Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon in its latest issue featuring the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, in which it suggests that, had he lived, the boy would have morphed into a man-ape and become an “ass groper”. This was a crude reference to the shocking spate of robberies and mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne on new year’s eve, which has further fuelled anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe.

Defenders of the cartoon claim it is a parody that “mirrors racist public discourse” and a “damning indictment of our anti-refugee sentiment.”

As someone who is no stranger to satire and who was outraged by the slaying of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist terrorists, I feel these defences give the satirical French magazine too much credit. Even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, racists and bigots are likely to take the cartoon – which echoes traditional depictions of blacks as oversexed monkeys – at face value, and use it to confirm their prejudices.

Rather than challenging the growing anti-refugee sentiment, I feel Charlie Hebdo is pandering to it. Social media in Germany and across Europe has been awash with a tidal wave of hate speech against migrants since the Cologne mob attacks, as epitomised by the grotesquely racist “rapeugees” hashtag and the call on Facebook for a “manhunt of foreigners”, which has already claimed casualties.

That is not to say that I do not feel outraged by what happened in Cologne on new year’s eve. So far, nearly 350 women have reported being sexually assaulted by roaming mobs of drunken men, many of whom were described as looking Arab or North African.

The scale and mob nature of these attacks reminds me of Tahrir square, where groups of men would erect a “circle of hell” around female protesters and sexually assault them.

Although a large number of these savage attacks were likely opportunistic, exploiting the confusion of big crowds and the vulnerability of women inside them, others were politically motivated.

Victims accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that many were likely carried out by the regime’s paid thugs or undercover police to intimidate female protesters, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, who have a track record of inciting against female protesters, incensed by women acting as equals and demanding equality.

The reactions to these crimes have more often than not also been politicised, with Egyptian society’s most reactionary forces, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to capitalise on these tragedies by blaming their political opponents for them.

A similar dynamic has been at play in Germany. The apparently orchestrated nature of the sexual assaults in Cologne suggests that they may have been politically motivated, though for what end or by whom is a mystery.

As if the sexual abuse of the women in Cologne was not enough, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups and politicians have been falling over themselves to politicize their plight.

This political profiteering was on blatant display during a rally organised by the anti-Islam Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

“This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan,” opined Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the extremist English Defence League and founder of the European Defence League. “Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure.”

What exactly sexual assault and sexual harassment have to do with Islam – or at least any more so than other religions – is unclear. Syrian refugees, for one, do not seem to have read the memo. A group of them produced a flyer addressed to the German public, in which they declaimed: “Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men [and] respect for bodily integrity.”

On new year’s eve, one American woman in Cologne was rescued from a mob attempting to assault her by a group of Syrian refugees who set up a protective cordon around her and helped her locate her boyfriend. “The good people, nobody speaks about them,” one of the young woman’s rescuers lamented.

If Islam really were to blame for the Cologne assaults, then you’d expect there to be a clear pattern of sexual harassment across the Arab and Muslim world. But anecdotal evidence suggests that no such pattern exists.

An unscientific survey I conducted of female friends and acquaintances confirmed Egypt and Pakistan as among the worst in the Muslim world, and India topped the non-Muslim league. Meanwhile, the Levant, including Syria before the civil war, was seen as pretty mellow. “I feel a lot more comfortable around 11pm in Manger Square… than I do walking in Cairo during broad daylight,” one friend confessed.

In Egypt, the sexual harassment epidemic is partly a backlash against the gender revolution taking place, in which women are becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their demands for equality, as well as years of denial and the breakdown in law and order.

Interestingly, women living in some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Bahrain, report that the harassment there is minimal. Given their conservative reputation, this would appear to be an anomaly.

However, this conservatism may be part of the reason why their streets are relatively free of sexual harassment. There, the traditional concept of a woman’s “honour” being intertwined with that of her family is still robust. So, rather than gender equality, it is the idea that a woman is some man’s sister, daughter or even mother that holds other men back.

Although less common, this attitude is not unfamiliar in the West. This was demonstrated at the Pegida rally. Not only were the majority of the protesters there men, Tommy Robinson reminded his audience that: “It is the duty of every man to protect their women.”

“When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism,” wrote Sascha Lobo in Der Spiegel.

Much as we would like to believe that we, in the West, live in some kind of post-patriarchal society of equals, misogyny remains, persistently and infuriatingly, alive and well. And despite all the gender legislation and education, sexual harassment in public is a reality that millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic must live with.

“The place where I have been most harassed is France by non-Arab men,” one well-travelled friend admitted. Another said that harassment was less frequent in Europe than in the Middle East but when it occurred it was “more aggressive or very rude… Harassers have pretty often seemed drunk or high.”

What limited research has been conducted reveals that street harassment is a challenge of global proportions. One study in the United States found that a whopping 87% of American women had been sexually harassed, with half reporting “extreme” harassment. A Europe-wide survey found that one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse, with one in 20 reporting they had been raped.

The assaults in Cologne were an extreme and discomfiting public display of this reality, and singling out migrants will not resolve the problem. In addition to better policing, Europeans need to tackle the misogyny and sexism, both amongst minorities and the majority, that give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, breed a blame-the-victim culture and provide victims with insufficient emotional and legal support.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 January 2016.

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