“Against sexism, against racism” Cologne, January 5. Photo: Jungewelt.de.
Dozens of women were sexually harassed on New Year's Eve in Germany, but rather than connecting the events to a system that perpetuates sexist violence, the political and media establishments have focused on the nationalities of the alleged perpetrators. German leftists are challenging this twisted interpretation, demonstrating against both sexism and racism in Cologne on January 5.
Below is an abridged article by Silke Stoeckle and Marion Wegscheider that was first published at the German Marx21 website. It was translated into English by Kate Davison and published at rs21.org.uk|>.
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The New Year's Eve 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 a large and indeed a long-existing problem: women are frequently sexually harassed at large festivals and gatherings.
A new study commissioned by the federal Ministry of Family Affairs found one in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence. One in four women 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.
Sexual assaults on women are all too often not taken seriously, and are at first marginalised. In Cologne, the victims 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.
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 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 framed in line with a classic racist line of argument, with Muslims or refugees stereotyped en masse.
Mainstream media and politicians are 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 foreign criminal offenders must be deported. On a TV breakfast show, we hear demands to “defend our values, way of life and beliefs” against “Muslim men”.
Meanwhile, the relative silence about the many male bystanders in the crowd, and the more than 100 police officers at the scene who did nothing to intervene to protect the women, despite the fact that there was even an undercover policewoman among them, speaks volumes.
The feminist Alice Schwarzer, who has expressed “understanding” for the core ideas of the racist PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) movement, is singing the same tune when she speaks of a misguided tolerance toward Muslim men — connecting the issue to terror and demanding compulsory integration for migrants.
For the right, the public debate is ripe for the pickings. Neo-Nazis, Pro-NRW (a right-wing party in North Rhine-Westphalia) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (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. The group also wants further restrictions on paragraph 218 (making access to abortion even harder) and organises campaigns against feminism and minimum quotas of women in public life.
Even the more moderate conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which said 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.
The fact that the recent attacks occurred in Cologne makes clear the advanced polarisation of German society: the cathedral city is widely regarded as a liberal metropolis. Yet just one year ago, that city witnessed a march of 4000 Hooligans against Salafists supporters.
Not least for this reason, the sexual attacks of New Year's Eve in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities must be taken seriously and the perpetrators punished. We must all — as was done on January 5 — 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.
As far as the broader German left goes, 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.