Failed Integration or Deeply Ingrained Patriarchal Practice Everywhere?
I have been pondering how to respond to the events of sexual harassment, theft, and rape in several major cities in Germany on New Year’s Eve of 2015. Did the gangs of men, looking “North African” and “Arabic” to the mostly female German victim-survivors, indicate a failed integration policy in Germany or deeply ingrained patriarchal practice everywhere?
What has become clear is the fact that crowds of men physically harassed, groped, and attacked women in selected German cities during public New Year’s Eve’s party-like gatherings. The police underestimated thoroughly the kind of violence they were confronted with. Even on the next morning, they did not yet acknowledge in their early reports that the night had been far from peaceful (“friedlich).
By now everyone agrees: nothing like this had ever happened before during any previous New Year’s Eve celebration in German cities. The police chief of Cologne was forced to resign for the police’s failure of readiness. Reports in the German media about the origins, causes, and reasons have dominated the public conversation since January 1, 2016. More than 500 women filed official police reports. It is undisputed that mostly male “Ausländer” (literally “foreigners”) sexually threatened and attacked hundreds of women.
As feared, political right-wing groups have immediately began exploiting the situation to the fullest. They blame Chancellor Merkel for allowing one million refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries to settle in Germany. Predictably, they have gained considerable support from Germans previously not committed to a right-wing agenda. There have also been demonstrations from women’s and feminist groups asserting that women are not “Freiwild.” The situation is indeed tense.
It has also become known that such attacks had already occurred in other countries such as Sweden. There the police tried to hide the national origins of the perpetrators, who were mostly Afghan men. Some migrant groups in Sweden are in a difficult situation now when they acknowledge the misogynist culture in their native country that also condemn the attacks. They urge us to remember that not every man from Afghanistan is among the sexual harassers. Yet in Sweden, too, right-wing groups are gaining popular support.
Alas, but as to be expected, religious organizations are not on the forefront of making sense of the events. Their silence is certainly unsurprising to anybody who knows that issues of sexuality and sexual violence have never been popular theological and religious topics among Christians, Jews, or Muslims anywhere although feminist theological scholarship exists in abundance.
In short, what hundreds of women in German cities experienced during New Year’s Eve must be recognized as being deeply rooted in patriarchal theories and practices.
As Gabrielle Lettini, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Theological Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, told me poignantly: “It is patriarchal practice everywhere that explodes in particular situations.”
No matter where those of us who perform as women walk the earth we know the sense of fear when we are in crowds of men, regardless of their nationality or color. When we walk alone at night, whether in Köln, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Dallas, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, Cape Town, or … (fill in the blanks), the potential for sexual harassment and worse is always there.
When the trauma of war and migration is added to the consumption of alcohol, when war-like fire crackers explode, and the unstructured particularities of German New Year’s Eve’s gatherings in public spaces are put into the mix, the potential for sexual harassment and violence increases exponentially. All of these contributing factors help make manifest the deeply ingrained misogyny practiced by so many men in so many places, including migrant men in Köln.
A friend and colleague, Susan Roll from Ottawa, Canada, comments about the evidenced misogyny in Germany:
“Contempt for women as such, fear of women’s bodies, refusal to accept women as full human persons with human rights, and (in religious contexts) an almost disgust at the idea of women standing in holy places and handling holy things—there’s something visceral and primordial that now and then comes to the surface and erupts. As a minimum, we need to start dealing with this problem by naming the evil as evil.”
That the extent of these kinds of attacks did not occur in Germany prior to New Year’s Eve of 2015 indicates that war-increased levels of sexism and patriarchy have now arrived in German society. Germany will need to not only deal with this problem among the refugee and migrant population but the country will also have to confront the nexus between its own inherent misogynist traditions and anti-refugee sentiments for years to come.
The current solution to strengthen the German police in numbers and with military equipment should not surprise, as it also occurs in other Western countries. Increased acceptance of right-wing rhetoric and the militarization of the police raise the potential and reality of violence within those countries while war is tearing Syria apart, drone strikes kill thousands of civilians in Yemen, and right-wing fundamentalist regimes gain influence in Middle Eastern regions. In all of these developments the fate of women is at stake. In Western countries, such as Germany, the militarization is rhetorically justified as an effort to “protect” (German) women while Middle Eastern civilians—women, men, and children—are killed with military equipment sold by German weapon manufacturers.
German religious organizations have a crucial role to play in this cycle of violence and militarization within German society and in the world. The question is if religious leaders are willing to wake up from their theological slumber and make these issues the theological centerpiece of their teachings. Perhaps then there will be persistent calls of churches, synagogues, and mosques to end the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. And perhaps they will then speak out against violence against women and girls, as well as against the deeply ingrained sexism in their traditions and histories. Perhaps they will then communicate to their flocks that misogyny, war, weapon exports, and the violence of war are interlocking systems of domination that need to be abolished everywhere, whether they occur on New Year’s Eve in Köln, during music festivals in Sweden, during U.S. air strikes in Syria, or during the rule of the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan.
It is high time to forego narratives of religious and national innocence anywhere and to dismantle the deeply ingrained structures of patriarchy and militarization used to perpetuate war and sexual violence in far too many places in the world, including in Germany.