Feminism, xenophobia collide in Germany in Cologne attacks' aftermath

Amid the rhetoric and rage that followed a night of alleged rape, assault and robbery in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve, one voice has struggled to cut through and be heard: that of Germany's feminists.

"Massive sexual assaults in Cologne - but #aufschrei is silent," journalist Birgit Kelle remarked on Twitter, referring to a Twitter hashtag that trended strongly in January 2013 when feminist blogger Anne Wizorek lashed out at an allegation of sexist behaviour by a leading German politician.

At the time, #aufschrei (outcry) was on everyone's tongues, as German women were enjoined to go online to share stories of the casual sexism they endure. The group remains active and the assumption was that, after the widespread reports of groping and rape by men who appeared to be migrants in Cologne on New Year's Eve, that they would be leading the charge to decry the attacks.

The allegation now is that #aufschrei has remained silent for fear of adding to xenophobic sentiment. After all, the discovery that so many of the New Year's Eve attackers had migrant backgrounds - with some among the recent wave of asylum seekers to reach Germany - has sat uncomfortably with a slice of German society that had hoped the newcomers would be integrated with little problem.

Not so, say the backers of #aufschrei.

"This allegation is completely unsustainable, because sexually motivated violence comes in for criticism all year long after all," Anne Wizorek responded to those feminists now criticizing #aufschrei.

The dispute has a history. During the long-running original debate on #aufschrei - which went well beyond Germany and was the subject of several articles in the New York Times - Kelle, a practising Roman Catholic as well as a feminist, expressed criticism of its tone.

Her response was a book entitled "Dann mach doch die Bluse zu" (Then just button up your blouse), an indication that she thought much of 2013's outrage was overhyped.

But Wizorek and her supporters say it's just the opposite. That people like Kelle are only tuning in to the problem of sexism now that the country has been forced to deal with it thanks to the Cologne attacks.

A group of 23 feminists, including Wizorek, have launched a new campaign at #ausnahmslos (without exception) to mount a simultaneous attack on "sexually motivated violence and racism - always - everywhere - without exception."

Wizorek charges that the feminists now accusing her of failing to criticize recent events in Cologne and elsewhere were precisely those who played down the everyday sexual harassment that she highlighted in the #aufschrei campaign three years ago.

Paula-Irene Villa, a Munich-based sociologist specializing in gender issues, accuses Kelle and her associates of hypocrisy.

"I see a danger that a kind of pseudo feminism could be misused to promote racism," she says. The victims of the attacks were having their suffering abused for political purposes, Villa suggested.

The #ausnahmslos campaign backers have expressly come out against exploitation of feminism in this way.

"It harms everyone if feminist concerns are abused by populists to incite sentiment against particular population groups, as is currently happening with the debate about New Year's Eve," they say.

But there are also prominent contributors to the debate drawing a link between women's rights and expectations about migrants.

Kristina Schroeder, Christian Democrat family minister from 2009-13 under Chancellor Angela Merkel, was forthright in her rejection of political correctness.

"The issue has long been taboo, but we have to confront standards of masculinity that legitimate violence in Muslim culture," was Schroeder's contribution to the Twitter debate.

Wizorek urges that sexually motivated violence should not be turned into an issue only where the perpetrators have a migrant background. "We have to see this as a problem right across society," she insists.

Any attack is one too many, irrespective of who carries it out, and "that applies equally well to the Cologne events," Wizorek says.

She sees as positive the fact that the victims of the assaults have been believed, saying that this will send a message to others falling prey to sexually motivated assault. "It shows them that they can seek help and that they are not the guilty ones."

Villa believes that the debate could turn out to be productive, as long as it is not reduced to being purely about Muslim men or immigrants.

Last update: Sun, 17/01/2016 - 15:28

More from Europe

Russia 'disappointed' with Pence's remarks on Ukraine conflict

Russia is "disappointed" with US Vice President Mike Pence's comments regarding Moscow's implementation of a...

Pence reassures allies of Trump's NATO support, tough Russia stance

US Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure European allies on Saturday of his country's "unwavering" support of...

Polish PM released from hospital after car accident

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo left a military hospital in Warsaw on Friday, a week after being involved in a...

Report: Illegal immigrant numbers in Germany fell sharply in 2016

The number of cases of illegal entry to Germany fell sharply in 2016 compared with the previous year, according to...

Merkel says NATO also important for US, vows to up defence spending

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday highlighted the significance of NATO for the United States after threats...