Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism. On 9 January, the German magazine Focus carried a photograph on its cover of a naked white woman with black handprints all over her body. Süddeutsche Zeitung used a drawing of a black hand reaching up between a white woman’s legs. (SZ’s editors have since apologised; Focus’s have not.) A Charlie Hebdo cartoon shows monkey-like men chasing a woman and asks: ‘Who would little Aylan have become if he’d grown up? A bottom-groper in Germany.’ The British media too have carried stories on the problem of ‘migrant gang sex attacks’ and ‘sexual jihad’, accepting the far right’s use of the spectre of sexual violence to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.
Since New Year’s Eve, public debate has veered away from the problem of violence against women to arguments against letting refugees into Europe. Now that some asylum-seekers have attacked (white European) women, all kinds of unlikely people are suddenly concerned with women’s rights.
Sexual violence – rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, unwanted sexual contact – is perpetrated every day by people of all races, religions and ethnicities. A recent EU study, interviewing 42,000 women across all member states, found that one in 10 women has experienced sexual violence before the age of 15. Half of women have been sexually harassed, one in 20 has been raped, and more than one in five has experienced violence from a partner.
In Germany, the federal police count more than 7300 reported rapes and sexual assaults every year (that’s more than 20 a day). Many more incidents go unreported. Across the EU, fewer than 15 per cent of women report sexual violence to the police. Every Oktoberfest, there is a dedicated security point for women to report violence, and hundreds of (mainly white German) men are arrested. But where is the magazine cover of a man in Lederhosen, one hand holding a stein, the other groping a breast?
The outraged response to the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve has emboldened more women to come forward: from an initial 80 reports, the total has surpassed 550. But that doesn’t mean more women will start reporting violence in other circumstances. Like the #EverydaySexism movement in Britain, the #aufschrei (‘outcry’) Twitter campaign in 2013 highlighted normalised acts of sexism and helped legitimate women’s complaints, shifting the shame from victims to perpetrators. Many of those activists are now behind the group #ausnahmslos (‘no excuses’), demanding that society address sexual violence as a problem in its own right, not because it feeds into arguments about immigration.
It remains unclear exactly what did happen in Cologne – and Stuttgart and Hamburg – on New Year’s Eve. If most of the men were drunk, could they have been practising Muslims? Can all 550 victims have been white German women? What we do know is that hundreds of women have reported being raped, assaulted or robbed, and police have charged more than 30 men in response. Some of them have been identified as asylum-seekers; others are German.
The German government is now proceeding with legislation making it easier to deport asylum-seekers who are charged with committing crimes – in the name of protecting women – yet both female and male migrants will face the consequences of living in a more hostile country. And such measures will do nothing to address the violence that women experience every day, on the streets and public transport, at work and at home.