5 January before the Cologne cathedral – collectively take to the streets against sexism and racism. Furthermore, we should demand of the media and the political parties that they take action against the ever-stronger right-wing groups, instead of supporting them with untenable arguments. The next central possibility to take to the streets against the anti-feminist AfD will be the Frauenkampftag on 6 March in Berlin.
As far as the broader German left goes, there must be absolute clarity that women’s oppression in Germany is structurally determined and that in the struggle for women’s rights, we can in no way allow ourselves to be divided by racism – we must confront both sexism and racism with equal determination.