Sexism and racism have to be challenged without bowing to the far right, who are using sexual assaults to attack refugees, argues Kaveh Yazdani
On New Year’s Eve, in a few German and other European cities, sexual assaults were perpetrated amongst hundreds of drunken immigrants. Women report that they were robbed, groped, and had their underwear torn from their bodies.
In Cologne, where incidents were most severe, 821 people have filed criminal complaints pertaining to New Year’s Eve; including some 359 women who claim being subjected to sexual assault. Three allegations of rape were also made.
Thirty suspects have been arrested so far, predominantly of North African origin (25), including 15 refugees, of whom 11 seem to have sought asylum only recently.
Anybody who respects the dignity of human beings and embraces women’s rights will be appalled by these despicable crimes.
Many facts still remain in the dark and there is hardly any footage available. How many persons were involved? Who were the perpetrators – petty criminals, gangsters or sexually frustrated and misogynist refugees? And was it a new dimension of sexual violence? There is evidence that these acts have had precedence.
“The way to the toilet alone is like running the gauntlet. Three hugs from drunken and total strangers, two smacks on my butt, a lifted skirt and a flush of beer deliberately poured into my décolleté. This is the balance sheet of a walk of merely 30 meters.”
This is a passage written by two German journalists who got harassed by white German drunkards in 2011, when they visited the “Oktoberfest” in Munich. In 2015, two women were raped and 26 sex offences were reported at the beer festival.
But, unlike the incidents at Cologne, the assaults at Oktoberfest did not cause any public outcry or official and media attention. Unlike similar incidents at mass events such as the Cologne Carnival and other festivals, the vast majority of media accounts claim that the incidents on New Year’s Eve reveal a level of sexual violence heretofore unseen in modern German history.
Some have compared the attacks to the sexual assaults that occurred during the revolts in Tahrir Square between 2011 and 2013. These onslaughts have strengthened the political right in Europe.
Although it’s still not known whether the sexual assaults at the Cologne Festival were spontaneous or organised, Islamophobes like the well-known "feminist" Alice Schwarzer, are already blaming organised Islamic terrorism.
These allegations ignore the fact that the phenomenon of collective public harassment is unknown in the “Islamic World” – apart from sporadic sexual assaults by paid thugs and security forces, as in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Even in France, with its huge North African population, incidents of collective public harassment by Arabs or Muslims have hardly ever been reported.
According to the federal judge Thomas Fisher, there have been no more criminal acts committed than during previous New Year’s Eves, while even offences committed by foreigners have reportedly not increased.
Although the number of immigrants in Germany is rising since 2012, reported sexual assaults have been diminishing. Accordingly, the vast majority of Arabs, Muslims and asylum seekers are not more prone to public sexual violence than their Western counterparts.
Five weeks after the sexual assaults, outrage by the mass media, politicians and society remain unbowed. The degree to which Arab and North African men are being stereotyped as barbarous and misogynist monsters finds few historical parallels in Germany.
The level of hypocrisy that surrounds the debate is not surprising, but the degree to which even leftist politicians express views similar to the right and far right is staggering. Even Sahra Wagenknecht, the deputy chairperson of The Left Party has argued that “those refugees who abuse the right to hospitality should lose the right to hospitality.”
She criticises the reduction of the police force and demands a ceiling for the number of refugees entering Germany. And, the majority of Germans agree, ignoring the fact that categorising people as “legal” or “illegal” violates principles of human rights and equality before the law.
There is now increased support for more surveillance, and asylum laws have been tightened in the wake of the assaults. Only a few voices insist that delinquent refugees should not be deported but judged according to German law.
Most recently, the head of far-right party Alternative for Germany has said, in case of need, German border police should shoot at refugees entering the country illegally, and according to a recent survey, 29% of German citizens agree.
The media coverage of the sexual assaults and the ongoing public debate brings to the fore the structural sexism, racism, as well as the vestiges of fascist tendencies among certain segments of German society.
They also reveal how easily these incidents are being exploited by right-wing forces.
It further occludes existing counterexamples to the dominant narrative. An American woman, for instance, recounted how she was rescued by a group of Syrian refugees from being sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in Cologne.
As a sign of respect for women’s rights, refugees gave roses to passing women in a number of German cities after the assaults.
On New Year’s Eve, a group of neo-Nazis battered a disabled Tunisian man (49) and his 16-year old daughter in the eastern German town of Chemnitz. Under the gaze of a gaping public, they were brutally robbed of 620 Euros. But these incidents were hardly mentioned in mainstream media. Between 1990 and 2011, up to 849 people (the official number is 181) have been killed by German neo-Nazis. During this same period, two people (US soldiers) have been killed by a militant Islamist in Germany.
In 2015, every single day, one person was attacked by right-wing terrorists in Germany. In the past five years, racist attacks have almost doubled. In 2015, there were 1,005 assaults on refugee hostels. The number quintupled in comparison to 2014.
Sexism, patriarchy, rape culture, domestic violence and discrimination against women are global phenomena that are not reserved to the Global South, let alone the “Islamic World”. When in late 2015, an American woman who was “playfully groped under her skirt” (police report) in Munich’s Oktoberfest, and defended herself by hammering her beer glass on the head of her aggressor, she was sentenced to a four-digit fine. In Germany, about 8,000 rapes are reported every year. The estimated number of unreported cases is ten times as high. But only 13% of the violators are being prosecuted.
Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are entrenched in both East and West, while deepening class divisions create further discrimination due to rising competition and distribution battles.
In spite of the huge outcry and racist reactions that have surfaced after the recent sexual assaults, the challenge now is how to deal with an array of impending problems that came along with or were exacerbated by the refugee crisis. Questions of deep-rooted sexism and racism need to be tackled without playing into the hands of the far right who are now calling for the increased deportation of “criminal refugees”. We have to come up with more humane answers in this time of crisis and “age of extremes”.