Sexism isn’t an imported product

January 11, 2016

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, including with a demonstration against both sexism and racism in Cologne on January 5.

Silke Stöckle and Marion Wegscheider explain the stakes in this debate, in an article for the Marx21 website in Germany and translated into English by Kate Davison and published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

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 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 sexualized 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 marginalized--as in Cologne, where victims have had the pleasure of being schooled by local politicians about "rules of behavior for mass gatherings," as though the victims, in the face of their determined assaulters, had the possibility to negotiate their way out of harm.

A refugee solidarity march in Hamburg, Germany
A refugee solidarity march in Hamburg, Germany (Rasande Tyskar)

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 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 instrumentalized 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, and about the 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, speaks volumes.

The feminist Alice Schwarzer, who has long sympathized with the conservative milieu and has even expressed "understanding" for the core ideas of the racist PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization 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: the argumentative groundwork has already been laid. Neo-Nazis, Pro NRW [a right-wing party in North Rhine-Westphalia] and the AfD [the far-right Alternative for Germany] 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), organizes 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 [Christian Social Union], which has 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.

THE FACT that the recent attacks occurred specifically in Cologne makes instantly clear the advanced polarization of German society: the cathedral city is widely regarded as a liberal metropolis. Yet just one year ago, that city witnessed a march of 4,000 HOGESA [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 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 March 6 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.

First published in German at Marx 21; translated by Kate Davison and published in English at rs21.

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