Mass-scale sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve have ignited domestic and international discussions. Since the events unfolded, over 100 women have come forward with disturbing reports of sexual assault, robbery and rape. As of now, little is known about the perpetrators, their backgrounds or whether the attacks were part of a coordinated plan. The events have inspired a political blame-game, condemning women’s conduct or Europe’s open border policies. But neither will serve the victims of Cologne or the refugees who continue to need our protection.
Victim Blaming and #Einearmlaenge
As so often in cases of sexual assault, many have responded by advising Cologne’s victims on how to avoid future harassment. When asked how to prevent these types of assaults, Cologne’s mayor Henriette Reker, asserted in a now infamous statement that women should “keep a certain distance that is longer than an arm’s length,” from potential male perpetrators. This statement has been widely mocked on social media under the hashtag #Einearmlaenge.
Reker’s response sheds light on a deeply embedded and often unintentional culture of victim blaming. We’ve heard this type of victim-blaming response time and again, from Australia to Indonesia to Swaziland. It is the cultural go-to reaction to sexual assault, a kind of pervasive gut instinct. Despite decades of struggle for women’s advancement, sexual assault continues to elicit questions about the victims’ dress, behavior, or intoxication.
But the solution to gender-based violence is not for women to stay at arm’s length from strange men, to protect themselves in groups, to dress modestly or to stay indoors. True prevention of gender-based violence must be structural, and will require the deconstruction of harmful gender stereotypes and the breed of masculinity that encourages the sexual domination of women.
The Instrumentalization of the Feminist Movement
Many have been quick to focus on a possible “Arab/North African” background of the alleged perpetrators, linking the attacks in Cologne to the recent influx of refugees and migrants. Commentators such as Claus Strunz of Axel Springer SE have described the New Years events in Cologne as a “Clash of Civilizations,” and the far-right, anti-immigrant organization Pegida has called for a major demonstration in front of the Cologne train station. New reports of similar attacks in Hamburg and other German cities have added to the tensions.
The victims’ claims must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Yet, gender-based violence is hardly an imported “Arab” phenomenon. In the US, it manifests itself atop the dingy dance floors of college frat parties or in the comments section of your favorite female blogger’s latest YouTube video. In Germany, we’ve seen it in the tents of traditional Bavarian Oktoberfest celebrations. And yes, gender-based violence also rears its head in the Middle East.
Are there problematic, sexist features of Arab culture? Certainly, but we cannot allow the feminist movement to be hijacked and instrumentalized to promote racist, anti-immigrant or xenophobic political agendas. To imply causation between Germany’s asylum practices and what happened in Cologne is spurious and politically irresponsible. To call for border closures and expedited deportations is even more ludicrous. For even if investigations revealed that the criminals involved in the attacks were among those refugees fleeing violence in the Arab world, their actions would still not be representative of the vast-majority of law-abiding asylum seekers, nor would they negate international responsibility to aid those fleeing political conflicts.
Instrumentalizing these attacks to promote a pre-existing, anti-immigrant agenda helps neither the victims nor the many refugees who continue to seek protection from international conflicts, including gender based violence. Sexual harassment and violent misogyny cannot be justified, tolerated, or dismissed as culturally relative. There ought to be a thorough investigation that takes the victims’ claims seriously and also sheds light on the failure of the police and other bystanders to intervene. Our societies should also engage in constructive, cross-cultural dialogue and begin to build a society in which people, of all gender identities and sexual orientations can feel safe to wear what they please, drink as they please and welcome in the New Year without the threat of violence.
There are no simple solutions to these multi-faceted challenges. Building walls, closing borders or banning mini-skirts are nice campaign catch phrases for Trump-style politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. But when push comes to shove, they won’t prevent the type of gender-based violence we saw in Cologne or help solve the refugee crisis.