As the extreme right exploits mass assaults in Germany to mobilize against refugees, European feminists are in a battle over where their sympathies should lie
First the Cologne police hid or ignored the appalling reality for days. Then politicians, community leaders, and the media — fearful of fanning anti-refugee sentiment — were accused of deliberately ignoring or downplaying the organized new year’s eve mass sexual assaults of hundreds of women by a mob of around 1,000 reportedly North African and Arab men, some of them asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants, gathered at the symbolic heart of the cosmopolitan, liberal West German city.
The nation’s public broadcaster, ZDF, was forced to apologize for waiting four days to report on the attacks that took place at the symbolic heart of the cosmopolitan, west German city. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker attracted international ridicule for her perpetrator-excusing, puritanical “keep yourselves at a safe arms-length” cautionary advice to the traumatized women.
Now, after all the victim blaming and despite what Spiegel magazine declared “the end of political correctness” in Germany, a pall of selective silence and victim shaming has persisted.
Except this time, it includes feminists who have found their voices and, their detractors say, are working against the interests of the women they are supposed to represent. Any discussion of the collective sexual assaults as ethnically, racially and ideologically motivated is off limits. “I am sad but not surprised,” Alice Schwarzer, the leading second-wave German feminist, and editor of Emma.de magazine told Women in the World.
“Many feminists have remained silent from the outset regarding the problem of Islamist agitation, out of fear they will be accused of racism. It’s the old hierarchy of victims, that we already knew in [the student protests of] 1968. Then it was called class struggle before the battle of the sexes. Today it is called anti-racism against feminism.
“It is unfortunately a fact that many of the so called ‘post-feminist’ Internet feminists who are for pornography and prostitution are in favor of the head scarf and even the burqa. They say this is all about the free choice of women. But this individualistic reasoning ignores the importance of underlying political structures.”
Schwarzer, who works in Cologne, became a lightning rod for feminist and anti-racist anger after New Year’s Eve when she condemned the attacks on women as a “gang bang” designed to terrorize women. In self-defense, however, Schwarzer says she never sought to ignore the fact that there is “a problem with epidemic, structural violence against women in Germany, as anywhere in the world”.
“Violence is always the dark core of domination, whether it is between ethnic groups, or between different peoples or between the sexes. We feminists have successfully fought this violence over the past 40 years. Today the victims know it is not them but the perpetrators who must be ashamed. However the crime scene on New Year’s Eve seems very strange, because in Germany we have never seen this before: mass sexual violence in public with a powerless police looking on. This is a whole new dimension.
“I think this explosion of sexual violence on the same night in five countries and in a dozen cities is no coincidence. This is organized.”
Her unflinching approach has nothing to do with scapegoating a religion, and everything to do with ideology, the feminist insists. “I’m not talking about Muslims, or Islam as a faith. I’m talking about the politicization of Islam, the right-wing Islamism, whose banner is the veiling of women. This started in Iran in 1979 with Khomeini, and (elsewhere) it has been financed by Saudi Arabia. The Islamists firmly established themselves in Afghanistan and Chechnya (with introduction of Sharia law in 1994), Algeria (200,000 dead in the 1990s) and are now are arriving triumphant in the heart of Europe.
“The Islamists have not only stirred up misogyny among young Muslim men towards women over recent years and decades, but I am also convinced the sexual violence of New Year’s Eve was provoked (by them). There were a few hundred willing followers.”
Schwarzer’s outspokenness is rare among liberals, who are finding themselves torn over how to address the allegations without fanning the flames of extremists and those who oppose German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy, for whom the mass assaults were a propagandist “gift.”
“Pushing victims under the carpet for the sake of cohesion is dangerous,” observed Guardian political commentator Gaby Hinsliff, pointing out that “… by trying not to give succour to racists, the risk is that we end up miserably self-censoring.”
Instead of frank and open discussion, an Omerta has been imposed. Its leading backers are mostly younger European women’s activists, cultural relativists and anti-racists, who are accused of being more concerned about not offending migrant communities and Muslim men than standing up for the women subjected to the marauding gropers, and group rapists who attacked so-called “easy,” “white” German “whores” (among the obscenities hurled at the victims as they battled their way through walls of grasping, pulling hands, crawling over their breasts and between their legs).
Laurie Penny raised the ire of some feminist critics when, in a New Statesman column titled “After Cologne we can’t let the bigots steal feminism,” she ridiculed the reaction to Cologne as mostly “excited” right-wing outrage that was just a “good excuse to bash Muslims and migrants”. “It’s easier to pin misogyny on cultural outsiders than it is to accept that men everywhere must do better,” Penny said in an argument that prompted Canadian political commentator Tasha Kheiriddin to assert that “cultural relativism harms women”.
Some have gone so far as to draw a direct parallel between the vulnerabilities of German women and Muslim men. “If I, with my black hair, were to ride the bus after eight o’clock in the evening in rural Saxony, I’m guessing it’s highly likely I would be accosted or verbally abused,” said Aiman Mazyek, head of the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, in a redirection of the post-Cologne debate onto Muslim men as victims. “But I would never allow myself to make assumptions about the whole of Central Europe on that basis.”
The Muslim body, which has been questioned over its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, warned against “collective guilt discussions” and “arrogant generalizations” about safety of women in Germany being able to go out in public without fear, compared to some Arab countries.
Still, what British experts are labelling “sexual jihad,” already known in the U.K. after the notorious Rotherham abuse of 1,400 vulnerable girls, targeted ethnically by Pakistani gangs, is putting European women on the front line of the conflict. Dissenting feminists, including Schwarzer and Franco-Egyptian activist and author Serenade Chafik, are labeling an imported form of gendered terror played out as a “game” of war.
“This is sexual terrorism directed towards women,” Paris-based Chafik, author of Repudiation, her personal account of oppression and violence under Sharia law in Egypt, told Women in the World. “By using rape as an arm of war, these militias — because this indeed consists of pre-meditated acts committed by groups, some of them armed with notes containing a lexicon of sexual vocabulary — want to terrify women but also to humiliate men.
“The sexual violence these women were victims of not only in Germany but also in Austria, Switzerland and Finland recalls this use of rape as a weapon of war, and reminds me personally of the rapes committed in Tahrir Square in Egypt, against women protesters [in 2012 to 2014].”
The attackers, she explained, are manipulating a Middle Eastern concept of honor “a l’Oriental,” in which the honor of a family, a tribe or even a nation “is found between women’s legs!”
“The act of raping women, according to the aggressors will thus destroy the honor of these nations and humiliate not only women but Western countries.”
The violence in front of Cologne’s main train station was “absolutely comparable” with the organized sexual violence in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Schwarzer agreed.
“Like Cologne that was all about intimidating women and expelling them from the public space. The Islamists are at war with the West. And sexual violence was always a war strategy. So they decided to hit two birds with the one stone: striking women, and humiliating men who cannot protect their ‘own’ women.”
Schwarzer says “the majority of the democratic and liberal-minded Muslims have hardly spoken out. They are afraid of being accused by the community of ‘treason.’ That must change.”
Co-ordinated, mass sexual attacks
Europe finds itself struggling with the horrifying possibility that Cologne was not an aberration and appears to be part of a much larger pattern of calculated, collectively-perpetrated sexual abuse played out across the continent — yet how can such a widespread phenomenon be combated if it is not acknowledged for what it is?
Similar group attacks of mass sexual violence took place on the same night across Germany, including in Hamburg and Stuttgart and in at least three other European countries, and very likely in Sweden at an annual festival last summer.
There is concern the suspected Moroccan-led mafia-style attackers in Cologne and elsewhere have a connection with ISIS’s and broader Islamist ideologues’ global jihad against Kuffar or non-Muslim women (with “bad” Muslim women typically their first victims), just as the Paris attackers were an integral part of criminal and delinquent networks.
Chafik agrees with the analyses exploring connections between the mass sex attacks in Europe and ISIS, as part of a “new strategy of destabilization” of Western societies.
The sudden surge in, and radicalization of, sexual violence finds its roots, she said, in the incitements to hatred of non-Muslim women by certain preachers or theologians, like female professor Suad Saleh from El Azhar University in Cairo. Their urgings to wage sexual jihad “legitimize not only the attacks by Daesh [ISIS] but incite every Muslim man to consider that non-Muslim women are miscreants, impious, and hostages who can be sexual slaves,” said Chafik.
The difficulty for anti-racist feminists
Police evidence of a heavy Moroccan and Algerian criminal gang presence in the assaulting hordes suggests this is a problem of longer-standing migrant populations and not exclusively, or even mostly, of newer arrivals like Syrians or Iraqis. But this has not stopped German feminist groups like #ausnhamslos [no excuses] issuing “warnings” against open discussion because “it is harmful for all of us if feminism is exploited by extremists to incite against certain ethnicities.”
Their rhetoric has been criticized as patronizing and off-topic, consisting of charges against Germany’s legal and cultural attitudes towards sexual assault perpetuated by local men and admonitions to not only care about sexual assault when the victims are “white women.” It is as if the victims in Cologne and many other cities should apologize for their cultural or ethnic identities and the specifics of these crimes should be overlooked in favor of a more generalized debate about sexual assault and racism.
The desire to respect cultural relativism and not play into the hands of extreme right-wing, anti-immigration campaigners has hamstrung some feminists. They dismiss as a stereotype and fiction the notion that the sexual violence has any connections with social mores, political-religious cultures and Sharia. No link can therefore be made with legal regimes that do not offer women in North African and Middle Eastern Muslim majority countries the freedoms and protections they are afforded, thanks to centuries of struggle and reform, in places like Germany and France.
Assistant Professor at Goldsmiths College Sara R. Farris, in a piece titled “racializing sexual violence is no good for anyone” used the attacks to blame Germans for exploiting immigrant women as household workers. “So while the trope of Muslim men as women’s enemies completely ignores actual statistics and has been used to depict Muslim women as victims of oppression at the hand of savage Muslim males, none of these anti-Islam and anti-immigration spokespersons seem to have any problem with the exploitation and segregation of Muslim [and non-western migrant] women in European households,” she wrote.
Women’s activists in neighboring France, meanwhile, like far-left political representative and rape victim Clementine Autain, waited for a long time to react, then relativized the current disaster by snapping sarcastically on Twitter about whether the mass rapes of German women by Russian forces at the end of WWII were also to do with Islam.
Chafik believes her fellow feminists have offered a gift to the xenophobic, anti-immigrant fanatics on the extreme right. They have done so through their unwillingness to accept that, this time, the stereotypical “victim” i.e., the immigrant or refugee (evidently a small part of Germany’s 1.1 million-strong population of refugee arrivals in 2015 but a part nonetheless) could in fact be the calculating perpetrator of racially/ethnically and ideologically motivated sexual violence.
Just as sinister as the Cologne cover-up is the inexcusable silence or downplaying of earlier abuse and sexual assaults of women in refugee camps and houses. “Because refugees are fleeing war and the violence of Daesh, and because we consider them as victims, we refused to see that some victims are not necessarily so nice, and in reality we didn’t want to take a hard political look at the system of aggression,” says Chafir.
“In the best case we minimized the attacks but most of the time we took shelter in a silence that makes us complicit … the silence that weighed so heavily on the victims offered a perfect opportunity to the far right. Those who didn’t want to release unreserved statements of support to the victims, due to fear of playing the extremist right game, have forgotten that emptiness and silence facilitates these very attacks.”
Taharrush jama’i : The Arab “rape game”
While German law enforcement was ultra-prepared at new year for conventional terrorist attacks — using Kalashnikovs, bombs and knives — and shut down celebrations in Munich, strategies for countering attacks on “soft targets” like partying young women, were not on their radars.
Overwhelmed Cologne police have admitted in an Interior Ministry report that the collective assaults committed by large crowds of young men who surrounded small groups of women in public spaces, the better to grope, beat and, in at least one alleged instance, rape with impunity, reveal the first known case in Germany of an Arab rape “game’ known as “Taharrush jama’i” (which translates as “group harrassment.”)
The practice that came to world attention during the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between 2012 and 2014, has arrived in Europe on a mass, unprecedented scale, the police said, and they wanted advice from Egyptian police in knowing how to combat it.
Cologne is not necessarily its first example. A scandal unfolded last week in Sweden with reports the same “game” was played when large groups of young women were collectively harassed, groped and, it is believed, raped by North African and Arab men at a summer music festival, without any arrests, and with silence from police and authorities.
Evidence that includes victims’ testimonies and the police investigation, suggests the Cologne new year attacks were planned, coordinated via social networks, and influenced by a toxic mix of organized criminality blended with a misogynist ideology of hatred towards women, and non-Muslim women in particular.
Some attackers were ‘schooled’ in how best to humiliate young German women emerging from the city’s metro towards the popular square in front of the Cathedral, unaware they were walking into a trap.
As Bild newspaper revealed, notes were found on some of the relatively small number of attackers arrested after the melee, with scribbled translations of vile, sexist insults for women and translations of body parts from Arabic to German. While most of the jeering, leering drunk men shouted in Arabic, others yelled out in French, suggesting some of the attackers traveled specifically from places like Belgium and France to take part in the mass assaults.
Only over the past week have the most detailed reports filtered out of Germany, as journalists and police have done their work, belatedly. Liberation newspaper in France published an important report detailing the extreme violence of the assaults including an account from one woman titled: “In 200 meters I was groped 100 times.”
“The forces of order were totally overwhelmed, and incapable of protecting young women left to the gropings of men on heat, whether they were accompanied by their boyfriend or not,” she said. “No one had ever seen anything like it. The men threw themselves on the women as if we were cattle. I had to walk 200 meters along the platform to get down to the train. I think they groped me 100 times, 100 times they put their hands on my breasts and backside”.
Germany and Europe needs to look at the context of the countries of origin of its immigrants and refugees where “women are completely without any rights,” Schwarzer says.
“They are minors and dependent of fathers, brothers, husbands. Violence against children and women is the man’s divine right. Then there are the wars and civil wars, in which these men were victims or perpetrators and they have survived brutalized and traumatized. We should have considered all this before.
“But due to a misconceived tolerance and the cultural relativism propagated by the left, we have ignored it. So we left the majority of democratic Muslims in our countries in the lurch. In the end they are the first victims of these radicals. They are harassed by them, they get money if they hide their daughters, and they lose their unemployed sons in the Jihad. We need to change that! We must hold out against the Islamist propaganda, and actively reach out to the migrants and the refugees, immediately placing them under scrutiny. Only those who accept the rule of law, freedom of religion and equality of the sexes, have the right to live with us.”
“Why respect a ‘less than nothing’?”
Part of the shock across Germany at the events of New Year’s Eve stems from the country’s relative inexperience with colonization and indeed mass immigration from North Africa. In France, a former colonial imperial power, and which has long hosted one of Europe’s largest Muslim minorities, the issues that emerged in Cologne with the dawn of 2016 did not come as a complete surprise.
Valerie Toranian is the former editor in chief of French Elle, editor of culture magazine Revue des Deux Mondes and a staunch defender of the French republican secular model that keeps schools free of ostensible religious symbols, such as veils and kippas. She says the events of December 31 have shown up the “contradictions” that have riven feminism for more than a decade, with the deplorable “transformation of the guilty into the victims.”
“Feminists have taken the ‘wrong way,’ according to leading French liberal feminist Elisabeth Badinter, minimizing for years the rise of political Islam and its negative influence on women’s rights,” Toranian said.
“The oppressor can only be a white man, a capitalist, and heir to colonialism. To criticize Islamist culture that controls the behavior and the dress of women, makes you an ally of Satan, a neo-colonialist, an Islamophobe and a racist,” she says, illustrating the preoccupations that are constraining debate.
Toranian draws direct analogies between the Cologne attacks and related violence and the increasing imposition of neo-Salafist or purist Islamist rules by Imams and “moral police” on Muslim women in France. “These men are tasked with supervising good behavior, which means a good woman doesn’t wear a skirt, is veiled, doesn’t go out at night and doesn’t look anything like a ‘French woman,’ whom they categorize as debauched, drinking wine on cafe terraces with men, wearing provocative clothes (a skirt, a dress…) a woman of loose morals, a woman who sleeps around. In short, worth less than nothing.
“And why respect a less than nothing, in Cologne, Paris, Finland or elsewhere?”