“We have to stand against sexual violence and sexual abuse against women, no matter who is the perpetrator”.
That message, from the demonstration on the steps of Cologne Cathedral on Saturday 9 January (Observer, 10 January), is the exactly the right response to the assaults made on women in the city (elsewhere) on New Year’s Eve, by all accounts, by male migrants from north Africa.
Some of the demonstrators later joined another rally in the city on the same day to protest against the far right anti-Muslim movement Pegida (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”) which is making political capital out of these events. Anti-racism is also a very necessary and urgent political response in Germany, where there are alarming levels of attacks on recent migrants and refugees. In Cologne on Sunday 10 January, there were organised violent attacks by right-wing gangs on men of Pakistani, Syrian and North African origin.
Why were the two Saturday protests not brought together? We don’t know the circumstances around the organisation of the two protests, but the apparent practical inability of the left to continue defending women from sexual violence and also opposing racism, raises questions.
According to a German reader, the numbers involved in attacks on New Year's Eve have been exaggerated. Nothing like 1,000 men were involved in the attacks. It is also true that not all the assaults were sexual in nature, and the police are not just investigating migrants.
That all said, very bad sexual assaults, including rape took place and we need a very clear defence of women, that should stand whatever disgusting racist propaganda follows.
Musa Okwonga made this point well in the New Statesman (6 January), writing from the perspective of someone who has experienced racism living in Berlin:
“As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway. They thought we were rapists and perverts and other assorted forms of sex attacker the second they set eyes on us. They don’t care about the women who were attacked in Cologne and Hamburg...
“In return, I don’t care about them.... I am most concerned, by far, with the safety of the women who may now be more frightened than ever to enter public spaces. I don’t think that women have ever felt particularly comfortable walking through crowds of drunk and aggressive men at night, regardless of the race of those men. But groups of young men of North African and Arab origin, whatever their intentions, will most likely endure more trepidation from women than before... Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped?”
The same author notes that the although sexual violence against women, and the harrassment of women in public spaces, is endemic (100% of women in Paris said in a recent survey they had been harassed on trains and the Metro), these assaults were particuarly severe. That too is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The assaults in Cologne seem reminscent of the mob sexual assualts made on women in Tahir Square during the Arab spring and after. Although it is important to be cautious about making too bold claims or drawing paralells, we should remember the reports made by Egyptian feminist and anti-harassment groups who organised to defend women at the time. The assaults were in fact a resurfacing of an older phenomenon of opportunistic assaults made by men on women, which take place at large gatherings on “special occasions”.
They were also part of the messy political divisions of the Egyptian revolution.
And it was behaviour stemming from an institutionalised tolerance of sexual harassment, of male entitlement were tolerated (or worse) by governments in societies where women are unequivocally second class citizens.
North African society from European society is not just by a more pronounced from of sexist “culture” but time. Thirty or fifty years ago European women were also second class citizens and such things a rape within marriage were legally endorsed.
The answer to sexist attitudes is to challenge them and, fight them wherever you are. To fail to do that is to make yourself a neutral bystander in the struggle of women to be out of the domestic sphere, to have an education, to work, to be independent and safe.
As Musa Okwonga puts it, ”Why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past?”
Against sexual violence! Against racist attacks! Defend migrants and refugees!