Tuesday, March 8, 2016

On Cologne and the problem of hegemonic masculinity

Lisbeth Latham
Protest against both sexual violence and racist attacks 
Over New Year’s Eve, a series of large scale attacks against women took place in Cologne and other German cities. A number of perpetrators were reported as being from refugee communities resulting in an intensification of the debate over how Germany and other Western societies should respond to asylum seekers from non-Western cultures particularly from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries - particularly as far-right forces have sort to use the attacks to build support for their own attacks on migrant communities, especially Muslim communities. Sections of the German left (which is also reflected in the Anglophone left) have sort to respond the right’s use the Cologne attacks, by attempting in various ways to downplay the seriousness of the events of New Year’s Eve and by shifting focus onto sexual violence within German and other Western societies. In doing so the left’s arguments while differing significantly in premise from that of the right, still shares much of the right’s logic regarding the violence in Cologne and refugee policy - albeit the logic is inverted. Much of the left arguments are primarily aimed at proving how racist the right is - and that the right’s supposed concern for women is disingenuous - but ultimately is not useful in either challenging violence against women in our society or the attempted mobilisation of those concerns to attack migrant and refugee communities.  

What happenedOn New Year’s Eve there were large scale attacks on women at train stations in the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Dortmund, and Bielfeld. The largest of these attacks took place in Cologne where an estimated 1000 men participated in attacks. Groups of men reportedly acted isolated individual women these isolated were then robbed and/or assaulted. These attacks took place despite large scale police presences. Angela Klein reported that 213 local and federal police were deployed at the Cologne station and the adjacent cathedral square. Initial complaints to police were, ignored, but women continued to make complaints and media attention and public awareness around the incident grew, by January 30 to more than 1,000  complaints had been reported to police in Cologne alone (more than 400 involving sexual assault), some of these complaints include complaints against the police for failing to assist women on the night. The other German cities where large numbers of complaints have been made include Hamburg (236 complaints involving 391 victims - with only three of these complaints not involving sexual assault) and Dusseldorf where 113 complaints were made regarding sexual assault and theft.

Official responseThe initial responses of the German state and media pretended that the attacks had not occurred. A press release from Cologne Police headquarters on January 1 stated, “Shortly before midnight, the station forecourt in the area of the stairway to the cathedral had to be evacuated by uniformed officers in order to prevent a stampede caused by the firing of pyrotechnic munitions by about 1000 revelers. Despite the unplanned break in celebrations, the situation was relaxed, because the police were well placed at critical locations and showed their presence.” ZDF, one of Germany’s state broadcasters did not cover the attacks until January 5, and had made a deliberate decision at least on January 4 to delay reporting on the incidents. They subsequently issued an apology.

When the nature of the attacks were revealed, Henriette Reker, Mayor of Cologne, suggested that “there’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length – that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship.” She later stated that women in the city should follow a ‘code of conduct’ including a dress code to prevent further attacks.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the dominant party in the coalition government, under pressure over the slow public acknowledgement of the violence and criticised by far-right parties over the government’s policy supporting large scale (but inadequate) intakes of refugees announced that it will look at quicker mechanisms to deport migrants and asylum seekers guilty of crimes, the government has also made threats that it will reduce its refugee intake.

Thomas de Maizière, the CDU interior minister has called for a review of Germany’s laws around deportation to make it easier to deport individuals (including refugees) convicted of crimes. Currently only attracting prison sentences in excess of three years impact on refugee status.

While this call has been met with opposition from some within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the minority partner in the German government. Ralph Stegner, SPD deputy chief, accused de Maizière of knee-jerk opportunism. “We don’t need to change either the basic right to asylum or the Geneva refugee convention to deal with organized criminality by whoever in Germany”. However, other sections of the SPD have engaged in their own anti-refugee rhetoric. Heiko Mass, the SPD justice minister, has stated that those who are applying for asylum can be deported for crimes attracting a one-year prison sentence, while three local chapters of the SPD in Essen have called for blockades against the establishment of refugee centres in the city. The SPD Essen city organisation has distanced itself from these calls.

In the wake of the attacks there have been a raft of changes in Germany. The governing coalition has Bundestag approved new laws providing for the creation identity cards for refugees linked to a centralised data system - these cards will include country of origin and fingerprints and will be accessible by all government agencies. On February 26, passed of new refugee measures including a two year suspension of family reunions for refugees and reducing payments to refugees by €10 and provision for quick asylum decisions for refugees from an expanded list of “safe countries” which now includes Algeria, Morroco, and Tunisia.

Far-Right responseDuring 2014, Germany had seen the emergence and strengthening of a number of hard right and neo-nazi organisations, most notably Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes - Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), a Far-Right organisation established in Dresden in October 2014, which were able to mobilise large regular anti-Muslim protests in a number German cities. These actions peaked with a march of 25,000 in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015. These organisations have seized upon the New Year’s Eve attacks as “proof” of the “existential threat” posed by refugees - particularly Muslim, Arab and North African refugees, to German culture and society.

It is important to note that while some of those who are alleged to attacked women have been identified as coming from North African and Arab backgrounds (including some of whom are refugees) others have been German and US citizens. The Far-Right organisations have sought to pose as the “true” protectors of German women. These organisations accuse the local, state and federal governments along with the media and police of engaging in cover up to conceal the “threat posed” by refugees and Islam to German society.

Since New Year’s Eve, in a number of German cities there has been a series of anti-refugee protests and an escalation of physical violence against refugee and migrant communities – including a protest of 2000 people in Leipzig on January 11, which included hundreds of Far-Right activists torching cars and smashing windows and resulted in the arrest of 211 people. On February 6, Pegida, with other European far-right organisations, organised Europe-wide anti-Muslim protests, which they have dubbed “Day of European Patriots”, with the largest protest in Dresden involving between 8000 and 15000 people. Pegida has also sought to use outrage over Cologne to attempt to establish Pegida franchises in a number of countries including Ireland and the Netherlands.
In response to the attempts to use violence of New Year’s Eve to promote anti-refugee and broader islamophobia as mechanisms to “protect women” Laurie Penny argues that the right is seeking to “steal feminism” - however the right are not only not interested in “stealing feminism” they are generally hostile to feminism and it’s liberatory project. Instead they are motivated to mobilise racism - the extent to which the right has a concern for women it is primarily regarding who controls women in society.

Far-Left responseThe German Far-Left has attempted to mobilise around two core issues - opposition to sexism and to anti-refugee sentiments. This has notably occurred at protests organised by feminists, Left and anti-fascist forces in Cologne on January 6 and January 16. These protests have expressed anger both at victim blaming calls for women to modify their behaviour – attempting instead to focus on sexual violence as a problem, and rejecting the Far-Right’s’ claims of caring about women as cynical hypocrisy to cover their racist attacks on refugees and Muslims. The importance of these dual themes have also been a feature of articles published in Australia and England.
While I agree with a need to reject both sexism and anti-refugee racism, many of the articles from the Left have a tendency to give more weight to their anti-racist arguments by downplaying the seriousness of the attacks - reflecting the tendency of sections of the Left towards a cynical hypocrisy when it comes to taking violence towards women seriously. Indeed Angela Klein argues that significant sections of the German left failed to take the attacks on New Year’s Eve seriously. This downplaying is a consequence of the poor understanding of why violence towards women occurs (and a lack of real concern when said violence is an inconvenience when addressing other priorities). Also, much of the Left shares with Far-Right and mainstream political forces an orientalist understanding of non-Western cultures, particularly Islam.

Silke Stockle and Marion Wegscheidher, in an article for the German website Marx 21 (which has been republished by a number of Left-wing Anglophone publications and websites), argue that the mainstream discourse fails to discuss the systematic character of violence against women in Germany and state that the “hundred police officers present at the scene who did nothing to intervene in order to protect the women victims, despite the fact that there was even an undercover policewoman among them, is speaking volumes”. It is undoubtedly the case that the police response to the attacks exacerbated the situation. Angela Klein argues that the police response was deeply flawed in the following ways:
  • Despite being aware that something was occurring as early as 9.30 pm, the police failed to seek additional support and, feeling overwhelmed, reportedly departed the square at 11.35 pm, when attacks were still happening and continued through until the early hours of the morning;
  • The police responded, if at all, above all to acts of theft. Women reported that the police in case of sexual harassment were merely “watched”. Even a female officer who had been sexually harassed in the crowd got no help from her fellow officers. Angela Klein argues this is consistent with the general behaviour of police and legal authorities in Germany towards sexual harassment, which in Germany is still regarded as a “peccadillo” that is not punished under criminal law;
  • There are also reports of women attempting to escape the square being pushed back into it by police.

However, the failure of the police response, which has seen the Cologne Chief of Police take early retirement - while undoubtedly influenced by misogyny and victim blaming attitudes - does not negate or reduce the responsibility of the perpetrators.

Much of the discourse of the Left has positioned the gendered violence in Cologne within the context of the pervasive gendered violence in German and other Western cultures. At one level, this is an extremely important point, combating a tendency to focus on the violence and problems of the “other” to minimise and erase the violence within one’s own culture.

However, in seeking to highlight the problems of sexism within Germany, and Western cultures more broadly, there is a tendency to minimise what occurred in Cologne and other cities. This is done in a number of ways, including:
  • Failing to acknowledge that the number of reported attacks have risen and continuing to comment based on the very early figure of 100 complaints to police;
  • Making a false distinction between rape and sexual assault and then focusing on the number of reported rapes, effectively ignoring the hundreds of sexual assaults that occurred;
  • Making false comparisons to other violence against women in German society, such as at Oktoberfest, to suggest that anger and concern is purely motivated by xenophobia. I argue that these comparisons are false because they do not acknowledge that while sexual violence is a feature of both the Cologne attacks and Oktoberfest, the scale and scope of both the violence and the events are very different. Each year the estimated number of sexual assaults at Oktoberfest is several hundred (of these just 10 to 12 are reported to the police!), at a 16-18 day festival attended by millions of people, which is less than half the number of reported assaults in one square on New Year’s Eve in Cologne);
  • Arguing that the violence either did not occur or was perpetrated by other groups of people;
These strategies are problematic for a number of reasons. Most importantly because they demonstrate a clear lack of empathy for the women attacked, whose experiences are being erased. This is also the case for women attacked at events like Oktoberfest, whose experiences are being mobilised to erase the experiences of the women assaulted in Cologne.

Kate Davison writing in Overland, and Ulrich Rippert writing on the World Socialist Website argue the small number of arrests to call into question whether attacks occurred at all. The Huffington Post’s German edition ran an article suggesting that the allegations of violence in Cologne were false rape allegations either consciously or unconsciously prompted by the racist atmosphere in Germany. More recently The Idependent ran an article headlined “Cologne: Three out of 58 men arrested over mass sex attack on New Year's Eve were refugees from Syria or Iraq”.

These arguments are seriously flawed. Whilst it is true that only a small proportion of alleged perpetrators have been charged - this speaks to the difficulty in identifying people in the circumstances of the New Year’s Eve attacks - to suggest that it reflects a broad conspiracy by the German state does not fit the early response of the German state. Tobias Lill in arguing that the allegations reflect false rape allegations - relies on a number of examples women reportedly making false allegations against refugees- however only one of which was associated with the Cologne attacks - out more than 400 allegations (which is consistent with experiences around the world that very few allegations of rape are false). Lill misses the right’s argument - they are not only opposed to refugees but Muslms particularly from North Africa and the Middle East - of whom the refugees fleeing persecution and war are a subset - so arguing that those perpetrating violence were not refugees (which is questionable) will is not sufficient counter the racist fear campaigns being mounted by the right, particularly when they can shout that a significant proportion of those individuals who have been charged from the Cologne attacks (albeit primarily for theft) were from North Africa (25 Algerians, three Tunisians and 21 Moroccans), Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Underlying all of these minimising arguments, is an assumption that if refugees were responsible for violence then it calls into the question the legitimacy of the right to asylum for other refugees. Rather than reject this logic these arguments simply attempt to negate the facts on which the right makes its arguments. Downplaying the seriousness of attacks is a flawed strategy as it not only doesn’t negate the racist arguments - but instead risks alienating anyone who has a genuine concern about the violence and leaves the left in a weakened position in dissuading them from accepting the xenophobic arguments of the right. A far more effective and honest argument is simply to deny the relevance of the actions of some individual refugees when it comes to answering the question of what Germany’s (or any other Western country’s) response should be to address the needs of millions of people currently in need of refuge globally.

Orientalist approach of both the right and far-left
A major factor underlying the attempt to erase and downplay the extent and seriousness of the violence on New Year’s Eve is that much of the Left discourse accepts the racist logic and assumptions of the Far-Right, Right and centrist parties - i.e. that non-Western cultures are homogenous - but the Left reject the Right’s argument that these cultures are universally misogynist and instead argue the opposite: that they are universally unproblematic. In order to sustain this position it is necessary for responsibility for violence to be shifted onto causes other than “culture”:
  • Sexual violence that is inherent with capitalism;
  • Marginalisation and alienation experienced by refugees;
  • The violence being a consequence of the perpetrator’s gender rather than their culture.
All of these perspectives, while making some valid points, are flawed in their own way. It is undoubtedly the case that late capitalism promotes cultural products which objectify women and promote violence against them. However, it is odd to think that a brief exposure to the violence and sexism of German culture would be able to quickly overcome a cultural background that contained no attitudes and values that normalise and legitimise violence against women.

Similarly, while alienation can be an important factor in triggering acts of violence, why would gendered violence manifest in the scale and organised fashion it did on New Year’s Eve? Alienation and disempowerment only make sense if the violence is seen as an antidote to those feelings; or if the targets of the violence are perceived somehow to be responsible for this alienation and thus deserving of punishment.


While gender is undoubtedly a factor in the violence, gender is not culture-free. Indeed, masculinity and femininity - or what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” - are generally viewed as being culturally constructed and not universal characteristics.

Viewing non-Western cultures as homogeneous is a reflection of what Edward Said described as Orientalism. Said also argued that orientalist views of culture see Westerners as being less bound or influenced by their culture than non-Western people. While we may view the right’s orientalist views as being more problematic (as they legitimise violence and war), the left’s Orientalism is also problematic as it erases:
  • The agency of women in North Africa and the Middle East, and their supporters, in seeking to transform their society’s attitude towards women;
  • The extent to which attitudes towards women within Western cultures are a consequence of feminist struggles;
  • The extent to which misogyny and sexism towards women within non-Western countries has been actively promoted by the West.
There are long histories of struggle against sexism within North Africa and the Middle East and the involvement of women in broader liberation struggles. The most notable current example is the contribution and leadership of Kurdish women in the struggle against ISIS in Syria, particularly in the Women’s Protection Units. However, the struggle in the region for women’s rights has deep roots. The Turkish and Egyptian feminist movements date back to the nineteenth century, Turkish women achieved full suffrage in 1934 (this is earlier than in France and prior to the elimination limits to suffrage based on race based exclusions in Australia and the US), with 18 women elected to parliament in the Turkish elections that year (there were not that many women elected to Australian federal parliaments until the mid 1990s). It is also important to note that there were refugees in Cologne’s cathedral square who sought to stop attacks on women, and there have been the protests by refugee communities in Germany against the violence on New Year’s Eve - both of which have received little attention outside of Germany.

Central to arguments that refugees pose a threat to Western societies is the idea that the West has a benevolent attitude towards women, or what Klein refers to as a thin “varnish of a civilized behaviour towards women”. Of course to sustain this position distance must be created between the gendered violence that exists in Western and non-Western cultures themselves. Those who seek to justify the exclusion of refugees based on the “inherently violent” cultures that refugees come from, ignore that Western cultures are themselves highly violent and misogynist. This is reflected in the already too-high level of violence against women in Germany (which at 1 in 7 of German women is lower than the 1 in 5 Australian women who have experienced sexual violence) but also other forms of violence in German society, such as the Far-Right’s recent spate of assassination attempts against politicians, including the attempt on Henriette Reker’s life the day prior to her election as Mayor of Cologne.

White Germans (and white Australians) create distance between themselves and violence which occurs in Western societies. The perpetrators of violence are “othered” so it can be more easily argued that they do not represent the culture of that society. So pick-up artists and neomasculinists who advocate and teach rape tactics are not indictments against Western culture - but instead simply “sad losers” who live in their mother’s basement. Even the violence within institutions such as the police and armed forces are argued away as instances of bad apples or at worst problems with the internal culture of those institutions rather than a reflection of broader problems with western culture.

Whilst most people in Australia (and for that matter Germany) would not publicly agree with the attitudes towards women articulated by MRAs - the National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey suggests that the vast majority of Australians understand that violence is a crime (96%), and that violence against women is a serious issue (95%). However below this general opposition to violence, lie widespread attitudes and beliefs that justify and legitimate violence, including sexual violence, against women: 1 in 5 Australians think that domestic violence is excusable if a person gets angry or later regrets it; only 59% of surveyed Australians “believe that women rarely make false claims of rape” - meaning that 41% believe that women often make false rape allegations (they don’t). These seemingly contradictory attitudes reflect the existence of both a view, which has been achieved through struggle, that violence towards women is wrong existing along side widespread attitudes that justify and legitimise such violence.

The right’s cynical use of the New Year’s Eve attacks are premised on the idea that “Western attitudes towards women” are somehow more “enlightened” than the supposed “misogynist and patriarchal views” of non-Western countries - and that these attitudes are inherent to the respective cultures. However we should remember that the West’s “enlightenment” is not only superficial (as indicated above, but the gains for women that the idea of enlightenment is premised on, have only relatively recently been achieved through changes in laws (and not necessarily in cultural beliefs). Some of the rights for women, which women in Australia have achieved formally (but are not always able to access due to class and other oppressions) as a result of campaigns over the last 120 years include:
  • Ending women’s status as the legal property of their fathers and husbands;
  • The right to attend university;
  • The right to divorce and gain custody of children (in particular the introduction of no-fault divorce);
  • An end to compulsorily dismissal from government jobs upon marriage;
  • Criminalising domestic violence and marital rape;
  • Increased control of fertility [albeit limited and constantly under legal  threat - particularly for women experiencing additional intersections of oppression];
  • Some legal limits on mobilisation of victim blaming in rape prosecutions [most notably shield laws which formally limit the ability of a defence from raising a survivor’s sexual history, but sexist judges may still allow such defences];
  • Some restriction in the application of provocation defences which allow men to justify assault and murder on the basis “that their partner provoked them”;
  • Legal protections against discrimination in employment.
Western imperialism has played a central role in supporting reactionary misogynist political movements in the Middle East that have undermined the political status of women. The Taliban in Afghanistan emerged as a part of a reactionary counter-revolutionary movement (led primarily by landlords) hostile to the land reforms of the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Taliban sought to mobilise a broader opposition to the government by harnessing anger at advances in the rights of women. The success of the mujahedeen (from which the Taliban emerged) was made possible by the large scale military and financial support from the West, particularly the US government.

Similarly, the US and other Western government have been hostile to other governments in Arab and predominantly Muslim countries that have advanced the rights of women - as these governments challenged Western interests - whilst propping up thoroughly misogynist regimes such as the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. The impact of the Western imperialism’s support for misogyny can be seen in the decline in formal and practical rights between the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and the subsequent US protectorates in Iraq (women’s rights had been under assault in Iraq in the decade between the first and second gulf wars).

Hegemonic masculinity
If we recognise that all cultures contain progressive and reactionary characteristics, how can we account for violently misogynist attitudes that permeate society? Hegemonic masculinity is a concept coined by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell in her 1993 work Masculinities. Rooted in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, hegemonic masculinities are those masculinities that base themselves on the subordinate position of women in relation to men. Like other hegemonies these masculinities primarily rely on ideas of the superiority to maintain the stability of this dominance. Behind these ideas of superiority is a capacity and willingness to mobilise violence to defend the domination of men.

Implicit in this, is that there is not a singular hegemonic masculinity, but multiple masculinities which have their own concerns regarding threats to their hegemony and how best to respond to these threats.

Anne Summers in her 2003 work The End of Equality argued that the emergence in Australia in the 1990s of various father’s rights groups was a response to gains of women in the Family Court associated with child custody. These groups sought and were successful in weakening the legal gains by women. Summers argued that part of the push back was associated with escalating violence by men towards women - violence which was most clearly articulated in the emergence of the Black Shirt father’s rights group. These developments in Australia continued, and has been seen in other Western countries, with the emergence of Men’s Rights Activism. These ‘activists’ are implacably hostile to feminism and advocate violence against women, asserting such violence exists in the ‘natural order’ of relations between men and women. MRAs simultaneously paint men as experiencing a uniquely ignored victimhood in order to undermine positive action to eradicate violence against women.

The concept of hegemonic masculinity does not explain all violence by men towards women - nor does it deny the existence of gendered violence which is not perpetrated by men against women - however, it argues that much gendered violence can be explained within a framework where men’s violence towards women seeks to maintain, justify and legitimise men’s dominance over women.

The existence of Western hegemonic masculinities supports the logic of the slogans of sections of the German Left which claim that violence against women is not an import into German society - at the same time, German hegemonic masculinity is not the primary cause of the New Year’s Eve attacks and the misogynist aftermath. At the same time there is no escaping that this misogyny (particularly by police and other state agents) did play a driving role in the series of events that followed.

Across the West, we are seeing concerted attacks on refugees, asylum seekers and Muslim communities. These attacks, and the attempts by the Right to justify them based on the individual criminal individual acts by members of these communities, should be rejected totally as a cynical and racist attempts at collective punishment. It is important to fight against the marginalisation of refugees and any policies that seek to limit the rights of refugees to be united with their families. If violence within within our society is to be overcome the actions of the state actions needs to be directed by marginalised sections of the community - particularly the women in these communities. At the same time it is necessary to confront misogyny and violence against women and recognise that gendered violence is a problem in all communities. If we are to live in societies free of gendered violence then the attitudes and values that legitimise and justify that violence must be challenged with a focus on the many hegemonic masculinities in our communities as a priority.

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