The New Year’s Eve festivities in Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities witnessed a high number of sexual attacks on women including at least one alleged rape. Outrageously, the authorities in the first instance failed to take victims’ reports seriously.
Sexual violence against women in Germany is a large and long term problem. Women are frequently sexually harassed at large festivals including the Oktoberfest in Munich and the Carnival in Cologne.
One in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence, according to a new study commissioned by the ministry of family affairs. One in four is exposed to domestic violence.
The perpetrators are almost always men, but no significant distinction according to religion, background, educational level or social status exists between them.
So there are more than enough reasons for an outcry over sexism and sexualised violence in Germany. But both phenomena are closely connected to the dominant image of women, and accordingly sexual assaults are all too often not taken seriously.
In Cologne local politicians have lectured victims about “rules of behaviour for mass gatherings”, as if they could have negotiated their way out of harm.
Women are continually portrayed as sexual objects in films, advertising and mass media. And women’s oppression is structurally anchored in our society, as shown by differences in pay, employment opportunities or dominant role models.
Politicians and the media establishment haven’t connected the events in Cologne and Hamburg to everyday sexist violence. Instead they have focused above all on the alleged perpetrators’ backgrounds and on questions of public security.
Where sexual molestation is acknowledged, it is only in relation to the “culture” in the perpetrators’ supposed countries of origin.
This has been used from the get-go, in line with a classic racist line of argument, to stereotype Muslims and refugees. Mainstream media and politicians are stoking pre-existing anti-Muslim racism and further strengthening a smear campaign against refugees.
The president of North Rhine-Westphalia region Hannelore Kraft said that foreign offenders must be deported. And the Sat1 TV network’s breakfast show featured the demand to “defend our values, way of life and beliefs” against “Muslim men”.
The relative silence about the many male bystanders and over 100 police officers present who did nothing to intervene—even with an undercover policewoman among the victims—speaks volumes.
The feminist Alice Schwarzer has long sympathised with conservatives and even expressed “understanding” for the core ideas of the racist Pegida movement. Now she is singing their tune, speaking of a misguided tolerance towards Muslim men, connecting the issue to terrorism and demanding compulsory integration for migrants
This debate has been ripe for the picking by the far right. Neo-Nazi groups and the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) demand Germany stop all refugee intake to protect “our women”. Street actions have been advertised on social media, some with calls for violence against “foreign” men.
Yet women must protect themselves from exactly these groups, which propagate or explicitly demand deeply misogynist social roles and structures for women.
The AfD is increasingly a collecting ground for Nazis. It fights to defend the heterosexual family as the only norm, rejecting same-sex marriage and putting women in the classic motherhood role.
It wants to further restrict access to abortion and organises campaigns against feminism and minimum quotas of women in public life. In the same hypocritical breath it claims that equality has already been reached.
Even the more moderate conservative party the CSU has wrapped itself in lies. It this week said that, “Whoever cannot accept respect for women cannot have a place here in Germany among our society”. The way it voted on the issue of rape in marriage in the not-too-distant past belies this.
The fact that the recent attacks occurred specifically in Cologne underlines the advanced polarisation of German society. This cathedral city is widely regarded as a liberal metropolis. Yet just one year ago it witnessed a march of 4,000 “Hooligans Against Salafists”.
Not least for this reason, the sexual attacks must be taken seriously and the perpetrators punished. We must all take to the streets against sexism and racism – as was done on 5 January before the Cologne cathedral.
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 opportunity to take to the streets against the anti-feminist AfD will be International Women’s Day march on Saturday 6 March in Berlin.
There must be absolute clarity that women’s oppression in Germany is structurally determined. 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.