Inside Cologne's main railway station. Photo: Getty
German authorities are currently reeling from a breakdown of public order, after a group of between 500 and 1000 men converged in Cologne on New Year's Eve and executed what appears to be an organised campaign of assaults against women in the area. Almost 100 women filed complaints of robbery, harassment and sexual assault to police. It has been confirmed that one allegation of rape has also been made. Mass protests have followed the attacks, with women taking to the streets to express their anger not only at what occurred but also the feet-dragging response to it.
That the attackers have all been described as being of Arab or North African descent has been eagerly embraced by conservative commentators, anti-immigration campaigners and garden variety racists. And yet, no evidence has emerged yet which suggests this heinous, frightening activity was coordinated solely by new arrivals in Germany. Even if it were, over one million people entered Germany last year - a portion of 1000 of them accounts for 0.1 per cent of that number.
Of course, small percentages and statistics are only relevant when they're being used to excuse crimes perpetrated by white men. For example, it strikes me as deeply ironic that Breitbart, the conservative website that's eagerly taken up the cause of defending women from harassment in Cologne, is the same misogynist cluster---k of a 'news source' that's also devoted so much time to rallying disbelief over rape allegations on US college campuses. Apparently, harassment of women is only real when it's being done by outsider men. All other complaints are part of the feminist conspiracy to castrate masculinity.
Because it's so impossible to discuss these hypocrisies without being accused of apologism or 'selective leftist outrage', I'll establish from the outset that what happened in Cologne was horrifying. To emerge into a situation where hundreds of men are pressing on you and posing not only a threat but also perpetrating harassment and assault, would have been nothing short of terrifying. I hope the offenders are caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and I hope the women they victimised are OK.
Yes, there are vital conversations to be had about integration of values when opening borders to mass migration, especially for people fleeing high pressure environments defined by instability and oppression. But if the furore over this is truly about protecting women - if this is truly about ensuring a world where women can walk down the street safely, without fear of violation or assault, without risk of violence - then let us also use it as a means of addressing what kind of values we want people to integrate into. Because disparaging attitudes towards women and our bodies are already a benchmark of western culture, yet discussing this often encounters a very different kind of reception. Oh, but this was on such a large SCALE some people cry. Show me where western men have hunted in packs this large! It's true that attacks of this size are a rarity. However, behaviour this blatant is not. Ask any woman you know and she'll tell you about being grabbed in the street, at the pub, on the train, in the shops. The first time I went to a nightclub when I was 18, a man walked past me in the dark and casually shoved his hand between my legs and cupped my genitals. The last time I was in Germany, a pair of men walking behind me in the train station smacked my bottom - hard - as we walked up the exit stairs. When I yelled at them, they laughed and mocked me for overreacting.
If you're tempted to dismiss those incidents as less frightening because they only involved one or two men, know this - what you are really saying is that there are circumstances in which women should have to put up with having their bodies grabbed as if it were no big deal, and that we only earn the right to draw the line on it when those hands number in the hundreds.
Why is assault only 'real' when it's being done by outsiders? When it's footballers being accused of pack rapes, do we see outraged mainstream voices calling for the removal of all football codes? No, we don't. Rather, we're more likely to hear people blame the victim. Why she was out so late, why she was drinking, why she was dressed like that, why she went home with a man she didn't know. Even now, more than a decade since eleven members of the Cronulla Sharks raped a 19 year old girl in a hotel room, there are countless numbers of people who insist that nothing untoward happened and that she should have known what she was "getting in for".
It shouldn't escape notice that while the mayor of Cologne is being rightly criticised for her ridiculous comments urging women to stay safe by 'keeping men at arms length', similar responses to public attacks are so often met with community support for 'common sense'. There are conservatives who will only crawl out of their holes to care about women if it means they can comfortably flex their racism as well. During these times, they love to criticise feminists - those people who actually do the long, painstaking, undermined and often combative work of defending women and fighting for a better world for us all - of being ignorant about reality. They will call these people things like "rape apologist" as if they have any idea what it means, all the while pretending their real concern is in protecting women from abuse. But it's not. If they were concerned about protecting women from abuse, they wouldn't expend so much aggressive energy on the other 364 days of the year telling women they're overreacting about their experiences or just plain lying. They wouldn't tell women who were groped in bars that this is just part and parcel of going out. They wouldn't insist that women take this kind of behaviour as a compliment and then make them feel that if they can't, they aren't mature or rational enough to live in the 'real world'.
If feminists are refusing to comment on Cologne in exactly the way conservative racists want them to, it isn't because they want to make excuses for certain kinds of men. It isn't because we have become enamoured of the multicultural 'experiment', refusing to condemn it lest we be accused of racism. And it certainly isn't because feminists don't care about women - we are often the only ones who do care, and our voices are met with either vicious anger, scathing ridicule or deafening silence.
What feminists like myself are refusing to do is to participate in the charade pretending these things only matter, are only important, are only violent - indeed, only become REAL - when perpetrated by certain kinds of men. Violence against women occurs throughout all cultures because patriarchy and misogyny thrive everywhere. And yet, in the west we have found countless ways to mitigate it, erase it entirely or acknowledge it but place the blame squarely on the victim's shoulders. If you care about women, care about all women. If you condemn the attacks in Cologne (as you should), condemn also the same, less organised attacks involving the same violation of bodily autonomy that women complain of daily (as you must). Women have the right to be protected from all harassment and violation, not just the kind you disapprove of. You cannot have it both ways.