The German Feminists’ Dilemma

A memorial for a 19-year-old medical student who was raped and murdered in October 2016 in Breisgau, Germany, by an Afghan asylum seeker.CreditSean Gallup/Getty Images
A memorial for a 19-year-old medical student who was raped and murdered in October 2016 in Breisgau, Germany, by an Afghan asylum seeker. Credit Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A brutal murder case has gripped Germany: On June 6 the body of a 14-year-old girl, Susanna Maria Feldmann, was found in Wiesbaden. She had been raped and strangled. Two days later her alleged assailant, Ali Bashar, a 20-year-old asylum seeker from Iraq, was apprehended in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he had fled. He reportedly confessed to the murder.

The case is just the latest in a string of murders and assaults by asylum seekers against women in Germany. In October 2016, Maria Ladenburger, a 19-year-old university student, was raped and killed by an Afghan asylum seeker. In December 2017, Mia Valentin, a 15-year-old girl, was stabbed to death in a drugstore by her ex-boyfriend, an Afghan migrant.

The cases have added fuel to the far right’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric. And it has created a dilemma for Germany’s liberal feminists: How can they fight against violence without supporting anti-immigrant resentments? Or to put it even more bluntly: Is it even possible to defend pluralism and women’s rights at the same time in Germany today?

Violence against women committed by immigrant men first became a topic of debate after hundreds of women were sexually harassed and abused by groups of young men, most of whom were immigrants from North African countries, at Cologne’s main train station on New Year’s Eve in 2015. Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of stories, ranging from harassment in the streets to rape and murder, across Germany.

The far right has exploited these cases to support its call to defend Western culture against “Islamization.” Men from “Muslim” societies generally hold negative and denigrating images of women, the far right claims, and these hideous crimes make clear how much of a threat they are to “the Occident” in general and to women in particular. “Time to protect our women,” Jörg Meuthen, the spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, wrote on Twitter in January, commenting on the trial of Hussein Khavari, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing Ms. Ladenburger.

Note the possessive pronoun in Mr. Meuthen’s statement. It’s patriarchal, but with a racist twist. In the far-right rhetoric, the attacks of (brown) men on (white) women are often framed as attacks on the German people.

Notwithstanding the obvious bigotry of the far right’s passion for women’s safety, the narrative of a new “cultural” threat to women’s rights is spreading to the political center. A few weeks ago, the German minister of agriculture and deputy head of the Christian Democratic Party, Julia Klöckner, published a book titled “Unnegotiable: No Integration Without Women’s Rights.” Ms. Klöckner, who is considered a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been cultivating a conservative profile. She was a cautious critic of the chancellor’s open stance on immigration, and she demands a ban on wearing a full veil in public.

In her book, Ms. Klöckner argues that as a result of the recent influx of migrants from “patriarchal countries,” women’s equality is under new pressure. Ms. Klöckner says that mainstream society is too tolerant toward patriarchal behavior by Arab immigrants: She cites examples within migrant communities (for example, girls not being allowed to participate in swimming class or forced to wear head scarfs) as well as behaviors toward non-immigrant women (such as a Muslim father refusing to shake a female teacher’s hand for religious reasons).
Some of the problems Ms. Klöckner describes are real, though one could always argue about the scope. In schools in areas with a high percentage of immigrants, dealing with parents who request that their daughters be exempt from class trips, for example, is a bitter reality for teachers. Forced marriage in Germany is real, too (though probably fairly rare). Some immigrant girls in Germany do not have the same chances and freedoms as their classmates do — and Ms. Klöckner is right in saying that feminists should address that problem.

Violence by newly arrived immigrant men is a fact, too. Figures from Bavaria published last September show a 50 percent increase in reported cases of sexual crimes against women in the first six months of 2017. In 18 percent of those cases, the suspect was an immigrant.

Criminologists were quick to caution against a one-sided interpretation of these figures: Immigrants were much more likely to be reported than white men when committing a crime, they argued, and refugees in general in Germany tend to be young men — a group that, independent of their origin, has a higher-than-average probability of committing violent crimes. They also stressed that over all, women were safer in public than they were 20 years ago.

And yet there is no getting around the uncomfortable reality: The increase in violence against women is real. And what Ms. Klöckner writes is probably true: Though the threat may be negligible statistically, some women are more afraid than they used to be, especially when they are out alone. Clearly, this is something that should concern German feminists.

Still, some on the left argue that feminists should not attribute patriarchal behavior to certain groups, and that this is its real strength. They argue that if we focus on patriarchy as something coming from the outside, we will overlook it when it’s homegrown.

Morally, this may be true. There is no violation of women’s and girls’ rights that’s more or less wrong.

Politically, however, this position is not very useful. Finding an effective remedy always needs to be preceded by a careful analysis of the causes. Taking into account the background of the perpetrators is a necessity, however uncomfortable.

Whoever addresses the topic, however, walks a thin line. Conservatives like Ms. Klöckner carefully weave in allusions to the “Decline of the West.” “What will our country look like in 20 years,” she asks, “given hundreds of thousands of young men who live in our country and have never heard of women’s rights?” This sort of rhetoric is a dog whistle to the far right, even though Ms. Klöckner and others deny it.

But to be fair, nuance is very hard to convey in a public discourse that is extremely polarized and characterized by mutual fearmongering and trivialization.

And yet it is important that feminists try to walk this line and start to take seemingly impossible positions: defending the religious freedom of Muslim women who want to wear head scarves, while helping girls who are forced to do so, and addressing the fact that some men newly immigrated from Arab countries hold misogynist views — while stressing this is probably not the key factor that leads to crimes against women.

In this position, liberal feminists will never look like they are right. But they will be right.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

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