Along with the new year, a new challenge has come to Germany—and the rest of Europe: coordinated group sexual harassment. On December 31, 2015, about 1,500 men, including some who had recently arrived to Europe as asylum seekers, sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of women at a train station in Cologne. More than 500 individual attacks were launched, triggering anger and tense political debate in Germany.
As usual, both sides of Western political landscape—denialists and racists—have exploited the sexual assault, as they have many other challenges facing our world today, from terrorism to sectarianism. One camp waters down the problem; the other generalizes and demonizes it. But neither camp is right and the bickering does not help the victims or solve the problem.
Right-wing leaders argue that the sexual assaults in Cologne justify tightening Germany’s refugee policies. Liberals and other leftists suggest the attacks were mounted with robbery as the only motive. The Mayor of Cologne even suggested women should adopt a “code of conduct” and remain at “arm’s length” from strangers to prevent future assault, a suggestion that has drawn ridicule online. Some suggest sexual harassment is related to Middle Eastern culture, while others refute that claim by asserting instead that it is a criminal act. Both explanations are partially right, but neither tells the complete story.
At Cologne’s train station, many elements intersected to produce the perfect crime scene. Clearly, criminality is an aspect that must be considered inherent in such assaults.Immigrants are not one homogenous group with unified moral code. It is disingenuous, however, to deny that cultural elements can contribute to sexual assaults.
Central to any sexual relations is the consent of the parties involved. A woman has to give her approval for every step, from breaching her privacy to touching her body. However, in Middle Eastern societies, consent has often been conveniently overlooked or ignored in both our political and private lives. As many Authoritarian leaders in the region enjoy ruling without consent, men do the same with women when opportunity allows it and deliberately ignore women’s screams of rejection. Authoritarianism is not only a political tool, but also social attitude. Even within marriage, the issue of consent, in many cases is ignored, and marital rape exists in many Middle Eastern societies.
Just a few weeks before the events in Cologne, I saw two photos an Egyptian posted on Facebook: One photo was of a woman in a bra shouting at a man who had breached her privacy; the other photo was of a woman in a bikini looking relaxed in the company of men. The guy asked what is the difference between the two situations? I replied and tried to explain how consent was at issue in these photos and that the fact the woman was wearing a bikini did not justify invading her privacy, as in the bra situation, nor does it justify glaring at her while she is enjoying her a break on the beach. Many agreed with me, but the incident left me wondering how many of our youth are confused about the matter.
The rise of political Islam has compounded the problem. Since the 1970s, Islamists have advocated a conservative dress code as an antidote to harassment. They believe that the more women can cover their bodies, the safer they will be. This theory is fundamentally flawed. As I wrote here, I was briefly sexually attacked in Yazid city in Iran even though I was wearing strict Islamic dress. My experience confirms what statistics reveal—conservatism does not cure sexual harassment. Some men, however, opt to dismiss statistics and the personal pain of female victims and continue to indulge in the wrong perceptions to justify attacking women.
It is sad but true that some believe that the Western dress code of many women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne was probably an incitement to harassment by some men from immigrant communities. Others from within the immigrant community cried conspiracy. In a discussion on BBC Arabic TV, Arab youth in Germany acknowledged the problem while others played it down, claiming it was exaggerated by politicians. This tendency to deny, water down the problem, or blame the victims will not serve the immigrant cause; it will only feed the skeptics.
Again, as Maajid Nawaz has written, it is infuriating and counterproductive to deny that a specific cultural problem around immigration patterns and European sexual norms has been rising steadily across the continent.
Crucial, however, to remember that sexual harassment hardly existed in Arab and Muslim societies before the 1970s when societies were more liberal and more tolerant. This fact clearly dispels the bigoted right-wing claim that sexual violence is linked to race or religion. And sexual street violence is not exclusive to Arab or Muslim countries; high-profile cases of gruesome gang rape by non-Muslims have been reported in India.
Other factors that have been considered as contributing to coordinated sexual attacks are the available opportunities and the low risk of punishment. Furthermore, group dynamics must be considered in studying coordinated sexual violence. Many people have drawn parallels between what happened in Cologne and the many sexual assaults reported in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during and after the January 2011 revolution. Cologne’s train station and Tahrir Square provided sexual gangs with a plethora of opportunities to hide among the large crowds and attack women with impunity. Big gatherings have always been soft targets for gang crimes including theft and sexual attacks.
The ramifications from the events in Cologne could greatly influence the future of immigrants in Germany. Besides possible deportations and reversal of the current open-door policy for refugees, those who are “lucky enough” to stay in Germany may face many obstacles. A small town near Cologne barred asylum seekers from its public indoors pool after harassment complaints. This could become a pattern in other German cities.
But integration, not isolation, is the way forward. Both the denialists and the racists are not helping German women. Sexual assault can be countered only by the joint efforts of all stakeholders.