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The reaction to the Cologne sexual assaults should be about tackling sexism and racism

By Keshia Fredua-Mensah, Co-chair of anti-racism initiative #SchauHin and one of the initiators of #ausnahmslos

26 January 2016 - The debate around the sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, which should be about gender and sexism in our society, is being captured by racist and anti-refugee populists and turned into some sort of identity parade.

On the night of New Year’s Eve, numerous women were sexually attacked in public spaces in Cologne and other German cities. These horrible incidents have caused great furor in the country and sparked a controversial and polarizing public debate – both in the country and abroad. Indeed, the attacks have been unprecedented in terms of the number of victims and perpetrators involved, in their means which combined sexualized assault with robbery, but also in terms of the public outrage and reaction to these incidents.

However, the outrage is less dedicated to the issue of women still being unable to move freely and safely in public spaces. Rather, the perpetrators’ background of mainly Northern African descent is being made the center of the public debate and of political reactions, alike. The focus has shifted to considerations of how policy and the law could punish foreign perpetrators, for example by means of deportation, and to reflecting on how integration and multiculturalism in Germany have failed. The focus has also shifted to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, warning against the acceptance of more young and potentially criminal men entering the country. What all of these considerations have in common are the following two things: One, the issue of sexualized violence against women becomes circumstantial at best and exploited at worst. Second, they all seem to agree that sexism and sexist assaults are imported to Germany by Muslims, and are therefore attributable to Muslim societies and culture. Accordingly, ‘foreign’ men, as current narratives, statements and in fact promises by influential politicians suggest, deserve a punishment that goes beyond the standard one.

Sexism and racism are two forms of oppression and dehumanization that function in an intersectional manner. Choosing one at the expense of the other cannot be an option.

It is exactly these two foci of the debate that make it so dangerous on so many different levels. As a woman and a feminist, I shall say that I am appalled by what has happened and continues to happen to women [1] in my environment and beyond. Moreover, I am reminded that feminist goals are still far from being achieved and that we need to continue to openly problematize and discuss sexism in all its forms. As a Black anti-racist activist, I am deeply worried about the way this debate, which should be about gender and sexism in our society, is being captured by racist and anti-refugee populists and turned into some sort of identity parade, supposedly juxtaposing good versus bad, developed versus under-developed, civilized versus barbaric cultures. A debate that is promoting an Us against the Other narrative. It is a debate that further encourages people to marginalize, stigmatize and be hostile towards racialized people while justifying these actions by claiming a primary interest in promoting women’s rights. All of this in times in which migrants (especially refugees) are under constant threat of being attacked by extremists. Hostile voices are complemented and in fact fueled by German mainstream media that help distribute these messages through presumably innocuous images such as those depicting the naked body of a white woman, touched by black hands. A picture that makes strong use of both sexist and racist imagery.

Sexism and racism are two forms of oppression and dehumanization that function in an intersectional manner. Choosing one at the expense of the other cannot be an option. It certainly is no option for me, nor for my feminist and anti-racist colleagues, nor for at least 11.000 other people in Germany and abroad who decided to co-sign and support the initiative #ausnahmslos. The initiative reached out to the public through social media after the Cologne attacks and made the following statement: “The sustained fight against sexualised violence of any kind is of highest priority. It is harmful for all of us if feminism is exploited by extremists to incite against certain ethnicities, as is currently being done in the discussion surrounding the incidents in Cologne. It is wrong to highlight sexualised violence only when the perpetrators are allegedly the perceived ‘others’: Muslim, Arab, black or North-African men, i.e., those who are regarded as ‘non-Germans’ by extremists. Furthermore, sexualised violence must not only be taken seriously if white cis women are the alleged victims.”

Sexism in Germany is not an importation from the Middle East or North Africa. Germany does not need immigrants to demonstrate that women are not treated as equal. The annual Oktoberfest, largely visited by white German men, is a hotspot for sexual harassment and assault – so are carnival festivities across the country. At the same time, sexual harassment is not yet considered a criminal offence in Germany and what constitutes rape is contingent on the victim’s behaviour of resistance. Just to be clear here: A country whose laws do not even recognize forms of sexualized violence (both physical and mental) as an offence now insists on ‘islamizing’ the problem of sexism and proposes special punishments for foreign perpetrators while the standard punishment (provided the action is considered a crime at all) remains untouched. Not only is this way of handling these incidents racist, it is also inconsistent and hypocritical.

Admittedly, adapting the laws is but a reactive mechanism to tackle the issue. One that does not necessarily change the minds of potential perpetrators but rather one that symbolizes non-tolerance towards sexualized crimes against women. What is more important is, of course, changing one’s mindset. Sexist offences must be prevented and one important step is to develop and further an awareness of the gendered and racialized implications of our daily interactions and of our structures and systems.

Keshia Fredua-Mensah is based in Berlin and co-chairs the anti-racist initiative #SchauHin. She is also one of the initiators of #ausnahmslos, a feminist alliance and public appeal that reacted to the incidents in Cologne.

[1] This is to note that not only cis women are affected by (hetero)sexist offences, but also people who do not identify within the gender binary.

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