I spent New Year’s Eve 2015 in Egypt, one of my favorite places on the planet, a source of great inspiration and self-fulfillment; at the same time, a place of pandemic sexual harassment, a country that often has me cringing with frustration over the way women are treated inside the family or out in the public, a country that was also the inspiration for my Bachelor thesis about sexual violence against women in the political realm.
Now, on that same New Year’s Eve, Cologne in Germany became a staging ground for mass harassment and even rape of women by allegedly North African men, possibly refugees, possibly living in Germany for a couple of years already—the details remain unclear as news of false accusations surface while others are proven to be true. What is very clear, however, is the public debate that arose from this incident and the instigative way that it was portrayed in the media. Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the most read and respected German newspapers posted an image of a black arm reaching between white women’s legs (they later apologized for the racist way this could be interpreted); FOCUS, a .. well, let’s say not the most unprofessional, and equally popular German news magazine showed a similar image on their cover of a white woman’s naked body with black handprints on it.
So returning to Germany after my holiday, I had no desire whatsoever to engage in any debates on the topic, because I knew that I was going to face a front of hysterical white people. And by white I don’t mean skin colour, being quite pale myself. By white I am talking about people who grew up in Germany and understandably have little or no experience with Arabic or Muslim societies. And whether they are ignorant racists that protest against refugees using public swimming pools, or fairly open-minded students of political sciences, most of them will easily fall for the rhetoric of the barbaric Arab man who just does not fit into our civilized, progressive culture, where women are supposedly empowered and free and respected…
When I get caught up in a discussion about the nature of Arab men, I find myself defending what I do not agree with at all, just because I know that the alternative is racist generalization, fear of the unknown and definitely no solution for dealing optimistically with thousands of Arabs and Muslims coming into Germany right now. I find myself saying “Well, not ALL Egyptian women are circumsized…” or “The complete veil is not always FORCED on women. “ or even “I don’t believe that those men who attacked women in Cologne were all Arabs; and if they were, this has NOTHING to do with what happened….”, when actually I am thinking: It is absolutely horrifying that at least 95% of young Egyptian women are genitally mutilated!! I don’t support (or care about) veils or any religious rules whatsoever, whether written in the Koran or the Bible or result of some Pope or Imam’s personal interpretation! And: the attack on women in Cologne is awful and should not be tolerated, regardless of national backgrounds…
Yet, I am always defending or relativizing. Because “our bodies are basically proxy battlefields.” (Mona El-Tahawi) By portraying one’s enemy as men who rape and oppress women, one can direct public dislike towards them and come across as morally superior. This latter reason is why it is extremely hard to find your own position between the kind of pseudo-feminism appropriated by white supremacists on the one hand and defending the black/Arab/Muslim man while leaving women’s rights behind. I don’t mean to apply this criticism to all those truly concerned with both gender and “race” equality, but in public discourse we are often forced to choose between the two evils.
If we are consequent about our ideals, we need to remember that being a feminist results in challenging white privilege, and being antiracist means fighting for absolute equality of women. If you are shocked about the attack on women in Cologne because Arabs just don’t respect women and this proves that they cannot integrate into our culture, then you are shocked for the wrong reasons and you definitely don’t care much about those women’s rights that you use to make our culture seem superior. Condemning what happened in Cologne is totally necessary. Linking sexual violence to a certain ethnic or religious group – that’s racist. The principle of marginalizing a group of society due to supposed flaws and weaknesses in their nature or character is a principle that applies to sexism and racism alike. One form of oppression should not lead to reinforcing another form of oppression, as author Michael Muhammad Knight describes in the context of the U.S. Civil rights movement.
When Charlie Hebdo posted a caricature in which Aylan, the dead boy on the beach whose photo went viral, was portrayed as a monkey-faced sexual predator—had he had the chance to grow up—I first read it as an extremely disrespectful and tasteless provocation. Then I understood that this caricature actually criticizes the way we so impulsively emotionally react to media images instead of comitting to certain humanist standards. Reminder: that boy on the beach was part of the same refugee thing that we are still debating now. Nothing has changed except that one problematic incident made us believe that all refugees are monkey-faced sexual predators. We need to leave behind that whole propaganda universe, clarify what ideals and principles we really have and then act on them. Explain to refugees what social norms we have and make sure they abide by the law, sure!, but in a constructive way, explains The Economist: by letting them work as soon as possible so that they settle in to our daily reality… allowing them to bring their families so that we don’t end up with a bunch of depressed young single men.
What I am trying to say is that this whole situation we are in is not about proving who is more civilized and treats their women better. What bothers me is that I am struggling to promote women’s rights without joining the “We told you so” camp of prejudiced white people. For obviously political reasons we are currently talking about how they are not treating women right, while our own gender critical topics hardly make the headlines. All societies have their own forms of discrimination and there is no benefit in debating whether sexual humiliation is worse at the Oktoberfest or in Downtown Cairo; whether women covering their faces with black veils is more problematic than girls becoming annorexic over model casting shows in the West. Wait, before you comment, let me tell you this: Whatever your opinion on those last comparisons may be, it is irrelevant, because we are not looking for a winner. We are looking for a way to make it work for all minorities. If we fight one type of discrimination while using the other as a weapon, we are all losers. And by losers I mean assholes.