Earlier in January, New Year celebrations heralding the transition to 2016 were marred by multiple accounts of sexual attacks against women in Cologne, Germany. The perpetrators were described by even the most reputable media outlets by their percieved ethnicities.
“Arab and North African-looking” along with “asylum-seekers” were the repeated, and in most cases only descriptors initially used to paint a picture of the villainous men who committed the assaults in headline after headline by many mainstream media outlets.
But in a Europe already gripped by a severe refugee crisis and a resurgence in the popularity of right-wing fascism and racism, the New Year’s events could not have been a more foreboding sign for those who care about refugee rights and women’s rights.
While Western media outlets sought to frame the Cologne events as an unprecedented attack on mostly white German women by “savage” and “uncivilized” Middle Eastern or Arab men, they also drew heavily on historical colonial tropes to make sense of the events.
And although the sexual attacks in Cologne were heavily reported, the resulting aftermath of this skewed coverage on displaced communities and communities of color in Germany didn’t receive the same attention.
Just weeks after the Western outlets sensationally publicized the assaults, gangs of white men vigilantes roamed the streets of Cologne attacking refugees and immigrants, accusing any man deemed with an “Arab or North African-looking" appearance of participating in the attacks. The Independent reported that at least 11 victims of Pakistani and Syrian origin were beaten by a mob.
Tensions continued after a German public pool made the decision to enforce a discriminatory ban on “male refugees” after complaints of sexual harassment. While German officials in Cologne issued condescending pamphlets to teach refugees not to “rape,” others in the country have called for anti-rape “training centers” specific to refugees and asylum-seekers.
The fallout from Cologne and growing anti-refugee sentiments has prompted feminists, anti-racist activists and women of color around the globe to condemn both sexism and racism.
In mid-January, activists in Germany called on supporters to join their “Against Sexualized Violence and Racism,” campaign, which called on a comprehensive fight against sexual violence, as well as racialized incitement. The campaign gathered the support of prominent supporters, including feminist scholars and activists Angela Davis, amina wadud, Scilla Elworthy, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Hind Makki.
teleSUR English spoke with women of color activists in Germany from immigrant and Muslim communities at the forefront of this struggle for their reactions to Cologne and its fallout.
Emine Aslan, a 25 year-old, M.A Sociology student, activist, blogger, muslim feminist, woman of color of Turkish descent. She tweets at @emineElShabazz
One would normally expect to be able of feeling the shock about the sexual assaults only. Especially as a woman who has experienced sexual harassment in the past herself. But similar to other events where incidents are being instrumentalized to stigmatize Muslims and refugees in Germany, I could not even allow myself a first very humane reaction to (the Cologne attacks) all. This is because the very first information we got included the description of perpetrators as “Arab and North-African looking.”
I immediately knew what would come. Because we’re so used to the same mechanisms repeating over and over again. I knew one racist article after another would be published. I was worried about more refugee shelters and mosques getting attacked. I was worried about the dehumanizing debates that would follow. And I felt really angry about the fact that again woman of color who are impacted by racism and sexism are being left out in this racist discourses that use feminism only to stigmatize people like me.
Not turning people down at your borders who are fleeing death is the least thing one can do. Portraying (German) society as ‚post-racial‘ just because some people are humane enough to welcome refugees with blankets and food at the train stations only shows a lack of understanding of how structural racism impacts the daily lives of so many Muslims, refugees, Black people, Roma and other people of color in Germany. The asylum laws, the isolated and stigmatizing housing for refugees are just a few examples of this structural racism.
I felt really angry about the fact that again woman of color who are impacted by racism and sexism are being left out in this racist discourses that use feminism only to stigmatize people like me.
No one comes up for a “(anti-sexual harassment) training centers“ for white, non-Muslim rapists. Or for Nazis. It is actually not that difficult to recognize the colonial legacies of such demands. There are double standards in every possible scenario for racialized people. Why is the sexism of a non white male considered to be linked to his religion, ethnicity or so called 'culture' while the sexism of a white male stands for itself and is mostly being ignored by mainstream discourses anyways?
Disciplining the racial other is an old German tradition. We saw this with the guest workers in the late 80s as well. The contexts change, the racist discourses not really.
Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, based in Berlin, 24 years old, editor at feminist magazine Missy Magazine and freelance writer, queerfeminist activist, also blogging on QueerVanity.com and twitter: @sassheng.
When I heard first heard about (the Cologne attacks), I felt like I was in a crisis. I was hoping that it was not really Arab men/men of color. Also, the numbers have been wrong at first, people claimed it was 1,000 refugee men!
Most people and media are only talking about this incident by using racist stereotypes of the white woman that needs to be saved from the wild aggressive sexual man of color.
Germany usually does not care about sexual violence - only when it comes handy into their racist agenda. Note also that journalists are usually not supposed to say anything about the abusers ethnicity if they don't know for sure and also in general.
(Calls for anti-sexism training camps for refugee men) is bullshit, even most German dudes would fail that camp. Germany is a super racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic country. People think they have overcome those power structures and that they are being imported to here by Muslim refugees. This is so wrong on so many levels.
Nadia Shehadeh is a 35-year-old Sociologist and blogger is based in Bielefeld, Germany, you can find her on Twitter @shehadistan
To be honest, at first (the media attention on the Cologne assaults) surprised me. Normally, our media does not care for women who are sexually harassed, and there has never been an outrage like this before. When I heard that some of the perpetrators are said to have an immigrant background was clear to me: Okay, now it will be further discussed. But it won't be about the incidents or the victims. People will discuss on immigration policy, on asylum, on refugees, migrants now. And in a very racist manner.
It’s true, we had “a summer of helpfulness” last year when all the refugees arrived, that's true. And german civilians don't want to be labeled as “racists.” To designate someone as racist is a big insult to people here, but hey, in the end we are a racist society with racist laws, restrictive immigration policy, a racist education-system and a racist stereotypes which are reproduced by the media. And we have burning asylum centers every day, and and right-wing extremist violence, and a justice scandal concerning the right-wing National Socialist Underground murders, which are not cleared up until today - and the society is apathetic and bored about all these incidents.
We need to talk about all forms of violence, about all victims, about all offenders, about all the places where violence happens.
As every country, in Europe we also are suffering from the backlash (against refugees). I think we have activists who are brilliant, we have a very vivid and diverse counter culture, but on the other hand, a large proportion of the population is open to racist and neoconservative discourses - and I think the gap between both sides is becoming bigger and bigger.
“Training centers for refugees” won't help (address sexism). They make it worse because they feed a racist idea of "taming the wild." Sexism and violence is not a problem of individual people who fail with their behavior. We have a long history of violence, misogyny and sexism. Rape culture exists. It just never bothered before. It is no solution to - without context and far removed from any history - focus on single incidents or criminal refugees. Also, the idea that rape and sexual violence is something that is mostly committed by "foreign males" belongs to rape culture. We need to talk about all forms of violence, about all victims, about all offenders, about all the places where violence happens.