What happened in Cologne?

Tamara Micner

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.


  • 21 January 2016 at 12:18pm
    Alfalfa says:
    Maybe we can lay the story of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon to rest now. The point was: we sentimentalise dead immigrants, yet expect the worst from live ones. The point seems both straightforward and well observed.

    The author asks: “If most of the men were drunk, could they have been practising Muslims?” This turns on a definition of “practising” that is neither here nor there. We hear of many jihadis who “used to enjoy a beer”, in the reports of dismayed neighbours. Noboday says these men were to of the class in their local madrassa or claimed to be particularly observant. One can self-identify as a Catholic and eat steak on Fridays.

    “…and police have charged more than 30 men in response. Some of them have been identified as asylum-seekers; others are German.” Again, evasion by vagueness. The question here is not whether the men were German citizens or asylum seekers. The latest figures from the Cologne “Express” (admittedly a tabloid) are: “Der allergrößte Teil stammt aus Marokko (13) und Algerien (12). Hinzu kommen ein Tunesier, ein Albaner, ein Iraner, ein Afghane und ein Mann aus Libyen.“

    The author’s final point is, of course, justified, but beside the point. Perhaps punishing the offenders “will do nothing to address the violence that women experience every day” – though I’m not so sure. In any case, the objection reeks of whataboutism: should punishment be foregone because not all injustices can be addressed? If anything, it might be argued that a sense of justice being done will allow the dust to settle and generally improve the climate for migrants in Germany again.

    I certainly hope so, and that the Angela Merkel doesn't lose her nerve. Any large mass of people is bound to contain some wrong 'uns, but denial will do nothing to help the law-abiding majority.

    • 21 January 2016 at 1:57pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Alfalfa
      The author is not suggesting that punishment should be foregone because not all injustices can be addressed. For one thing, I don't suppose she would claim that other injustices (i.e. sexual assaults not committed by refugees) "can't" be addressed. She is saying that they are not addressed - which is not the same thing. Furthermore, the failure to address these other sexual assaults and rapes, or even in many cases to take them very seriously, underlines the hypocrisy of the recently-discovered anti-misogyny of some people on the right in Europe. I think this is the central argument being made, not that the assaults in Cologne were not horrific or should be excused.

    • 21 January 2016 at 2:27pm
      Alfalfa says: @ Harry Stopes
      The "recently-discovered anti-misogyny of some people on the right" has indeed been an absurd spectacle to behold. Nonetheless, Ms Michner seems to be more worried that investigating the attacks will help the wrong sort of people than she is about the attacks as such, and that punishment will succour the right. (Even if that were the case, would it constitute a valid objection?)

      There is a swathe of opinion that falls squarely into the old "dark men attacking our blond women" stereotype. This should neither be ignored (it is truly nasty) nor mistaken for why moderate opinion is so upset. The reason, as I see it, is precisely that, for all that remains to be done and all the suffering that goes unpunished and unreported, Germany, in common with other Western societies, has seen great advances in women's rights in general and awareness of sexual violence in particular. It still occurs, but most men in Western Europe have come to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that their wives are not their property and that women in public are fair game. I will risk a cautious generalisation by supposing that we cannot assume such awareness among a large section of men in Arab countries - at least if surveys of the kind are to be believed, according to which well over 90 or even 95% of women in Egypt have experienced some degree of sexual harassment or assault in public places.

      It's always a sign of decency to consider the beam in one's own eye when pointing to the mote in the other man's, but maybe the proportions really are reversed in this instance.

    • 21 January 2016 at 2:31pm
      Alfalfa says: @ Alfalfa
      Correction, 2nd para: that should of course read "NOT fair game".

    • 21 January 2016 at 2:41pm
      Alfalfa says: @ Harry Stopes
      PS: No doubt Ms Micner (not Michner, sorry) is as horrified by these attacks as anyone, and I do not wish to suggest otherwise. But I can only discuss what's in this blog post, and it says nothing to answer the question "What happened in Cologne?"

  • 21 January 2016 at 12:25pm
    Alfalfa says:
    Oh, and about the Oktoberfest: the "Frankfurter Allgemeine" reports that there were 20 charges brought for sexual assault at the 2015 Oktoberfest, which had 5.9 million visitors. Of course, there may be a "dark figure", but that can prove anything.

    Correction above (2nd para): "top of the class".

  • 21 January 2016 at 5:23pm
    Remonstrater says:
    The author of this article clearly can't read German, or, if she can, hasn't bothered to read the dozens of detailed, well-informed commentaries on and analyses of the mass sexual assaults in Cologne (and Hamburg, and Stuttgart, and Bielefeld...). The knee-jerk comparison with sexual offences committed at the Oktoberfest in Munich has long since been completely refuted - the number of offences is laughably low in light of the number of visitors: last year (2015) the police registered 20 sexual assaults, with no actual rapes, with around 5.9 million visitors over a period of 17 days. In Cologne, an estimated group of around 1,000 men committed more than 700 assaults, around 500 of them sexual, in the space of several hours. Where's the comparison? Micner makes Germany sound like hell on earth for women generally, as if they fear to step outside the front door (or can't get out fast enough, because they're being regularly sexually assaulted by their husbands/boyfriends/partners)... The police in Cologne and the Minister for the Interior from Nordrhein-Westfalen have released information on the aggressors, which reveals that ALL of those so far apprehended or who are under direct suspicion are North Africans (who cares whether they are "practicing Muslims", for God's sake?), most of them illegally in Germany (registered under several aliases, in come cases, so as to collect additional welfare payments), and many of them already known to the police for criminal offences. Oh, and by the way: "ausnahmslos" does not mean "no excuses", it means "no exceptions". And last but not least: I recommend that Micner read this article (again, optimistically assuming she's able to read German...):

    • 21 January 2016 at 9:11pm
      Tahini says: @ Remonstrater
      PS. In response to Remonstrator, the #ausnahmslos group translates the word themselves into "no excuses" ( I would recommend refraining from ad-hominem arguments.

    • 22 January 2016 at 12:53pm
      Remonstrater says: @ Tahini
      Perhaps you mean "ad feminam" arguments? Whatever... My comment was intended to provide some informative substance, which is glaringly lacking in Micner's thinly "researched", highly speculative, ideologised blog piece. As for "ausnahmslos" (surely just a side issue?): when a group of Germans has a rickety grasp of English in general, as in this case, it hardly makes their proposed translation of a German term the correct or authoritative one, does it? And I speak as a professional translator from German to English, with many years of experience.

  • 21 January 2016 at 5:59pm
    JRUSER says:
    Firstly, the "sex Jihad" quote is in a story in The Times about revenge attacks on migrants following Cologne. It is in a direct quote from a German politician and it is clear the newspaper is condemning a string of violent attacks on migrants.

    Secondly, if on average across the whole of Germany 20 woman are sexually assaulted a day it is surely extremely disturbing and remarkable for more than 20 times that number to be attacked on a single night, in a single incident at a single location. More so for there to be reports the incident was covered up for political reasons, robbing the victims of justice.

    The two magazine covers do sound in extremely bad taste and guarding the boundary between legitimate reporting - of which there is much - and racist exploitation of a profoundly unsettling incident is clearly important. But I don't see any evidence in this article of sexism in the media's response.

    It is not just the right that is biased. This article is itself an example of left wing bias. If these men were not migrants but working class football supporters the LRB would not be trying to defend sports fans but would be attacking macho culture. It would be linking the attacks to everyday sexism not to downplay the story but to magnify its significance.

    • 21 January 2016 at 6:14pm
      JRUSER says: @ JRUSER
      The two magazine covers - and also the Charlie Hebdo cartoon which is clearly horrendous. Indeed, it was condemned by the media in Britain, including the right wing media accused by the author of racism. For example, this Daily Mail headline: Aunt of Aylan Kurdi condemns 'disgusting' Charlie Hebdo cartoon for suggesting the drowned migrant toddler would have grown up to be a sex attacker

  • 21 January 2016 at 9:10pm
    Tahini says:
    The article brings to bear the poignant challenge in openly addressing the context of violence, and sexual violence against women. The sad events of group violence in Cologne were at a large scale with for many a "desirable" set of perpetrators aligned with their world view, due to which it brings outrage in the visibility of the attacks, but behind the veil and brought to bear by Ms. Micner are the situations of - countless - smaller-sized incidents that occur in day to day life, across the world, which by far out-dwarfs the scales of the events in Cologne and is far from country or region specific.

    To realise this one needs to can ask if the situation in Western-Europe is so different from that in North Africa (where a large portion of the Cologne attackers appear to have come from). The Moroccan statistical service published a report of survey interviews among 8000 women between age 18 and 65 in 2011:

    The findings include 23% of women to have experiences of sexual violence, and it is estimated that 4% of women suffer sexual assault and abuse in public places in their lifetime (e.g. the type of sexual violence that is closest in comparison to the Cologne event). Similar figures have been reported for a country like France, where in a 2005 survey study of 6970 women the proportion of women suffering sexual harassment and assault in public spaces was found to be 6.4% in the ages of 20-24 years, 2.6% in 25-34 years, 0.9% in the ages 35-44 years, and 0.5% in the ages 45-59 years (in their lifetime figures not available).

    The values are also similar to other places with studies of non-partner sexual violence (a more expansive category then public places) being reported for cities including Japan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Peru, Samoa, Thailand, Tanzania and Serbia and Montenegro, amounting to between 3.5% and 11.5 of experience within the lifetime of respondents (each city had over a 1000+ respondents).

    The results of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) from the 2008 report again give similar range across countries for countries including Australia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hong Kong, Mozambique, Philippines, Poland, and Switzerland. To continue the comparison specific to Germany in Denmark out of the 3589 respondents attempts of sexual violence by non-partners was found to be 2% forced sexual intercourse, 4% attempted forced sexual intercourse, and 19% unwanted sexual touching

    The only high standard deviation to these figures appears to be the study loosely referred to be Alfalfa earlier, which based on a survey in Egypt finds 99% of several thousand Egyptian women in cities to have suffered , and 90% to have suffered Rape.

    The main way forward to end all this madness at present is the Istanbul Convention, now ratified by 19 countries Germany has yet to ratify it) which seeks to create the first comprehensive legal framework across countries to combat violence against women.

    • 21 January 2016 at 9:29pm
      Tahini says: @ Tahini
      And to add some German specific data to the mix, out of 10,164 respondents in an interview survey carried out in 2003, 14% of women had experienced some form of sexual violence (6% rape, 4% attempts of rape, 5% physical intimacy, 3% other sexual practices (e.g. some women multiple events in the 14%). Out of the 1045 victims about half of the perpetrators were partners, former partners or lovers, and the other half were from various backgrounds (incl. 14.5% unknown persons such as in the Cologne Events).

  • 22 January 2016 at 3:15pm
    EmilyEmily says:
    The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two.

    Alfalfa's points, that "most men in Western Europe have come to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that their wives are not their property..." and that "we cannot assume such awareness among a large section of men in Arab countries" miss the author's argument entirely.

    JRUSER's point, that there's no evidence in this article of sexism in the media's response - misses that the author's focus has been inspecting racism in the media's response, not sexism.

    Sexual violence is awful. As the author states, it's perpetrated every day by people of all races, religions and ethnicities. It happened in Germany long before the recent waves of migrants. Blaming migrants means using them as a scapegoat - it allows the problem to continue.

    There is no excuse for sexual violence. It's cause is not racial, but rather that some people treat other other people as objects. It's gross.

    • 24 January 2016 at 2:06am
      JRUSER says: @ EmilyEmily
      Just in the interest of clarity, my point about sexism was in relation to the top line of the piece: "Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism." As Emily correctly points out, the focus from that point on is really racism. There doesn't seem to be much supporting evidence for the allegation that the media response was sexist.

    • 24 January 2016 at 6:17pm
      Alfalfa says: @ EmilyEmily
      I think I understood what Ms Micner was trying to say, I just happen to think that it is the wrong point to make under the circumstances: to subsume the events under the general problem of sexual violence is to ignore their peculiarities. That is, I take them to be distinctive (if not exactly "singular"), she doesn't. That's a debate worth having.

      To your summary: "The author’s argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another – let’s not confuse the two." I would reply: absolutely. But nor should misplaced fear of encouraging xenophobia prevent an inquiry into the specifics of this case, or even cut off any discussion of the mere possibility of this case being specific.

  • 22 January 2016 at 9:51pm
    Sabina says:
    I realise the difference between rape and sexual assault/molestation can be debated but from a legal viewpoint, so far only three rape cases have been reported to the police.

    The majority has reported groping and touching and other forms of indicent approach. I don't want to belittle any of it but I feel that a sentence like this one:

    "What we do know is that hundreds of women have reported being raped, assaulted or robbed, . . ."

    can be misleading.

    The German authorities use the term sex crime (Sexualdelikt). The right wing mob uses the term mass rape.

  • 23 January 2016 at 2:07am
    whyambee says:
    "Every Oktoberfest, hundreds of (mainly white German) men are arrested", - this tidbit is freely invented. The (sordid, no question about it) police reports, race baits including, are nowhere close.

    There was a reason why Germany gasped after Cologne. There is also a reason no one gasps seeing this blog pulling a Limbaugh.

  • 23 January 2016 at 9:29am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported to the police but only one man has been arrested. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of inadequate policing, the claim that the men who committed the attacks were all of 'North African origin' was based on observations by people who were on the scene. The claims that the perpetrators were, or could have been refugees seem to be based on this statement and the context widened to imply (or simply state) that refugees are a danger to Germans. The politicians have jumped on the bandwaggon and come out with brave words about stemming the tide but until the facts are known they really should keep quiet. The Home Office minister came out recently with a typical politspeak claim that refugees were hiring taxis and travelling about the countryside without getting registered. The story was a complete fabrication.
    An objective report on the incidents in Colgne would be useful but the affair has its own dynamic and any chance that we will hear the whole story is fading rapidly.
    The local police authority was claiming that it was a 'quiet evening' two days after, and had turned down an offer of reinforcements from Duisburg even as the situation was escalating. That aspect has disappeared from the media.
    In the FAZ two days ago, a story appeared about an incident at a refugee centre in which a male refugee had been involved in a conflict with one of the security guards. One refugee, one guard. The 'incident' occurred two months ago. What does this tell us about the conservative press? Well, it shows us how the FAZ uses a minor incident to put some spin on the 'refugee crisis' to the effect that violence is endemic among the refugees. The paper is now following a line that Merkel is losing support for her policy.

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