Earlier this week, Hemant Mehta published an article titled We Can’t Ignore the Cultural and Religious Roots of the Cologne Sexual Assaults. While I largely agree with his post’s content, I want to add something to his analysis. Hemant begins his post as follows:
On New Years Eve, in the city of Cologne, Germany, what was supposed to be a night of celebration turned disturbing very quickly.
We’ve learned that hundreds of women may have been sexually assaulted or had their property stolen that night by anywhere from 400 to 1,000 men. So far, hundreds of criminal complaints have been filed — and there are likely many more who haven’t done that yet.
The men in question are reportedly described as “Arab or North African origin.” The Right is using the attacks as an excuse to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment—and violence—and Hemant states that “the whole situation has left German media outlets and politicians trying to figure out how to report this.”
Hemant argues that we shouldn’t ignore the “cultural and religious roots” of these assaults and quotes from Maajid Nawaz as follows:
Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim who’s been outspoken about the cowardice of the “Regressive Left,” is adamant that liberals can’t ignore this problem, specifically the role that theology and culture play in all this:
Yes, it is racist to suspect that all brown men who look like me are rapists. It is bigoted to presume that all Muslim men who share my faith advocate religiously justified rape. It is xenophobic to assume that all male refugees are sexual predators awaiting their chance to rape. But let me be absolutely clear: What will feed this racism, bigotry, and xenophobia even more is deliberately failing to report the facts as they stand. Doing so only encourages the populist right’s rallying cry against “the establishment.”
He suggests a few solutions that have worked in other countries:
Norway has led the way here, offering voluntary nationwide classes that expand upon Norwegian social and sexual norms to newly arrived migrant men. The German border town of Passau in Bavaria, has already started a similar program for male refugees, while Danish politicians aim to approve the same measure after a string of attacks in Denmark. Among other measures, it is my view that such classes should be mandatory for new arrivals across the continent. These classes should form part of a citizenship, integration, and employment course, before residency permits are provided. In any case, they would help refugees come to grips with the strange new world they have just fled to, and can only make their job prospects better.
I think these classes sound excellent, but—and this is an important point—we also need classes just like this for American men entering college in the U.S. In fact, feminists have been pushing for years to get college campuses to educate incoming male freshmen on consent and, well, not sexually assaulting their female peers. It is not only brown men who need classes on sexual assault and appropriate behavior, it is also white men, and men of every other shade (and women, too).
Now perhaps Nawaz would support similar classes for native white European men as well. But if we’re going to talk about the role culture can play in sexual assault, we need to be real about the extent to which western culture can also feed sexual assault. That a brutal gang rape could be covered up by an entire high school’s administration, or that an 11-year-old girl could be blamed for her own gang rape and faulted for “tearing the community apart”—put simply, it should be crystal clear that western culture, too, facilitates and excuses sexual assault.
As a woman living in the U.S., I know what it is like to realize that I am alone in a public place with unknown men and to feel fear. I have been a victim of street harassment. I have friends who have been raped or sexually assaulted, often by partners or intimate acquaintances. I have watched as rape threats are thrown across the internet, and as female bloggers have faced organized campaigns of harassment. I have already had to give my grade school gamer daughter “the talk” about online gaming, because it is only a matter of time before she becomes a target, too, both online and offline. (If you think any of this is an exaggeration, take a look at this horrifically sad reddit megathread.)And we’re predominantly talking about white men here.
I can’t get on board with efforts to link the Cologne assaults with the perpetrators’ religion because I have seen this same behavior take place across the religious spectrum. Yes, culture plays a role—some cultures are more tolerant of rape and sexual assault than others, and every culture is different and has its own idiosyncrasies—but our own culture is itself laced with toxic notions about masculinity and dangerous ideas of male entitlement.
And while I know Hemant cares about preventing sexual assault and rape in all contexts, many of those making connections between the perpetrators actions and their religion have long shown themselves indifferent. For over a century, African American men were lynched in the name of protecting white women. When I look at the anti-immigrant violence in Cologne this week, I see echoes of this as Right-wing groups use calls to “protect” white women from immigrants as an excuse for violence and bigotry. I’m tired of being used as a pawn by those who don’t actually care about my wellbeing.
I understand that Germany is not going to be identical to the U.S., and the primary reason I’ve responded here by talking about sexism and sexual assault in the U.S. is that most of the commentary I’ve read on this issue has come from Americans. It’s easy to look at another culture and comment on its sexism and it’s much harder to address the sexism in your own culture. As a feminist who has written on these issues frequently and followed them in other feminist media, when I see the coverage of the Cologne assaults, I want to jump up and wave my hand and say “hey wait, where was this concern when we were talking about [insert U.S. sexual assault issue here]?!”
And these and similar problems are not absent from Europe. As Mahroh Jahangiri of Feminizing notes:
A 2014 a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (based on interviews with 42,000 women across the 28 members of the European Union) found that one in 3 women have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault since the age of 15 and over one in 5 have been abused by their partners.
I highly recommend reading After Cologne, We Can’t Let Bigots Steal Feminism, written Laurie Penny of the New Statesmen. “Why can’t we always take sexual assault as seriously as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators?” she asks. She continues as follows:
It’s time to take rape, sexual assault and structural misogyny as seriously every day as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators. That means that, yes, refugees must learn to respect women as human beings. Citizens, too, must learn to respect women’s agency and autonomy. Men and boys of every faith and none must learn that they are neither entitled to women’s bodies nor owed to our energy and attention, that it is not okay, ever, to rape, to assault, to abuse and attack women, not even if your ideology says it’s okay. That goes for the men’s rights activists, the anti-feminists and fanatical right-wingers much as it does for religious bigots.
If we want to hold up Europe as a beacon of women’s rights, that’s fantastic. Let’s make it happen. If we’re suddenly a continent with a zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence and ritualised misogyny, let’s seize that energy. Let’s see real investment by the state and individuals in holding aggressors to account and supporting victims. It’s easier to pin misogyny on cultural outsiders than it is to accept that men everywhere must do better – but any other attitude is rank hypocrisy.
So yes, I think classes educating immigrants about the cultural differences of their new countries could be helpful, just as I think other integration programs will likely be helpful. But when I read these sorts of proposals I can’t help but think about how much I’d like to see white men in my own country required to take similar classes and learn similar lessons. Yes, the problem manifests itself differently in different cultures, and not all cultures are equally sexist.
In the end, I’m not here to argue about whether immigrants or white native-born citizens are more or less likely to commit sexual assault. I’m simply here to point out that attempts to position such crimes as an “Arab” or “Muslim” problem miss the problem already amongst us. Our culture has its own ways of excusing violence against women. As Penny says, we need to take sexual assault as seriously when other groups are the perpetrators as we do when migrants or Muslims are the perpetrators. And right now, from where I’m standing, we don’t.