With Alice Schwarzer in Bad Boll: About Feminist Challenges in Europe and Elsewhere
I have just returned from a conference on “40 Years of the Feminist Movement in Germany” at the Evangelische Akademie Bad Boll in Germany. Feminist journalist, writer, and activist Alice Schwarzer, the most prominent contemporary German feminist and publisher of the renowned feminist magazine EMMA , was among the speakers. I am happy to report: not only did I drink a beer with her but she also offered that we use the informal “you” (“Du”) with each other. She does this with everybody but it’s still special to me.
In Germany, everybody knows her name and she has been in the press again and agin. Most recently, Schwarzer made the news about two years ago when she sharply criticized the minister of “families, pensioners and women,” Kristina Schröder, for her views on the role of feminism in female-male relationships and the workplace. The dispute reached the entire German public and also made its way into the online world. At the time, otherwise androcentric though politically progressive German political magazines, such as Der Spiegel, acknowledged that “[t]here is little doubt that Germany is not the easiest place to live and work if you are a woman. According to statistics released earlier this year, women earned an average of 23.2 percent less than men in 2008—a number that has been going up in recent years. There is also an extreme paucity of female executives at leading German companies.”
But truth be told: neither the 2010-debate made it across the Atlantic Ocean nor the ensuing German controversy on the need for gender quotas in all major and minor institutions, businesses, and professions.
It was only in February 2012 that The Atlantic published an article about it. The author, Heather Horn, “cheered” the German proposals for quotas. Why? She explained: “Simple: the German gender-quota hardliners bring that sense of mainstream outrage that you just don’t find in the U.S. That outrage—not from fringe groups but from professionals and policymakers at the top of their fields—is what we need if we’re ever to get the momentum necessary to address these issues.”
In other words, major feminist liberal issues are fiercely debated in Germany these days. Yet, interestingly, Alice Schwarzer did not stress the need for quotas during her talk on the past and future of feminism in Bad Boll or her disagreements with the German minister. Instead, she emphasized that then and now “our bodies remain the battlefield.”
In this battle two topics stand out for Schwarzer. One is pornography and its online omnipresence. The other has to do with religious fundamentalism, especially Islamic fundamentalism in Germany and Europe, as well as the considerable threats coming from the Christian Right in the United States.
Interestingly, a recent article in the New York Times reported about the problems of pornography on the lives of men and women. The author, Davy Rothbart, discussed how “this tsunami of porn is affecting the libido of the American male” and the women who have sex with them. He observed: “And so a conundrum emerges. Men, oversaturated by porn, secretly hunger for the variety that porn offers. Women, noticing a decline in their partners’ libidos, try to reenact the kinds of scenes that men watch on their computer screens. Men, as a result, get really freaked out.”
Even more recently, the New York Times reported that ultra-orthodox Jews were planning a meeting of about 40,000 attendees at New York’s Citi Field, home of the Mets, on May 20, 2012. The topic for this huge ultra-orthodox male Jewish gathering? “The dangers of the Internet and how to use it in a religiously responsible way.” According to the organizers, the ultra-orthodox Jewish community needed this event because “[t]he risk…comes not only from pornography, but also from social media and the addictive pull of the Internet, which can limit human interaction, reading and study.”
So the analysis of the best-known German feminist, Alice Schwarzer, is right on and finds allies in unexpected corners. More importantly, the pervasive problem of pornography connects with other major challenges that feminists have tackled for decades. Among them are prostitution and sex trafficking, the latter recognized as a contemporary form of slavery, and Schwarzer mentioned them all in Bad Boll.
In the case of religious fundamentalism, Schwarzer stayed within her German context. She had in mind the so-called “honor killings.” They pose a substantial problem in Germany. The sentencing on May 16, 2012 of the Kurdish brother who had murdered his sister point-blank in a German forest near Lübeck was a stark reminder that Schwarzer did not talk about an ivory-tower issue. As known from all of her feminist publications during the past forty years, her feminist vision has always been grounded in the lives of women and girls whose bodies have been on the line.
Luckily, honor killings are widely recognized as vicious acts of violence against women. They have received considerable attention from organizations, such as Amnesty International and, of course, they are not limited to Germany or other European countries. They occur regularly in many other places in the world and often under different constellations.
In short, Alice Schwarzer’s assessment about the future of feminism is mainstream and right on target. For sure, pornography and religious fundamentalism are not the only challenges for current and future feminist practices and theories, but if we were to get rid of those two, the world would be a better, more just, and safer place for women and girls.
It was indeed good to share a delicious local beer with Alice Schwarzer in Bad Boll. Now let’s continue working on the next forty years of feminism in Germany and elsewhere. Much remains to be done indeed.